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Bell Peppers: Colors and Flavor – Is There a Difference? Plus, How to Roast a Bell PepperBy Vicki McClure Davidson
The prices of fresh bell (or sweet) peppers in the produce department of the grocery store vary greatly—green bell peppers usually are cheapest, and red, yellow/gold, and orange are more expensive. There are even more rare colors of bell pepper: purple, pink, blue, rainbow, aqua, violet, maroon, white, black, and brown, depending on when they are harvested and the specific cultivar.
Bell peppers fall into the category of sweet peppers and have no "heat," unlike other peppers, such as Anaheim, Hatch, jalepeño, serrano, pasilla, Scotch bonnet, habañero, bhut jolokia, and others. Bell peppers contain a recessive gene that eliminates capsaicin, the compound responsible for the "hotness" of other peppers. So on a scale of hotness, bell peppers earn a rating of zero.
For the most part, all bell peppers are grown from the same plant; they are members of the species Capsicum annuum. With the more common color varieties, why is there such a price difference when they are from the same family? Why do red, yellow, or gold peppers always cost at least twice (sometimes three times) as much as green?
Simple. Green bell peppers are unripe, and the other color varieties have been left on the plant longer to ripen. The ripening process takes additional time, so growers must tend to them longer. The price jump passes on the additional cost to the consumer to compensate the grower for the extra time needed for the bell pepper to ripen.
If you're paying more for a red pepper than for a green, is it worth it? Is there a difference in flavor that would justify the additional cost? Important detail for the frugal cook to know.
We turned to one of our favorite sources to find the answer. America's Test Kitchen conducted a study on this very thing back in 2001.
From America's Test Kitchen:
"We conducted a blind tasting to find out if those cheerfully colored bell peppers taste as different from one another as they look or have simply been cultivated for eye appeal. Wearing blindfolds, our editorial staff tasted both raw and blanched samples of red, yellow, orange, green, and purple peppers fresh from the market.
"No one guessed all of the colors correctly, but the differences in taste were dramatic. The favorite colors turned out to be red and orange; without exhibiting much of a pungent pepper flavor, both were pleasantly sweet. The yellow pepper, with its mildly sweet and slightly tannic flavor, was also well liked. The green pepper, the most easily recognized, was universally disliked for its unripe bitterness. The absolute worst entry, however, was the thin-skinned purple pepper. Its slimy texture and singularly unpleasant flavor elicited comments such as, "Did I just eat a slug?"
"As it turned out, these comments weren't far off the mark. As a bell pepper ripens, it turns from green to yellow, orange, or red, depending on the variety. These bright peppers are sweeter simply because they are ripe, whereas the bitter green pepper is unripe. Purple peppers, too, are harvested when immature and would turn an uncommonly dark green if allowed to ripen fully. So unless you're fond of the tannic bitterness of the common green and the purple varieties, we suggest sticking with yellow, orange, or red."
So, there is indeed a difference in flavor. Which color of pepper you choose will depend on your personal taste preference and how the bell pepper will be served.
Roasting any pepper will increase its sweetness and flavor. It doesn't take too much time to roast peppers, and the payoff in additional flavor is worth the extra effort.
To roast or grill a bell pepper (or any sweet or hot pepper):
- Oven Method: Slice off the top of the peppers, remove the seeds, slice them in half lengthwise, and flatten them on a broiler pan or a piece of aluminum foil. Place the peppers skin side up. Place the peppers on a baking sheet or oven-proof skillet and place them under your oven's hot, preheated broiler until they are browned and blistered. Be sure to check on them often; turn whole peppers occasionally so that all sides are roasted. The more charred they are, the easier they will peel and the more flavorful they will be. Keep an eye on the peppers until the skin blackens, because this method of roasting goes fast. You don't want to deeply BURN the peppers, just char them. If you're roasting smaller peppers, like Anaheims, you don't have to cut them in half first. Just slit the peppers a bit so that internal steam can escape, and grill or roast the peppers whole. Turn them, wearing an oven mitt and using tongs, so that the whole surface of the pepper is blackened.
- Gas Stove Method: Skewer the whole pepper on a long-handled fork and hold it over the gas flame of your stove range, turning it so the skin blackens and blisters evenly. You can also place the pepper directly over the flame on the stove. Be sure to wear an oven mitt to protect your hands and forearms and use tongs or a long-handled fork. With the whole pepper over the gas flame, turn it constantly until the pepper is evenly charred, blisters have formed, and the pepper has softened. Another method using a gas stove is to put the bell peppers in a dry cast iron skillet over medium-high heat. You will cook and stir whole peppers or large chunks of peppers until they have blackened. This method won't work with an electric stove.
- Grill Method: Place the whole pepper on a hot charcoal or gas grill, turning it as the skin blackens. Another way to grill a bell pepper: Cut the pepper in half, and with the skin side down, put the halves on a covered grill over medium to hot coals 15 to 25 minutes or until skin is charred, without turning. Remove from the grill and place in a plastic bag until it's cool enough to handle, about 10 minutes. Remove the skin with a paring knife and discard.
Once the peppers have blackened and softened, transfer the blackened peppers to a paper or plastic bag and seal them up, or wrap them in aluminum foil. If you roasted or grilled the peppers whole, cut them in half now and scrape out the stems, seeds, and whitish membrane. For hotter peppers, use a paring knife or cover your hands with plastic bags or wear food prep gloves to remove the seeds and membrane. You don't want to have your hands come into contact with the seeds and membrane of a hot pepper, like a jalepeño, as the chemicals they contain can be horribly harsh on hands. Accidentally touching your eyes with any particle of capsaicin from a hot chile pepper left on your fingertips will be excruciatingly painful. Throw away the gloves or plastic bags when you're done. You don't need to be cautious working with bell peppers, as they contain no heat.
Let the peppers set undisturbed for at least 15 minutes to steam. Once the peppers have steamed and then cooled, the skins can be easily peeled away. You can peel them using either your fingers, a vegetable peeler, or a paring knife. The skins should peel off easily. Don't run cold water over the pepper, as this will leech out flavor. Leave on some of the blackened char on the pepper, as it is tasty and adds to the smoky flavor. Discard the skins, remove and discard the veins and seeds if you want a milder flavor.
At this point, you can proceed with your recipe or dice and freeze the peppers for future use. Freezing them will decrease their crunchiness, so they will be a bit limp if served raw, but used in any cooked dishes will be just fine. You can use roasted bell peppers in a variety of dishes, such as dips, soups, casseroles, hors d'ouevres, pizzas, and pasta sauces. They boost the flavor of ho-hum sandwiches.
For a simple, great-tasting appetizer or snack, just add sliced roasted peppers and place them on top of Italian bread slices and top with a bit of olive oil, basil, and grated Parmesan cheese.
Roasting and freezing your own diced bell peppers is a huge money saver, especially when you look at the high price of a small bag of frozen diced bell peppers in your grocer's freezer. Take advantage of sales of bell peppers and then roast and freeze them for later when the prices have climbed up during the off-season.
Nutritionally, all peppers, sweet or hot, contain good levels of beta-carotene (related to vitamin A) and vitamin C. Peppers that have been allowed to mature from green to red have twice as much vitamin C as when they were green. Red sweet bell peppers have 11 times the beta carotene of green bell peppers. One serving of bell pepper has about 17 calories, so slices of bell pepper are great for a flavorful, nutritious, non-fattening snack.
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America's Test Kitchen, (http://www.cooksillustrated.com/howto/detail.asp?docid=997&Extcode=L9FN2AA00), March 1, 2001.
How Stuff Works, Bell Peppers (recipes.howstuffworks.com/bell-peppers-questions.htm).
WH Foods, "Bell pepper," (whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=foodspice&dbid=50).
Wikipedia, "Bell Pepper," (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bell_pepper).