With a name like sport pepper you would think this crunchy capsicum would be all over the market, but finding this ingredient can be tricky. That is unless you're ordering a classic Chicago-style hot dog, preferably in Illinois. The regional dish is the sport pepper's greatest claim to fame.
What Are Sport Peppers?
The term "sport" is a botanical word used to define plants with a mutation, whether it's a natural occurrence or a man-made one. In a way, the light green sport pepper is just a generic, medium-hot chile, but while it doesn't get a lot of glory, this thin, one-and-a-half-inch long ingredient is beloved by many.
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 prove similar to the tabasco plant, just a little smaller. It's also close to the pepperoncini, a milder pepper that tends to get pickled and used in the same way. We don't know why the sport pepper fell out of favor in this region once the 1980s hit, but the food still has a strong following in another market, Chicago.
It was 1957 when Chicagoans started to see their beloved Vienna Beef hot dogs dressed in the "dragged through the garden" style which included pickled sport peppers. Plenty of locals will tell you it's not a true Chicago dog without this particular chili. 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 towering onto a hot dog, you can put sport peppers on just about anything. Use them to spruce up a salad, on a sandwich, throw a few on a batch of nachos, or even eat them plain. The sport pepper is not the best pepper for eating raw. It won't taste bad, it just has a thicker pod than a bell pepper or even a jalapeno. That's one reason it does so well as a pickle—it can break down in the vinegar while still keeping its shape and some texture.
What Do Sport Peppers Taste Like?
Think of a nice, juicy crunch mixed with medium chili heat and bright green sweetness. The sport pepper isn't at all saccharine, but it does maintain that cloying pepper tinge on the back of the palate as it tingles the tongue. When pickled, these peppers stand up to just about anything and can add a gentle brush of heat and slight toothsome crackle when you bite in. Don't expect to sweat from the sport pepper since it's in no competition when it comes to hotter varieties.
Sport Peppers Recipes
Unless you're making a traditional Chicago-style hot dog, chances are most recipes don't call for the sport pepper. Luckily you can substitute this ingredient with pepperoncini, another capsicum that tends to get gently pickled, jarred, and sold in grocery stores all over.
Where to Buy Sport Peppers
Finding a source of sport peppers can prove tricky since they aren't in many shops outside the midwest. The easiest method of obtaining this food is jarred, namely by the Vienna Beef company. If you're in Chicago, they can be found in most major grocery stores. The rest of the country can shop in specialty markets for this pepper, or if all else fails order online or substitute pepperoncini in place of the sport pepper. 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 your pantry. Once the lid is cracked you will want to store in the refrigerator where they will stay good for months. If you desire fresh one and can actually find them, keep in the crisper drawer for two to four weeks.
Nutrition and Benefits
Peppers all feature a good amount of vitamin C and A in the cell walls, perfect for fighting colds and boosting the immune system. The spice also can help clear sinuses and make you feel fuller faster.