Walk into any grocery store or up to a vegetable stand in just about any place in the world and there, among other local fruits and vegetables, you will find bell peppers. Depending on the country they may be called by different names such as sweet peppers, paprika, capsicum, or simply and plainly, as peppers. Besides their name, bell peppers also differ in color. Most of us are familiar with the green, orange, yellow, and red varieties but there are also purple, brown, and very pale yellowish colored bell peppers.
Bell peppers belong to the same nightshade (or Solanaceae) plant family as tomatoes, eggplants, potatoes, and chili peppers. The peppers in this nightshade plant family are scientifically classified as Capsicum annuum, and this is applied to both the sweet (like bell peppers) and hot peppers (like jalapeños and cayenne) varieties in this particular plant family. There are many different cultivars of Capsicum, or peppers, which are classified under different species names. For example, the habanero chile is categorized under the Capsicum chinense.
Anatomy of a Bell Pepper
When you slice a bell pepper in half it will look exactly like any spicy chile pepper. There is a placenta covered with seeds, there are veins running along the flesh of the bell pepper. They are pretty much identical with the main exception being the difference in size. Bell peppers have a fruity scent, just like many hot chilies. Both have a crispness to their flesh and also a high water content. You can slice, sauté, grill, char, pickle, stuff, or eat bell peppers just like you would any kind of spicy chilies. But when it comes to bell peppers you'll never have to wear gloves to protect your skin from a chili burn, and you'll never have to reach for a drink to calm the fiery heat after eating bell peppers.
Why Aren't Bell Peppers Spicy?
So, if bell peppers are in the same scientific classification as a cayenne chili pepper, why aren't bell peppers hot? It comes down to a chemical compound called capsaicin. This chemical is the sole reason why a jalapeño is spicy and a bell pepper is not. A bell pepper has no capsaicin. Capsaicin attaches itself to the mucous membranes in our mouths which in turn send out the fiery sensation. That heat in your mouth (or hands) will vary greatly depending on what type of chili pepper you've eaten. Peppers are ranked by their heat, or the amount of capsaicin they contain, on a scale called the Scoville Scale. Their capsaicin concentration is given a number on the scale and it is called Scoville Heat Units. Bell peppers do not have capsaicin, so they have zero Scoville Heat Units, therefore they are way at the bottom of the Scoville scale.
Culinary Uses of Bell Peppers
While bell peppers may not be spicy, it doesn't make them any less pleasing than hot chilies. In fact, many of you may already be eating bell peppers in their dried, ground form, or as paprika. Yes, that deep red spice in your cupboard called paprika is in fact made from red bell peppers. Use fresh bell peppers or paprika just like you would spicy chilies. A fantastic thing to do with bell peppers is to combine them with hot chilies, which will both tone down the heat and add a new layer of flavor. The possibilities are truly endless.