Record-Breaking Heat = Record-Breaking Chiles

Lucky Iowans are experiencing what is, for everyone except the oldest among us, the hottest July in our memory. And, joy of joys, it’s turning out to be one of the driest summers in a long time, too.

What is miserable for people and pets (and painful for our electric and water bills) is apparently a boon for your hot pepper plants, though.

Heat and drought stunt corn and kill soybeans — but have an “unexpected benefit” of yielding hotter chile peppers than wetter, cooler weather.  Hot, dry weather brings higher concentrations of alkaloids in peppers, the substance that binds to heat receptors on the tongue.  Long hot days cause peppers to produce more capsaicin, which is the particular alkaloid that makes spicy chiles, um, spicy.

The same phenomenon of concentrated, intensified flavors also happens in onions, garlic and certain fruits. Hot, dry weather conditions result in higher rates of photosynthesis, leading to higher concentrations of fruit sugars — so cantaloupes may taste sweeter than you remember (which is not a bad thing). Radishes and beets may be more flavorful (and sharp), too.

So: If you’re using fresh chiles from your garden or from a local grower, exercise caution with your proportions and quantities. Some chefs are saying that peppers are two to three times more spicy than in “typical” growing seasons.  Use fresh hot peppers sparingly in recipes and balance them in dishes based on “cooling” ingredients, like dairy or fruit when possible.