Gardening up in Northern Illinois (USDA hardiness zone 5b), it often feels like summer is far too short. I usually get a jump start on my peppers in February in March to ensure they have time to grow to maturity, but even then, I’m lucky if I get a month of ripe peppers before it starts to get chilly.
So what happens when you end up with unripe peppers at the end of the season? Can you still eat them, or do you need to throw them away? The good news is that you can still ripen unripe peppers, and several methods exist.
Read on to learn how to encourage your peppers to mature more quickly and how to finish off the ripening indoors.
First off, can you eat peppers when they are green?
Some peppers, like jalapeños and green bell peppers, are commonly eaten when green. But what about peppers that are typically orange, red, yellow, or another color?
You can technically eat peppers like habaneros, ghost peppers, cayennes, and other colorful varieties when green, but they may have different flavor and heat characteristics than what you’re expecting.
Unripe or underripe peppers will tend to taste more vegetal, less sweet, and have less flavor depth. Additionally, flavor notes like fruitiness and floralness may be toned down or missing entirely if the fruit is not ripe.
Will peppers ripen after picking?
If you have to quickly pick all of your peppers before a hard frost, the good news is that there are ways to ripen peppers indoors. However, it may take longer than other nightshades, such as tomatoes.
How to encourage peppers to ripen more quickly before the first frost
While it’s possible to ripen peppers indoors, the best-case scenario is enjoying an abundant harvest before it gets cold. If you have limited time left before the first frost, there are a few things you can do to encourage your peppers to ripen more quickly:
- Provide adequate sunlight: Peppers require plenty of sunlight to ripen. Ensure they get at least 6-8 hours of sunlight per day. If your plants are in containers, try moving them to a sunnier location.
- Increase temperature: Peppers prefer warm temperatures and will ripen more quickly in warmer conditions. Provide additional warmth to your plants using a row cover (frost blanket) overnight when the temperatures dip.
- Reduce watering: Overwatering can slow the ripening process, so make sure you are giving your plants a manageable amount of water. Allow the soil to dry out slightly between waterings.
- Add nutrients: Give your plants a boost by fertilizing them with a high-potassium fertilizer. Potassium helps with fruit development and can encourage peppers to ripen more quickly.
- Prune your plants: Remove any flowers or small fruits unlikely to mature before the first frost. This will allow the plant to put energy into ripening the remaining fruits.
How to ripen peppers indoors
Here are a few methods for ripening peppers indoors:
Use a sunny windowsill
Using sunlight is the best way to ripen peppers off the vine. Place your peppers in a warm, sunny spot like a south-facing windowsill to speed up the ripening process. The warmer the temperature of their environment, the faster the ripening process.
You can also use a covered porch, sunroom, or outdoor patio table if it’s warm enough and you protect them from cold nighttime temperatures.
When using the sunlight method, make sure that there is sufficient (but not excessive) humidity, or the peppers may begin to dry out and start wrinkling.
Using a cardboard box or paper bag
You can also store the peppers in a cardboard box or a paper bag. This can help create a better environment for ripening, as peppers tend to ripen faster in warmer areas. For the cardboard box method, place the peppers in the box, spaced apart atop multiple sheets of newspaper. Place the container out of direct sunlight but somewhere with decent air circulation. Monitor them over two to three weeks.
Should you ripen peppers with other fruit?
Using a paper bag can help unripe peppers mature by creating favorable conditions, but unlike some people suggest, we do not recommend storing them with a tomato or banana.
The thought behind it is that the other ripening fruit will release ethylene, which helps some fruits mature more quickly. However, we know that ethylene exposure does not impact hot peppers’ ripening speed, so this method won’t produce faster results.
Can you ripen peppers with grow lights?
If, like me, your home is shady and you don’t have a sunny south-facing window, it’s possible to use grow lights to mimic sunlight. For best results, choose grow lights with full spectrum LED lights, as these lights can produce the closest to natural sunlight. However, remember that these lights usually do not produce a lot of heat, so you will still need to ensure that it’s warm enough for your peppers to mature.
Tips for ripening peppers off the vine
Pick peppers that already have a little color to maximize your chances of ripening green peppers. On peppers that will be red when fully ripe, this can show up as purplish or brownish areas early in the ripening process. When a pepper has started to ripen, it will usually continue to mature, but ensure to keep them warm to encourage the process. Storing them in the refrigerator will halt their ripening process.
How to avoid moldy peppers
There are a few tips that can help you mature your off-the-vine peppers indoors without them spoiling.
First, try to use peppers with some color, as they are likely to be closer to maturity. Additionally, it’s important to ensure that the humidity levels are not too high, as this can lead to spoilage.
You can optimize the growing conditions by ensuring the peppers are exposed to adequate light and warmth and by providing the proper nutrients.
Finally, keeping the peppers in a single layer is recommended to promote better airflow, which can help prevent mold and mildew from forming. Following these tips can increase your chances of successfully maturing your off-the-vine peppers indoors.
No matter what, monitoring them frequently and discarding any peppers showing signs of mold is essential.
Other tips for a successful pepper harvest before the frost
There are a few ways you can ensure your peppers have enough time to mature before the first frost.
Firstly, I always start my peppers earlier than the recommended 6-10 weeks before my last frost dates. As long as you have sufficient space, heat, grow lights, and large enough containers, you can start peppers as early as 3-4 months before transplanting. This is especially important for super-hots like ghost and scorpion peppers, which are notorious for taking up to 6 weeks to germinate.
Starting extra early will ensure your plants are more mature when transplanted and bear fruit more quickly.
Secondly, choosing climate-appropriate peppers that will thrive in your specific environment is crucial. Some peppers, like capsicum pubescens peppers, require cooler climates, while others require a lot of heat and a long growing season. If you have a very short period between frost dates, choose peppers quicker to mature and require less heat.
By selecting the right peppers for your area and starting them early, you can help ensure they mature before the first frost date.