Ornamental peppers are a captivating fusion of visual appeal and culinary possibility, often gracing both gardens and dinner tables alike. While their vibrant hues and unique shapes make them popular for decorative purposes, many people are left wondering — do they taste as good as they look?
Read on to learn about the edibility, flavor profiles, and heat levels of various ornamental pepper varieties and some of my favorites.
What are ornamental peppers?
Ornamental peppers refer to a wide range of chili pepper varieties cultivated primarily for aesthetic appeal rather than culinary use. These peppers are often small in size and are commonly sold in compact pots, making them ideal for indoor decoration. The fruits of these plants typically display vibrant colors, and in some cases, the leaves also offer eye-catching hues.
Certain varieties are even marketed as festive decor, featuring colors corresponding with holiday themes—examples include orange, red, and yellow peppers for Thanksgiving and multicolored varieties resembling Christmas lights.
Are ornamental peppers edible?
While ornamental peppers come in numerous varieties, their fruits are, in fact, edible. While some also have beautifully colored foliage, the leaves, stems, and other parts of pepper plants are not edible.
Do ornamental peppers taste good?
The flavor profile of ornamental peppers varies widely depending on the specific variety. Many of these peppers offer a straightforward spiciness, lacking the complex flavors often found in culinary peppers. Some ornamental peppers may even have an unappealing taste characterized by bitterness or saltiness.
Conversely, there are ornamental peppers that can enhance your dishes with their heat without overpowering other flavors. If taste is an important factor for you, these varieties may be a suitable choice.
For those interested in small, indoor-friendly pepper plants with rich flavor, it may be worth considering dwarf varieties of culinary peppers instead of ornamental ones. These dwarf types can offer both aesthetic appeal and a satisfying taste experience.
How hot are ornamental peppers?
Despite their small stature, ornamental peppers can deliver a significant punch of heat. The Scoville Heat Units (SHU) for these peppers generally range between 10,000 and 50,000, comparable to serrano peppers on the lower end and cayenne peppers on the upper end.
However, some varieties can be even more intense. For example, Prairie Fire peppers can reach heat levels as high as 100,000 SHU.
While their vibrant colors may make them inviting to eat raw, caution is advised; their heat levels may be too intense for some individuals. Their candy-like appearance may appeal to children, so handling them with care is especially important when children are around.
How to use ornamental peppers in cooking
Ornamental peppers, although sometimes less flavorful, excel at adding vibrant colors to dishes. They can be finely chopped and used as a garnish or sprinkled atop salads for an eye-catching presentation. If you eat them raw, you may want to remove the seeds and membranes, as these parts contain the highest concentration of capsaicin, the compound responsible for the pepper’s heat.
These peppers are not limited to decorative uses; their heat can also be utilized in cooking. Adding them to sauces or stews can provide a spicy kick, enhancing the dish’s overall flavor profile.
How do you know when ornamental peppers are ripe?
Determining the ripeness of ornamental peppers can be somewhat challenging due to their unique color variations. Unlike most peppers that transition from green to another hue, like yellow or red, ornamental peppers might not even have a green stage. While peppers are technically edible even when green, some varieties like jalapeños and serranos are often consumed at this stage.
The flavor of a pepper generally deepens as it matures and undergoes color changes. If you’re looking for better taste, waiting until the pepper has fully ripened is often beneficial. With ornamental varieties, monitor the color transition. The fruit is considered ripe when it has undergone a color shift, such as from purple to red.
That said, if flavor is not a concern and you’re primarily interested in the pepper’s heat, ornamental peppers can be consumed as soon as they reach their full size, even if they haven’t fully ripened.
My favorite edible ornamental peppers
Here are a few edible ornamentals I recommend.
Among my top picks for edible ornamental peppers is the Black Prince variety. I’m currently growing these and am captivated by their almost gothic look. The fruit sports a glossy, dark purple hue that verges on black, complemented by equally striking purple flowers. While I have yet to have the opportunity to taste them, reports suggest they offer a slight sweetness.
Another favorite is the Prairie Fire pepper. These small peppers pack a vibrant array of colors reminiscent of Christmas lights. Flavor-wise, they stand out for their mild sweetness and fruity undertones, offering more depth than many other ornamental varieties.
Rounding out my list is the NuMex Twilight, a standout among the numerous NuMex ornamental options. These peppers grow to approximately 1 inch long and reach a heat level of up to 30,000 SHU. Their flavor profile leans towards the slightly salty and bitter end of the spectrum.
Ornamental peppers offer a striking blend of aesthetic beauty and culinary potential. While their primary use is usually decorative, they are not only edible but can also provide unique flavor profiles and levels of heat to your dishes. From the almost gothic allure of Black Prince to the vibrant Prairie Fire and the distinct NuMex Twilight, these peppers can serve as more than just eye candy.