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August/September 2011

Getting to Know: Sweet Peppers

The spectrum of peppers is vast, including everything from bell peppers with no heat to "ghost peppers" that are so incendiary, it's a challenge to handle them safely. Here is a selection of peppers from the "sweet" category.

The spectrum of peppers is vast, including everything from bell peppers with no heat to "ghost peppers" that are so incendiary, it's a challenge to handle them safely. Here is a selection of peppers, a New World discovery, incidentally, in the "sweet" category. They are mostly mild with just the occasional trace of heat.

Green Bell Pepper

All peppers, whether sweet or hot, start out green on the vine; green bell peppers are harvested before they fully ripen. If a recipe asks for green peppers, it almost certainly means green bell peppers. The easiest way to prepare any bell pepper is to lop off the top and bottom, then cut through the flesh to open the pepper flat on the cutting board; from there simply trim off the white ribs, discard the seeds, and cut the pepper as desired. 

Red Bell Pepper

Let a green bell pepper ripen (and sweeten) and you'll have a red bell pepper. In the test kitchen we enjoy them roasted, grilled, or charred over the open flame of a gas burner, which concentrates the sugars and makes them sweet. Homemade roasted red peppers (char thoroughly over a flame, steam in a paper bag for 10 minutes, and then peel) will keep for weeks if covered in olive oil and refrigerated.

Orange/Yellow Bell Pepper

These varieties start out as green bell peppers, but they've been bred to ripen into a rainbow of colors. Orange and yellow peppers taste like red bell peppers (and can be substituted for them in most recipes), but they are slightly less sweet and more expensive. Most cooks use them as much for their color as for their flavor. They maintain their bright hues through cooking. 


A Mexican farmer first planted these very mild chiles in Anaheim, California, in the early 1900s—hence the name—though the pepper is thought to have originated in New Mexico. (Red Anaheims are called chile Colorado.) Today, they are common in supermarkets nationwide. Anaheims taste like a milder version of the hot poblano pepper; use them anywhere you'd use poblanos: chiles rellenos, salsa, or enchiladas. They're also delicious in stir-fries. 


Sweet, yet mildly pungent, Cubanelles are a mainstay of Italian cooking: they're often called "Italian frying peppers." Early explorers of the Caribbean brought them back to Italy, where cooks eventually took to frying, stuffing, and pickling them. Cubanelles are thin-walled and usually sold when they're chartreuse. As they mature, orange and red streaks may appear on their skin. You might see them mislabelled as banana peppers—the two look similar, though Cubanelles tend to be less tapered. 


You can identify shishitos, which come from Japan, by their wrinkled, polished, green skin. Our tasters described them as "earthy," "musky," and slightly "tangy." Japanese often skewer and grill these peppers (as bar food) or dip them in tempura batter and fry them. We also like them tossed in a stir-fry. Their heat can surprise you—most are mild, but about one in 10 has a kick. 

Banana Pepper

There is no doubt about how this yellow pepper got its name—just look at the picture. (It is also sometimes called a yellow wax pepper). "Fruity with a gentle heat," the banana pepper plays well in salsas and salads or stuffed and roasted. Be careful: Banana peppers look almost identical to Hungarian wax peppers, which can be quite hot. 


Did Peter Piper pick a peck of these? While fresh ones can be found in some specialty and farmers' markets, juanita peppers—which were discovered growing wild in South Africa in 1993—are most often seen in the United States pickled and sold under the Peppadew brand. We found that fresh juanitas tasted "fruity with a little kick." Fill these bite-size peppers (either fresh or pickled) with cream cheese for an easy appetizer. 


Ever wonder about that red stuffing in your green olive? It comes from this sweet, meaty pepper, which is usually sold jarred and pickled. Pimento peppers (also spelled "pimiento") are a key ingredient—and the namesake—of pimento cheese, the beloved Southern spread eaten with crackers or squishy white bread. There are many varieties of both pimento peppers and chiles. The latter have mild heat.