Charleston Hot: Red Hot Pepper

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Charleston Hots become fire-engine red as they mature. Watch out, because they can start a fire in your mouth!

South Carolina Scorcher

Ouweeeeee! They’ve just come up with a new kind of cayenne pepper that’s so hot it hurts. The Charleston Hot cayenne is 20 times hotter than a jalapeño – seems some folks are slaves to pain.

Plant pathologist David Dukes of the Agricultural Research Service in South Carolina hit on this sizzling pepper purely by chance. He was trying to breed a strain of cayenne resistant to root knot, a disease that leaves plant roots gnarly and stunts growth. Thinking the pepper smelled a bit pungent, Dukes took a sample taste-and nearly seared his taste buds.

We all know people who crave a good hit of Tabasco on their T-bone or burger, but why would anyone want a pepper this hot? Lots of reasons, says Dukes. Spice companies appreciate them because they get more heat mileage per pepper, gardeners like them because cayenne’s “hot” chemical (cap sesin) keeps pests away, and of course pepper lovers love them because the hotter the better.

Gardeners will also be happy to know that Charleston Hot cayennes not only provide more bang per pepper, but they yield a healthy amount of peppers per plant, too. Plus, each pepper grows approximately as long as a good-size string bean. They start out as half-inch pods and just keeping getting larger and hotter.

Now don’t run out rashly and devour one out of sheer curiosity. You could get hurt. As much he loves Charleston Hots straight up, Dukes warns the inexperienced that such painful pepper eating is simply not for amateurs. The safest way to enjoy a Charleston Hot, of course, is to watch someone else eat one. However, if you can’t resist a challenge, start out with small doses in cooked dishes; chili’s a good choice. Then, if you still can’t take the heat, pick them early, split them open, and take out the seeds and placenta. That’ll cool things down a little.

According to Dukes: If you can hack it, there’s nothing like eating one raw. “You get a high from it,” he says, “It’s sorta like jogging. You get a feeling of well-being.” As for the story behind the pepper’s name, it’s a simple one. “If you’ve ever been in Charleston in July, you know it’s hot,” Dukes says with a hearty chuckle.