Warm up this winter by growing chillies

Post by Jo on behalf of Replenish

I would love to be self-sufficient in fruit and vegetables, but so far I have only managed this with chillies.

As the weather has been so mild, I’m still harvesting lots from my outdoor plants. They are not frost hardy and won’t survive winter outdoors, so I’m thinking of moving some inside. If they survive, they will be bigger plants and produce fruit earlier next year.

What makes chillies hot?

Chillies contain chemicals called capsaicinoids, which give them their heat – capsaicin being the main one. The scoville scale, recorded in scoville heat units (SHUs) measures the heat of a chilli and ranges from 0 for a bell pepper to 1.5 million for the carolina reaper chilli – currently the world’s hottest chilli.

If you aren’t ready for that level of heat yet, don’t worry – the more you eat, the more tolerant you will become. There was a time when I picked Jalapenos off meals and gave them to my husband, but now my favourite chilli is Madame Jeanette – which can be 100 times hotter than a Jalapeño. 

If you want to reduce the heat of a chilli cut it in half lengthwise and scrape out the seeds and the pithy membrane running down the inside. The capsaicin is concentrated in this membrane, not in the seeds as is often thought.

What happens when we eat chillies?

Our tongues have receptors called TRPV1 on them. These send a signal to the brain to warn you when something scalding hot touches them.  The brain then sends out signals of pain that alert you to get away from the source.  Capsaicin molecules are in a form that attach to the TRPV1 receptors and so they cause pain.

When we eat chillies and the signal comes from the brain, we get a release of adrenalin, our heart speeds up, our breathing rate increases, our nose runs and we perspire. We also get endorphins released, which give us pleasure and may explain why we enjoy the heat and the pain.

Water will not relieve the pain of chilli peppers. Milk does help, as it contains casein, that helps to neutralise the capsaicin by preventing it from attaching to TRPV1 receptors.

Interestingly, although birds have TRPV1 receptors the capsaicin cannot bind to them, so birds are immune to the heat of chilli peppers. They eat them and so help to spread the seeds.

Image by Couleur from Pixabay

Growing your own

If you remove the seeds from a chilli to reduce the heat, why not save them to grow more plants? Spread them out on a piece of paper towel and leave them to dry for a few days. When fully dried, transfer them into an envelope.

You can sow chilli seeds to grow indoors anytime of the year. They do need heat to germinate, so using a heat mat or putting them on a shelf above a radiator if sowing in winter can help, or choose a sunny windowsill in spring. 

Sow three or four seeds in a small pot of compost, cover lightly with more compost and water them. Seeds should germinate within 10-14 days. 

Which variety should I grow?

There are hundreds of chilli varieties to grow – far more than you would find in the supermarket. These are the four I grew this year:

Explosive Ember (pictured right) – with beautiful purple leaves and flower – the chillies start off purple too, but ripen to red and are quite small. The plant is compact, so a good one to grow indoors on a sunny windowsill. Medium heat (40,000 SHU) 4-20x hotter than a Jalapeño.

Ring of fire – a cayenne variety that can be grown outside. This one is fast maturing and so you should get chillies nice and early in the season – 22 weeks from sowing. Medium-hot (70,000-85,000 SHU).

Madame Jeanette (pictured left) – a habanero variety of pale green-yellow chillies that look like mini bell peppers and are really shiny. Plants are quite bushy and larger and grow really well outdoors even in the UK climate. Once they get going, a single plant can have 20-30 chills growing at any one time – the more you pick them the more they produce. Hot (125,000 – 325,000 SHU).

Joe’s long – another cayenne variety which doesn’t cope quite as well outdoors as Madame Jeanette. As the name suggests, the fruits are long and thin, growing up to 30cm. They can be picked green or red, and dry well. Medium heat (5,000-30,000 SHU).

How do I preserve chillies?

I use chillies in almost every meal, especially in winter to spice up soups. I freeze most of mine to preserve them – this is a pic of my current frozen stash, just washed then popped in a freezer bag.

 I have also tried drying them by hanging them from the stalks in the kitchen. Drying seems to retain the heat, but reduces the flavour. Once dried you can chop them roughly or grind them up in a food processor to make chilli flakes, and store in a jam jar.

You could also try pickling them in vinegar or make a chilli sauce – Madame Jeanette is a good one to use in a hot sauce. Try this simple recipe from peppergeek.com

Want more tips? Check out our other grow-your-own guides or follow us on social media!

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