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What are Cayenne Peppers?

Mary McMahon
Updated Feb 26, 2024
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Cayenne peppers are the fruits behind the popular ground spice cayenne, which is used in cuisines all over the world. The peppers are native to the New World, where they have been used extensively for centuries, and they were introduced to Europe in the 1500s, when early explorers began to bring back botanical samples. Many grocery stores carry cayenne peppers in a dried and powdered form, and they are also available fresh in some regions. Gardeners in warm zones can also try growing cayenne themselves.

The flavor of cayenne peppers is hot, falling in the upper half of the Scoville Scale, a heat index used to describe peppers. They are hotter than serranos, another well known pepper, and not as hot as Thai peppers. Like many peppers, cayenne peppers can be used fresh or dried, although most consumers are familiar with the dried form.

Fresh peppers can be deseeded to make them less spicy, and cutting out the white ribs of the pepper will also reduce the heat. Once chopped, the peppers can be thrown into an assortment of dishes to spice them up. Gloves should be worn when handling fresh cayenne peppers, as they can irritate the skin and mucous membranes. Dried cayenne peppers can be found whole, or ground into a powder. Some producers actually pulp the fresh peppers, turning them into cakes of material which can be powdered as needed.

Powdered cayenne peppers have a multitude of culinary uses. The peppers themselves do not have a great deal of flavor, other than straight heat, so they can be used to make a dish more spicy without dramatically altering the flavor otherwise. For cooks who are not familiar with working with cayenne, dried Capsicum frutescens, as the peppers are also known, should be used sparingly. More spice can be added, but it is difficult to remove from a dish which is too hot.

Like other peppers, cayenne peppers grow best in heat. They have been known to grow as far up as USZA zone seven, but they prefer zones nine through 11. In well drained, fertile soil, a cayenne bush can grow up to six feet (two meters) in height as an annual. Once a seedling is planted in a sunny spot, it will usually produce peppers within 70 days, especially if it is kept moist. Since cayenne peppers are frost sensitive, plant them out after the last chance of frost has passed.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By truman12 — On May 13, 2012
I moved into a house recently that had a garden close by that had been abandoned. I was able to harvest a lot of useable vegetables out of it. I ended up with a whole basket of cayenne peppers and I am thinking about turning them into powder.

I am wondering how to dry cayenne peppers? Do I leave them out in the sun or do I use my oven? I do not have any experience in this area but I would really like to try dying cayenne peppers and making my own spices. The flavor has to be better than anything you would find in the store.

By Ivan83 — On May 12, 2012

I have had cayenne pepper powder in many things. As a matter of fact, it is one of my favorite spices. I think the heat and the flavor that it provides is superior to any other chili pepper.

But I have never had them fresh. Strangely, I have never really even thought about them coming fresh. What are they like? Spicy I'm sure but I would imagine that the flavor is brighter and sharper too. I will have to look for them the next time I go to the market.

By bananas — On Nov 14, 2009

Cayenne peppers come in two varieties, the more common red cayenne peppers, but also gold cayenne peppers, that have smooth, gold skin.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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