When you’re at the store in search for some spice to add to your cooking, you’ll usually find sauces or raw chili peppers that come in green, red, orange or yellow. Do you pick a certain color that looks most spicy, and are you aware of the various flavors and colors chili peppers produce at different levels of ripeness? Or do you go for the most convincing label, or are you the kind of chili-fanatic that looks up the scoville rating? In fact, what you often see at the store is just a small sample of the various colors that chili peppers can come in come in. They can also be white, peach, purple, and even shades of brown!

Typically you come across chilies in red, orange, yellow or green.

What is the meaning of all these chilli colors? When growing, most chili peppers start off green, and then turn red, orange or purple as they ripen. That explains why most types of chili peppers can be found in a range of colors. Chili peppers generally get hotter as they ripen, but a lot of varieties are also picked and sold when they are still green and with only mild heat, such as the jalapeño. The ripened red pepper is often exponentially hotter than a younger chilli at its green stage. But they also become much sweeter as they ripen, making them more delicious and adding a “smoothness” to its flavor. Dried chilies are usually completely ripened before drying, and that’s why you usually find them in red. There is no “wrong way” on how chili peppers are picked and used, but it’s usually determined by local preferences and a history of cultural practice.

Bolivian Rainbow chili can exhibit all colors at once on a single plant.

Meanwhile, other peppers such as the Bolivian Rainbow chili peppers start out brilliant purple and then turn yellow, orange and eventually red. Other chili peppers like Aji chili peppers and the Scotch Bonnets mature to be yellow-orange or gold.

Does color determine spiciness? Does this mean that red chili peppers are always the spiciest, and that green chili are the safe option to opt for if you are a less adventurous eater? That doesn’t seem to be the case, as Red Chili peppers can range from 250 scovilles (mild Hungarian Paprika chili peppers) to over 1 million, as seen in the famous Ghost pepper, or Bhut Jolokia.

So what about the flavor? When it comes to flavor, there are some patterns by color. The majority of chili peppers that ripen to be orange/yellow/gold are known to be sweeter and fruity in flavor, but their heat can vary from 500 to over 500,000 scovilles too. The most ripe stage of chili peppers, often red, also tends to be its sweetest and most flavorsome stage, but it also becomes most spicy, which explains why some popular types are sold when still green.

So why do they come in so many colors? The color change in the ripening process can be compared to the ripening process of other plants. Chlorophyll molecules, which are present in large quantities during the plant’s growing process, are responsible for the unripe, green color, while reduction of this molecule later gives way to carotin and anthocyanin molecules, which gradually produce yellow, red or purple colors. And most chili pepper plants hold fruit that mature at different times, and that is why you can get a single plant that looks like a rainbow.

Chlorophyll molecules produce the green color in unripe chilies.

But what about the Bolivian rainbow chili pepper that starts off purple, or the Sugar Rush chili peppers that are peach colored when ripe? That answer remains unknown, but this project and our goal of uncovering the history of chili peppers might give us the answer. If you know more about how different chili pepper colors came to be, or know any uniquely colored types we should know of, please comment below!

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