A Guide to Red Jalapeño Peppers

February 3, 2024
Red Jalapeño
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Red jalapeño peppers add a pop of color and a punch of heat to many dishes. Their bright red hue stands out mixed into salsas, chopped up in pico de gallo, or stuffed with cheese for a spicy appetizer. While green jalapeños may be more common, red jalapeño offer their own unique flavor profile and culinary uses.

What Makes Red Jalapeño Different?

Red and green jalapeños come from the same plant – the cultivar Capsicum annuum – and start off green. So what makes red jalapeño different?

The short answer is ripeness. Red jalapeño are left on the plant longer than green ones, allowing them to fully ripen. This extended time on the vine means:

  • They develop a red pigment from carotenoids, the same compounds responsible for the color in carrots and tomatoes.
  • Their flavor becomes more concentrated as sugars develop. Red jalapeño have a fruitier taste.
  • The heat level increases as capsaicin builds up. Red jalapeño tend to be hotter on the Scoville scale.
  • The texture softens and becomes juicier. The thicker walls of green jalapeños give way to thinner flesh.

So in terms of looks, taste, and spiciness, red jalapeño offer a different experience than their green counterparts. They have their own unique uses in the kitchen.

The Origin of Red Jalapeño

While green jalapeños are ubiquitous today, red jalapeño emerged much later. Here’s a quick history:

  • Early 1800s – The first jalapeño cultivars grown by Mesoamerican cultures like the Aztecs. All were green and likely quite spicy.
  • Late 1800s – Jalapeños introduced to the U.S. after the Mexican-American War. Commercial production begins in Texas.
  • 1970s – New Mexico State University releases the first milder jalapeño cultivar called ‘NuMex Vaquero’. It becomes heavily grown but is green.
  • 1990s – An American company produces the first commercial red jalapeño variety called ‘Fuego’. It offers a riper, sweeter, and spicier alternative to the common green jalapeño.

So red jalapeño are a more recent development, providing a matured and intensified version of the green pepper we’re used to. They bring not just heat but sweetness and tanginess to pepper lovers’ palates.

Flavor Profile

The rich red color provides a visual hint at the unique flavor of these peppers. Here are the main tasting notes:

  • Fruitiness – Notes of ripe fruit like bell pepper, apple, and even berry. This fruit-forward taste is uncommon in green jalapeños.
  • Sweetness – Along with the fruit, you’ll detect sweeter flavors ranging from sugary to tangy. Red jalapeño register about 1.5 times higher on the Brix scale of sugar content.
  • Spiciness – The heat is bolder, lingering longer on your tongue. Still a moderate spice level though, averaging 2,500 to 8,000 Scoville heat units.
  • Acidity – A bright, acidic punch cuts through the richer flavors, keeping them balanced. Green jalapeños are starchier with less acidity.
  • Smokiness – Hints of tobacco and smoked wood complement the fruit and spice.

So you get a pepper that’s complex and dynamic. Both the spiciness and juiciness intensify when eating red jalapeño raw. Cooking mellows those elements out.

Culinary Uses

The unique flavor and color of red jalapeño make them perfect for certain dishes. Here are some of the top ways to use them:

  • Salsas – Their color pops visually and adds sweet/hot contrast. Use for pico de gallo, chunky tomato salsa, or mango salsa.
  • Pickling – Quick pickling maintains their crunch and brings out the fruitiness. Use as a condiment on sandwiches.
  • Stuffing – Cut in half lengthwise and remove seeds to stuff with cheese, ground meat, etc. Grill or bake.
  • Chili pepper jelly – Puree into sweet/spicy jelly and serve with cream cheese and crackers.
  • Hot sauce – Blend into a vinegar-based hot sauce. Adds thicker texture and bright color.
  • Marinades and rubs – Chop finely and add to oil, vinegar, and seasonings for a marinade. Or make a spicy dry rub.
  • Soups and stews – Cut into pieces and add milder, fruity heat. Works well in tomato-based and chicken soups.

So red jalapeño shine in Latin dishes like salsa and ceviche but also American classics like cheeseburgers, chili, and cornbread. Their uses are wide-ranging in both savory and sweet recipes.

Selecting and Storing Red Jalapeño

When purchasing red jalapeño, look for ones that:

  • Have bright, deep red color with little to no green
  • Are firm with smooth, shiny skin
  • Feel heavy for their size
  • Lack soft or brown spots and wrinkling

If the peppers look dull, shriveled, or have uneven coloring, pass them up. Also inspect the stems – they should be green and look fresh.

Store red jalapeño in a paper bag in the refrigerator. They will last about 1 week before losing freshness. To maximize shelf life, do not wash them until ready to use. Moisture speeds up spoilage.

For cooked dishes, it’s fine to use peppers that are slightly soft or have a few blemishes. Avoid old, truly shriveled ones for raw applications like salsas though.

Growing Red Jalapeño at Home

Want the freshest red jalapeño? Consider growing a few plants at home! Here are some tips:

  • Start indoors – Plant seeds indoors 6-8 weeks before last expected frost. Use starter trays and seedling heat mats.
  • Transplant outdoors – After danger of frost is past, harden off and transplant seedlings into garden beds. Space 18-24 inches apart.
  • Full sun – Ensure plants get 6-8 hours of direct sunlight daily. Partial shade will reduce yields.
  • Fertilize – Use balanced fertilizer at planting and a side dressing of nitrogen mid-season.
  • Consistent water – Keep soil consistently moist but not waterlogged. Use drip irrigation or soaker hoses.
  • Harvest ripe peppers – Allow fruits to turn completely red on bush before picking. Handle gently to avoid bruising.
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