Sport peppers are best known as a topping on a classic Chicago-style hot dog, but are actually not readily available and can be difficult to find. In a way, the light green sport pepper is just a generic, medium-hot chile, and while it doesn't get a lot of glory, this thin, 1 1/2-inch long ingredient is beloved by many. This is not the best pepper for eating raw as it has a very thick pod, but that's one reason it does so well as a pickle—it will soften in the vinegar while still keeping its shape and some texture. Sport peppers are sold in jars and can be used in almost any recipe calling for chile pepper.
What Are Sport Peppers?
Prior to the 1970s, this sturdy, fertile plant gained popularity in the South as a backup crop to the more finicky tabasco pepper, famously used to make Tabasco brand hot sauce. In flavor and appearance, sport peppers, which are from the Capsicum Annuum species, are similar to the tabasco plant, just a little smaller and green or yellow instead of bright red. It's also close to the pepperoncini, a milder pepper that tends to get pickled and used in the same way.
In 1957, Chicagoans started to see their beloved Vienna Beef hot dogs dressed in the "dragged through the garden" style which included pickled sport peppers. The sport pepper fell out of favor in the 1980s, but it maintained a strong following in Chicago. Plenty of locals will tell you it's not a true Chicago dog without this particular chile. The Vienna Beef company even markets their own bottled sport pepper which remains one of the most consistent ways to find the food.
How to Use Sport Peppers
Aside from piling onto a hot dog, you can put sport peppers on just about anything that would benefit from their heat. Use them to spruce up a salad or a sandwich, toss a few onto a batch of nachos, or incorporate them into a pickled vegetable condiment (called giardiniera); you can even eat them plain. The peppers can simply be used straight from the jar, whole, sliced, or chopped.
What Do Sport Peppers Taste Like?
The sport pepper isn't overly sweet, but it does maintain that cloying pepper tinge on the back of the palate as it tingles the tongue. It has a gentle brush of heat and a nice, juicy crunch, and when pickled, these peppers stand up to just about anything. Don't expect to sweat from the sport pepper since it's much milder than hotter varieties; it ranges between 10,000 and 23,000 units on the Scoville scale, which is a little spicier than jalapeno and the same as serrano peppers.
Sport Peppers Recipes
Unless you're making a traditional Chicago-style hot dog, chances are most recipes won't call for the sport pepper. You can use sport peppers in place of pepperoncini, another capsicum that tends to get gently pickled, jarred, and is sold in grocery stores all over.
Where to Buy Sport Peppers
Finding sport peppers can prove tricky since they aren't in many shops outside the midwest. The most common way these peppers are sold is in jars, namely from the Vienna Beef company. If you're in Chicago, they can be found in most major grocery stores, but those in the rest of the country will need to shop in specialty markets or through online retailers. Occasionally you can find these chiles fresh at a farmers' market, especially in the South.
Unopened jars of pickled sport peppers will keep for a long time in a cool, dry space like the pantry. Once the lid is cracked, you will want to store the jar in the refrigerator where the peppers will stay good for months. If you have bought fresh sport peppers, keep them in the crisper drawer for two to four weeks.