Arizona Specialty Crops Blog
Chili Peppers 5-min video ‘A good event for the good of the community’, a Lions organizer.
Chili type peppers, the fruit of plants from the genus Capsicum, members of the nightshade family, originated in the Americas, but are now grown in most corners of the world. Used in both food and medicinal preparations, India, not Mexico, is the world’s largest producer and consumer of chili peppers. However, chili peppers retain a crucial and celebrated place in southwestern cuisine.
How Hot is Your Pepper?
The relative heat of peppers is measured in Scoville Heat Units. Scores range from bland bell peppers (0 units) to hot, hot, hot habañeros (210,000 units) and far beyond. The hottest chili pepper on record, identified by New Mexico State University’s Chili Pepper Institute, is the Carolina Reaper—at a mind-bending, tongue-flaming 2.2 million SHU. Listed below are the Scoville ratings of a pinch of popular peppers:
- Anaheim chili pepper (500-1,000 SHU) this long, mild pepper is often called for in making chili rellenos.
- Poblano chili pepper (1,000-2,000 SHU) a good stuffing pepper measuring about 4” long with firm, dark green flesh.
- Hatch chili pepper (1,000-2,500 SHU) a long, slender variety with pale green flesh that is also good for stuffing, this variety is still a major crop in New Mexico and parts of eastern Arizona.
- Jalapeno pepper (2,500-8,000 SHU) one of the most popular varieties worldwide, this pepper is a popular component of salsas, appetizers, burgers, marinades, and more). Jalapenos are consumed before they fully ripen and turn red. The chipotle pepper is actually a smoked jalapeno pepper.
- Serrano pepper (5,000-23,000 SHU) though it shares the dark green color of a jalapeno pepper, the Serrano is more slender than a jalapeno and packs a mightier punch.
- Chiltipin pepper (50,000-100,000 SHU)—this tiny oval pepper is less than a centimeter in diameter but turns red or flaming orange when ripe. It is difficult to cultivate but still grows wild in Mexico and parts of the southwest, including Arizona.
Celebrating Chili Peppers
Jalpenos, Hatch chili peppers, Cascabel, Picuante, Serrano are just some of the peppers that make the rounds of the Safford Salsa Fest each September. The Lions Club of Safford kicked off the festival a decade ago and it’s been growing wildly ever since. All the proceeds benefit local charities.
Safford, a town of 10,000 on the banks of the Gila River in easternmost Arizona, relies on copper mining, cotton farming and cattle ranching for its economy. Tourism is a growing industry and people from all over Arizona flock to Safford in the fall both to taste the salsas made famous by Graham County’s Salsa Trail and to vie for a salsa-making title among peers. The first night opens with the professional salsa competition between area restaurants. The next day, salsaistas from Tucson, Phoenix, Flagstaff, and beyond bring their knives and food processors to make gallons and gallons of the colorful condiment.
The titles are decided by a judging panel, but the crowd can vote for their favorites in several categories.
In addition to access to some of the state’s finest salsa, participants enjoy chihuahua races, dance and stage performances by local troupes, a low-rider car show, and family fun activities. Local festival goers can even gain their own Salsa Fest notiriety by entering the salsa and jalapeno eating contests.
Pepper Cultivation in Arizona
Though chili-type peppers are no longer widely cultivated in Arizona (30 farms produced 1,944 acres of chili-type peppers in the 2012 Crop Census), they remain a wildly successful addition to home gardens. Chili peppers gain most of their heat and growth from, well, heat—a high temperature, that is. Yet mild nighttime temperatures are required to produce fruit. A plant will not fruit if the nighttime temperature remains above 86 degrees F. Phoenix Home and Garden recommends choosing a pepper variety that will mature quickly to take advantage of the short spring season for lowland farmers around Tucson, Phoenix, or Yuma.