two red cayenne peppers with a white gomphrena flower

Exploring Cayenne Peppers: from cooking to pest control

Cayenne peppers, renowned for their widespread popularity in the US and globally, might already have a place of honor in your pantry. 

Read on to delve into a wealth of information about cayenne peppers – from their culinary significance to their cultivation secrets to their surprising use as a natural rodent deterrent.

Facts about


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Capsicum annuum
South America

The basics about cayenne pepper

Cayenne peppers, derived from Central and South America, draw their name from Cayenne, French Guiana. With a cultivation history spanning over 7,000 years, these peppers have been embraced worldwide since the 1500s. 

Cayenne is widely recognized as a culinary spice in the United States and is sometimes simply called “chili powder.” The familiar “crushed red peppers” found in kitchens are also often crafted from cayenne peppers unless otherwise indicated. Beyond its use as a spice, cayenne peppers can be enjoyed fresh and raw or skillfully incorporated into various dishes. While cayenne-based spices are easily accessible in grocery stores, locating fresh peppers may require more effort.

two red cayennes on a marble background.

Appearance and characteristics

Cayenne peppers begin as green and later mature into a bright red hue, though other colors are possible. These peppers have a long, slim shape, often with curled or wrinkled pods. They typically grow to about 5-6 inches long and are as narrow as a pencil.

How hot are cayenne peppers?

Cayenne peppers boast a Scoville Heat Unit (SHU) range of 30,000 to 50,000, which places them notably higher on the heat scale (roughly five times hotter!) than jalapeños. Their spiciness aligns closely with Tabasco peppers. Generally, cayenne’s heat is manageable for most individuals when consumed in moderation.

What does cayenne taste like?

Cayenne peppers deliver a hot and slightly fruity taste. Unlike many other peppers that lean towards earthy or smoky flavors, cayenne pepper keeps it neutral and lighter. It’s also less sweet compared to some of its pepper cousins. When green, it’s more on the hot and vegetal side, with fewer fruity notes. The fruity complexity fully develops as it ripens to red, offering a more vibrant flavor.

Common culinary uses of cayenne

In the United States, cayenne pepper is a staple in numerous dishes, frequently taking the form of dried powder or crushed flakes. Its versatility shines as it adds a fiery touch to chili, salsa, soups, rubs, and even finds its way atop pizzas, elevating flavors with a subtle kick. Cayenne is also a popular pepper to use in hot sauces, a staple in Louisina-style hot sauces, Franks RedHot, wing sauces, and more.

Given their Central and South American roots, cayenne peppers naturally integrate into the cuisines of these regions, bringing their distinctive spiciness to traditional dishes.

Is cayenne and paprika the same thing?

Although paprika and cayenne powder, sometimes colloquially known as “chili powder,” are both popular chili pepper-based seasonings, they are indeed distinct from one another.

Cayenne powder derives its potency from cayenne peppers, boasting a formidable spiciness that registers between 30,000 to 50,000 Scoville Heat Units (SHU). In contrast, paprika powder originates from paprika chilis, which offer a much milder taste, typically measuring 100 to 3,000 SHU.

The flavor profiles are also distinctly different: cayenne, aside from its moderate heat, is relatively mild in flavor, while paprika embodies a gentler heat yet exudes a robust, earthy flavor.

Growing cayenne peppers

The widespread culinary appeal of cayenne peppers makes them a top pick for gardeners to grow at home. 

focus on a red cayenne pepper growing on a plant.

When and how to plant cayenne seeds

To begin, plant your seeds approximately 8 to 10 weeks before your local “last frost” date. Opt for well-draining seed-starting soil and keep them consistently moist for successful germination. The ideal temperature for cayenne peppers is around 75°F (24°C), so a heat mat can be beneficial to boost germination and spur early growth. 

After germination, ensure your cayenne pepper seeds receive 8 to 10 hours of sunlight daily. If using grow lights, they may need up to 16 hours of light to thrive. Once the risk of frost has passed and the soil reaches 60°F, you can confidently transplant your cayenne seedlings into your chosen garden location.

How long do they take to grow?

Cayenne peppers typically require approximately 80 to 90 days from the moment of transplant to reach harvest-ready maturity. This growth duration is consistent with that of other pepper varieties, leaning slightly towards the quicker end, especially for hot peppers. As a result, you can anticipate your cayennes to be among the earliest peppers in your garden to fully mature and become ready for harvest.

When to pick cayenne peppers

For optimal flavor and heat in your cayenne peppers, choosing the right moment for harvesting is essential. This sweet spot is usually around 40 days of growth, from when the plant flowers until the fruit fully matures.

When selecting your cayenne peppers for harvest, consider these key factors: Start by checking their size – opt for peppers that have grown to a minimum length of about 5 inches, indicating their readiness. Also, take note of the color shift from green to a vibrant red, signaling full maturation.

Lastly, firmness can indicate the correct ripeness as you pick them. If the peppers start to soften, you might have waited longer than the ideal time.

Types of cayenne peppers

Cayenne peppers come in a diverse array of types, offering various flavors and appearances. Among them, the red cayenne is the most familiar, typically reaching 5-6 inches long. Nevertheless, the cayenne family showcases an assortment of colors and sizes, introducing intriguing variations.

In addition to the classic red, you’ll encounter cayenne peppers that mature into shades of purple, orange, and yellow, adding a visual feast to your garden. An exciting option is the Arapaho cayenne pepper variety, distinct for its milder nature, falling within the 2,000-4,000 SHU range. Notably larger, the Arapaho peppers stretch to around 8 inches in length, offering a unique twist on the traditional cayenne experience.

Cayenne as a repellant 

Cayenne pepper is frequently employed as a do-it-yourself solution to keep squirrels away from bird feeders and lawns. The capsaicin in cayenne is an irritant to the respiratory and digestive systems of mammals, discouraging pests like squirrels and rabbits. Additionally, cayenne pepper is a practical natural pesticide, effectively repelling certain insects when applied.

With their numerous culinary and practical uses, it’s no wonder cayenne peppers are among the most popular in the US and across the globe!