Salsa popularity has spread like wildfire, though today’s fresh salsa need not be red, nor even include tomatoes. The one essential ingredient shared by all salsas is peppers — everything from sweet, saucy or sassy, to hot and spicy.
A few decades have passed since my first encounter with salsa. Back then I bought salsa at the supermarket. It was good, but I decided that homemade salsa prepared with vegetables fresh from the garden would kick that taste up to sensational.
After looking at a few dozen recipes, the one thing that stood out is that each recipe had only one variety of pepper, and it was usually jalapeño. As a recipe developer, I knew there was more excitement to be had than just one pepper could give. For example, there are hot pepper varieties that can add just a touch of sweetness, some that turn up the heat, and others that deliver intense flavor.
So why settle for just one variety? After all, the perfect salsa is complex, with a range of flavors that includes an aromatic sweetness along with both spice and heat. Having grown more than 50 varieties of peppers, I’ve discovered a tantalizing class of premium pepper varieties that will bring perfection to any fresh salsa. Whether you like your salsa simmering or sizzling, the recipe to salsa success begins with choice hot pepper varieties worthy of being called “salsa peppers.”
Sweet peppers: Forgo the bitterness of “green” peppers. The key to sweeter, more flavorful peppers is to leave the fruits on the plant until they fully ripen to a richly colored mature stage. If your sweet peppers stay green and never fulfill their colorful destiny, you’re growing the wrong variety. Varieties that will color up fast even in cooler climates include bell-shaped Ace; dark crimson red Italia; cone-shaped, glossy red Lipstick; wedge-shaped and very productive Gypsy; and the sweet Italian, thick-skinned Cubanelle.
Here are some additional favorites, although they may take a week longer to fully mature than the early bird varieties listed above. Heirloom Corno di Toro, also known as Horn of the Bull due to its shape, ripens to a flaming red or brilliant yellow — depending on the variety — cone-shaped pepper even during a cool summer. Banana Supreme produces prolific flavor, despite our typically cool Pacific Northwest nights. And if you fancy the shape of a bell pepper, Red Beauty produces heavy yields of bright red sweet peppers in almost any area of the country.
Mildly hot: For flavor without burning heat, try the slightly spicy, mild pungency of Ancho San Martin, an early maturing and prolific producer. Two tasty Anaheim types include Highlander, which is great for cooler regions, and Numex Joe E Parker with its richly satisfying chile flavor. Standout short-season selections include Early Jalapeño and Sahuaro, an earlier and more vigorous version of Big Chile. And for something different, Holy Mole offers full-bodied flavor without extreme heat, and Pasilla Bajio is a personal favorite for its hint of heat and flavorful fruity twist.
Medium hot: One thing to keep in mind with this group is that the degree of heat and flavor can differ widely within varieties of the same type of pepper. Take the ever popular jalapeño, for instance. Depending on the variety, the “burn factor” can vary from 1,000 to 8,000 heat units on the Scoville Scale — a method for measuring a pepper’s heat level. For example, Tam Jalapeño offers heat in much tamer doses at about 1,000 heat units. Turn up the heat with Mucho Nacho, which is a bit hotter than a regular jalapeño. And for a hotter-than-hot jalapeño with powerful taste, Jalapeño Goliath comes in at a record-breaking 6,000 to 8,000 heat units, which is about 30 percent hotter than the average jalapeño.
One pepper on my must-have list for this group is Bulgarian Carrot, which ripens to a stunning fluorescent orange. The perfect salsa pepper, it has an intense fruity flavor with a medium-hot finish. Though not overly hot, Hungarian Yellow Wax definitely holds its own with spicy heat and is one of the best hot peppers for cooler climates.
Medium hot with spicy flavor: To me, a salsa is never complete without the zesty addition of a good, flavorful and spicy pepper that doesn’t bowl you over with heat. With slightly less heat than a jalapeño, Garden Salsa was developed specifically for putting a little sass in salsa. The slightly hotter Serrano is an easy-to-grow Mexican classic and one of my ultimate favorites for combining the best of both worlds — profound flavor and moderate heat.
Fiery hot: Do you consider yourself to be adventurous and daring? Ease into the burn with fiery red cayenne, which scores 30,000 to 50,000 heat units on the Scoville Scale. Fan the flame with Thai Dragon, a Southeast Asian native said to be eight times hotter than a standard jalapeño. Want even more heat? Any of the habaneros are undoubtedly worth the risk. They may be small in size, but they pack a potent punch of heat, topping the Scoville Scale at 100,000 to 350,000 heat units. The truly fearless, however, will want to try the head-popping, tongue-scorching heat of Caribbean Red, a habanero that measures a scorching 445,000 Scoville units.
Heat-loving peppers need full sun, well-drained soil rich in organic matter, and a long, warm growing season in which to grow and thrive.
Aged manure applied at planting time, along with oyster shell for calcium, produce the best quality peppers in my Zone 7B Oregon garden. Depending on your soil, side-dressing each plant with compost or one-quarter to one-half cup of complete organic fertilizer once flowers appear will give them an additional nutritional boost. But go easy on the nitrogen, as too much will result in lush plants at the expense of fewer fruits. Inadequate moisture also causes low production and bitter fruit. A 2- to 3-inch layer of organic mulch, such as compost or straw, will help retain moisture in the soil.
Heat and sun also are crucial factors to pepper prosperity. The more sun and heat you have, the more pungent the peppers. Floating row covers, hot caps, cloches and cold frames can help boost the surrounding temperature in regions with cool or short summers. You also can increase the heat around plant roots by mulching your soil with heat-absorbing clear plastic, black plastic or IRT Mulch (Infrared Transmitting Mulch). Habaneros and other long-season peppers may perform better if grown in heat-absorbing containers set up in the warmer air of a deck or open greenhouse. Where summers are excessively hot, cool things down with the help of a temporary lattice or shade cloth.
Too much heat (above 90 degrees) or cool nights consistently below 60 degrees can cause the blossoms to drop, resulting in little to no fruit set. The ideal temperature for pollination and fruit set is between 65 and 85 degrees. If pollination is poor, tapping the flowers every few days or hand-pollinating with a small brush or cotton swab can increase fruit set.
In most areas of the country, peppers produce best when planted outdoors as transplants. To start your own, sow seeds indoors about eight to 10 weeks before your last spring frost. Keep containers moist and warm — about 75 to 85 degrees is ideal. Transplant the seedlings to a larger pot (4 inches in diameter) when two sets of true leaves appear.
Once nighttime temperatures remain consistently above 55 degrees, and after all danger of frost has passed, plant out hardened-off 8- to 10-week-old seedlings about 18 inches apart.
Even though our last spring frost is around April 15, we wait until the first week of June to set out plants since our spring nighttime temperatures are habitually cool.
The next time you think about bringing salsa to the table, remember that nothing rivals the flavor of one that is homemade and fresh from the garden. Just don’t forget to keep a bag of chips on hand.
Read more: For more information on preserving peppers check out Preserving the Bounty.
What makes some peppers hotter than others? A pepper’s heat comes from compounds known as capsaicinoids, which are mostly concentrated in the seeds and membrane area of a pepper. (Use caution when handling hot peppers, as direct contact with the capsaicin can burn the skin and eyes.) The capsaicin content varies tremendously, resulting in a full taste and heat spectrum within different varieties.
Capsaicin may determine a pepper’s range of heat, but other factors also can affect the degree of heat or lack thereof. For example, too much nitrogen or water can weaken the intensity of flavor, whereas sunlight and hot temperatures can heighten its heat. Stressed plants, resulting from such things as infrequent watering, will often produce peppers that are hotter than usual. The trick is to keep your plants slightly stressed, but not so much that it affects plant growth or fruit set.
Here’s another hint for extra heat — it’s all in the timing of when you harvest your peppers. While you can harvest peppers at any stage of growth, the flavor and heat factor will not fully develop until after fruits change color and fully mature. That is when peak pungency is reached.
Kris Wetherbee lives in Oakland, Oregon, where she grows a number of vegetables, including various types of peppers.
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