July is prime pepper time, when bells and other varieties are smack in the middle of peak flavor for the season. Crispy-crunchy and sharply sweet, bell peppers are the most accessible carriers of capsaicin, the compound that gives chilis and other spicy peppers their kick. While most of us only see the red and green varieties at the grocery store, these plump and pretty members of the nightshade family come in a spectacular spectrum of colors, including orange, yellow, white, purple, brown, and every shade in between! Generally, the level of sweetness corresponds with their color: green peppers are the least-sweet, yellow and orange are next, with the sweetest peppers being deep red, purple, and brown.
People in Central and South America have been harvesting bell peppers for over 9000 years. They were introduced to continental cuisine in the 1500s and spread throughout Europe and Asia to become a cooking staple in virtually every country where they were introduced. Perhaps surprisingly, China is the world leader in pepper production; in 2007 their harvests yielded over 14 million metric tons, blowing Mexico and the US out of the water by several orders of magnitude!
How to Select and Store
When it comes time to pick your peppers, there are a few things to look for
- Regardless of what color you choose, it should be uniform, deep, and vivid with bright green stems. Avoid peppers with soft spots, dark areas, obvious injuries, or watery areas.
- Their flesh should be firm and not hold an indentation when pressed gently with your finger.
- Perfect peppers should feel heavy for their size
Once you pick them, how should you keep them?
The best place to store your peppers is in the veggie drawer of your refrigerator, where unwashed peppers will keep for about a week, up to ten days. Bell peppers are particularly sensitive to moisture levels and need to stay hydrated, so a good tip is to include a damp paper towel or kitchen cloth in their storage area. Don’t cut the peppers until you are ready to use them, and be sure to keep the stem intact. Bell peppers also hold up well in the freezer--if you decide to freeze ‘em, keep them whole to maximize nutrient retention and flavor! You should wash your peppers before you pop them in a labeled freezer bag, but there’s no reason to blanch them or remove the stems. Use within eight months for best quality.