Hooked on cowhorn peppers (and possibly "happy hormones")
August 1st, 2011
12:00 PM ET
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Come summer, it’s not unusual for me to fall apart during dinner and shed a few tears. No, there’s need for cheering up, thank you, but please pass the tissues.

The waterworks come courtesy of cowhorn peppers growing contentedly in a big flower pot outside my window and burning my mouth to a crisp every time I take a tiny bite out of one or add a sliver to my favorite sauce.

I’m not a spicy food person. I know a lot of people will go out of their way to order anything with the “hot” symbol on the menu, but I’m not one of them. I have a low tolerance for it and I’ve never been big on breathing fire at dinner.

Yet here I am, choosing to turn all red and teary-eyed during home-cooked meals - something I wouldn’t dare do in a restaurant.

My affection for these spicy little devils began by accident when I was looking for something edible to grow in my garden a few years ago and spotted a baby cowhorn pepper plant at my local Home Depot. It was an impulse buy – the pepper in the picture looked like it would be a mild addition to summer salads.


After the first fiery bite, I didn’t think this choice would work out, but somehow I’ve become hooked. Maybe it’s the endorphin rush - researchers say the brain responds to the burning sensation on your palate by releasing "happy hormones" to soothe the pain.

Maybe it’s the cooling effect – some people believe spicy foods help you beat the heat by causing you to perspire.

Whatever the reason, summer has come to mean “spicy” in my kitchen, a season when meals are as scorching as the temperatures outside.

I like how the pepper is still warm from the sun when I pick it before dinner. I like how it has tons more flavor than anything at the store. The jalapeños I sometimes buy in the winter are spicy but oddly dull at the same time.

The cowhorn pepper often curls as it grows, thus the name. It starts out a succulent green, then morphs into a warm shade of brown (which can be very alarming if you’re a pepper novice convinced your crop has gone bad), before ripening into a magnificent, intense red that rivals any color a make-up company could come up with. This is how I imagine “Jungle Red” nail polish from the film “The Women” must have looked like.

When you slice the pepper open, it has a sharp, slightly menacing perfume that lets you know right away you’re in for a bumpy ride –and if you have any cuts on your fingers when you slice the pepper, the naughty little thing will sting your skin. Gloves are a must.

I like to eat them raw when I have salad with dinner, though I bite off a millimeter at a time. Tiny slivers of the pepper add fire to any tomato or cream sauce.

Then I end up falling apart at dinner - if I were a cartoon character, I would have steam coming out of my ears. But I’ll miss that piquant feeling when the weather turns cold and my pepper plant is gone.

(P.S. Any advice on how to preserve hot peppers for the winter?) [Editor's note: Yup – we have you covered. Stay tuned.]

Previously - Heat-seeking eater seeks nuclear noshes and 'Chili-heads' seek friendly fire from powerful pepper

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Filed under: Gardening • Hot • Ingredients • Make • Peppers

soundoff (46 Responses)
  1. piratelooksatforty

    Thanks for this. Hubby has been the prime gardener in our family for the last thirty years. I just benefited from the fruits of his labor ~wink~ Since I was laid off of work last October, I decided to take a more active part in the garden, and started planting my own stuff. I have to admit although I'd never been an avid gardener, I listened to him over the years, and picked up a few things. Anywho, I stumbled upon a cowhorn pepper plant at Home Depot and planted it about a month ago. The thing is putting off peppers like crazy. My problem was I didn't know when to pick them. They are green now. I'll wait for them to turn red. Personally, I like some heat, but Hubby is the one who really likes his peppers hot, hot, hot. I'm curious to try them now.

    July 19, 2014 at 8:59 am |
  2. Michael

    Very cool article! I bought and started growing the world's hottest pepper in my own home and they are quite awesome. Got them at HotGhostPeppers.com

    August 5, 2011 at 10:34 am |
  3. Heather

    I knew a girl once who put ketchup on her tacos because she said the Taco Bell mild sauce was too hot.

    August 2, 2011 at 11:12 am |
  4. Robert A.M. Stephens

    What a cool article. After 40 years of eating peppers I can now freely eat Habaneros–100,000 on the Scofield Heat Index. I grow up on a reach with Mexicans and my folks and I could never get enough of their food, peppers, salsas and adobos. Thus, now, I have over 40 salsa recipes and make it weekly in large batches, both red, green orange and adobos. I love it beyond passion, as good as making love for effect. The increase in seratonins, endorphins, heart health, brain function, body function, erectile function, et al–legion and amazing effects– especially now at nearly 60.
    Have all my teeth, hair, everything works and most folks think I am late 40s. Good. Eat them aplenty. Amazing fruit from the heavens, period!!!–if you want recipes for salsas, find me on FB or at the NASA Art site.: Robert A.M. Stephens.

    August 2, 2011 at 10:35 am |
  5. I. Mold

    You can put peppers whole in the freezer, but I prefer to clean and prepare them for cooking (using gloves for anything hot – after handling a chile even a finger stroke on your face can burn). To avoid a bag of pepper snowball (all stuck together), I spread them out on a cookie sheet in the freezer, then put them in a ziplock bag frozen. Now I can just pull out what I want as I need them, making later meal preparation easier and faster. Frozen peppers are for cooking only, of course, and will not be crisp. I also dry peppers, which gives more body to them when cooked – try them on pizza, for instance. I use a dryer with a fan and heating element, so they dry sufficiently in a couple days. Again, I put the dried peppers in a bag in the freezer, to insure freshness for the following year. My garden has chiles, ancho, cherry, santa fe, pimento, and a variety of bell and sweet peppers; along with tomatoes, they're the vegetables that can be used almost daily. Peppers are actually very hardy; if one suffers mishap, a broken pepper can be rooted in a container of water and replanted. Store bought peppers can have the heat, but picking one from the garden and using it right away gives the finest flavor.

    August 2, 2011 at 9:24 am |
  6. mikel

    A local discount food store sells a habanero sauce that turns anything I eat into a fire eating adventure. It's almost an addction....

    August 2, 2011 at 8:39 am |
  7. ChileGirl

    I lived in NM for 35 years and love eating the hot stuff! Yay, Hatch chiles!!! However,an interesting side effect to that, all those capsaicin sports and arthritis rubs might as well be water. Guess I ate so much chile that it just doesn't affect me any more.

    August 2, 2011 at 7:43 am |
  8. Griff in Fairbanks

    If it don't melt your earwax, it ain't hot enough ...

    August 1, 2011 at 11:19 pm |
  9. Bakladjan

    Damn straight. My roommate, an engineering student at Texas Tech, used to get us through the dust storm season with a concoction called Snotnosed Chutney. The whole purpose of Snotnosed Chutney was exactly the effect you described. The ordeal was excruciating, but once your eyes, ears, nose, and throat were flushed in the manner described, you were completely free of dust, crud, and mucopurulent matter, enabling you to see, hear, eat, and most important of all, breathe. Yes, I remember how to make Snotnosed Chutney, but I will not loose it on a rash (!) public.

    August 1, 2011 at 10:59 pm |
  10. bryan

    Vulkin'68 Marco Polo brought pasta from China and the Spanish brought the tomato from the Americas.

    August 1, 2011 at 10:32 pm |
    • vulkin'68

      Makes me wonder what the poor italians (and the rest of europe) got by on before trading with the east became common. You know one of the funniest argu/discussions I ever had was with a lady of Italian heritage who insisted that tomatoes where native to Italy. It took written proof before she would believe.

      August 2, 2011 at 9:08 am |
  11. Jaguarfeather

    We hear a lot about the differing heat of peppers, yet rarely of the surprisingly large difference in flavor. They can be so distinctive one from another!

    I like some of the hotter ones, but I've always loved the Serrano, which I've grown in my backyard, and the various New Mexico green chiles the best for their great flavor as much as the heat. Jalapenos are good for many dishes, but are quite acidic tasting to me compared with a Serrano, which is hotter. In any case, we love us some peppers here in Texas!

    I have no personal experience with the cowhorn pepper, but it sounds good and it sure is pretty!

    August 1, 2011 at 10:27 pm |
  12. tazer warrior princess

    I like spicy foods, in moderation. I don't think I"d be one to be eating a straight raw pepper!

    August 1, 2011 at 7:34 pm |
  13. keith

    A lot of stores sell the 6 packs of plants for the garden when (with hot peppers) all you need is one!!!! heh heh heh!!!

    August 1, 2011 at 6:47 pm |
    • I. Mold

      I've have around a hundred pepper plants, and don't consider it excessive. Sweet peppers outnumber the hot ones, of course, since they're used more in cooking; the hot ones are more for seasoning than bulk. All it takes is a freezer, and you have a year's supply of peppers. If there was a way to keep them fresh for eating raw, I'd double the number of pepper plants – some of them are excellent in salads, too.

      August 2, 2011 at 9:30 am |
  14. Al

    Hot peppers come in handy during hay fever season. Those crushed peppers from pizza joints do the trick. I chew on a bit when needed.

    Melinda's chipotle is mighty fine, but the hotter stuff is reserved for when I need a good kick in the head.

    August 1, 2011 at 4:26 pm |
    • I. Mold

      I finely dice chiles and sprinkle them on pizza; no more need to sprinkle on the flake stuff, and I think it gives a far better taste and effect. Nice to have warm pizza, even after it cools.

      August 2, 2011 at 9:33 am |
  15. Multi-Tasking @ Work

    I just love hot peppers. I dry them & grind them. I pickle them. I make hot pepper jelly for entertaining. I string them up. nothing better then growing your own.

    August 1, 2011 at 4:14 pm |
  16. vulkin'68

    I have a Ghost chilie pepper in my garden. Two morons desided against advice to eat one whole. essenttially about 4 hours of truely intense pain followed by the unique opportunity to feel every inch or their intestinal tracts. I was suprised they didn't bleed! One of them literally sat in a chare with a gallon of milk rocking back and forth lilke a mental patient. These things are Bad Azz. I like hot food (I order my indian curries HOT), and I may try to use some of these with the veins and seeds stripped out. Eat one whole?? not a chance.

    August 1, 2011 at 4:13 pm |
  17. Chuck

    My buddy works in produce and he gave me about 50 ghost peppers. I grow a lot of different kinds of peppers and I can hang with the best of them when it comes to hot peppers but these things are just stupid hot. They is not a whole lot you can do with peppers this hot other than challenge your friends to eat them – which is nonetheless quite entertaining.

    August 1, 2011 at 3:44 pm |
  18. sharcc

    I string (needle and thread) my peppers and hang them up to dry in the kitchen. Once they are dry, I place them in a ziplock. They can be added whole to a recipe or they can be crushed or ground. Anything you grow yourself is going to be far better than anything you buy in a grocery store.

    August 1, 2011 at 3:08 pm |
  19. Bob

    get some ideas here:www.hatchnmgreenchile.com

    August 1, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
    • RichardHead@Bob

      Big Jim's are some of the best peppers I've ever had.Grabbed a couple pounds of smoked ones the last time I was passing through.

      August 1, 2011 at 3:10 pm |
    • I want da gold!

      I still have some from the batch last year. From what I hear this year's crop is even hotter. Life wouldn't be the same without NM green chile.

      August 1, 2011 at 4:12 pm |
  20. Ozarkhomesteader

    Sometimes I like mine nuclear hot, sometimes just barely tickling my tongue. Freezing works great for hot peppers, as does drying. You can also pickle them in hot vinegar and salt, with or without sugar added.

    August 1, 2011 at 2:42 pm |
  21. Chris

    You have no idea what "spicy" is until you've had homemade Pakistani food. It is not what they serve you in restaurants. I had a roommate in college whose mom used to bring him food occasionally, and let me assure you, he never had to worry about me stealing it from the fridge. That stuff makes the spiciest American food you can find anywhere seem like watered-down milk. Seriously, there was liquid bursting from every orifice on my face the instant I tried a bite of that Satanic stuff... I still to this day don't know what it was.

    August 1, 2011 at 2:38 pm |
    • Chile Head

      Sorry Chris, but you couldn't be more wrong: all chile peppers originate in the Americas. While they have been cultivated outside of North and South America via export and trade, chile peppers are an original New World crop. What you are seeing is the global spread and adoption of a crop that the Indigenous persons of the Americas have treasured for millenia.

      August 1, 2011 at 2:59 pm |
      • Tony

        Sorry Chile Head but you are wrong. All peppers originated in the Americas? Not even close... Do you think Indian and Southeast Asia did not have spicy foods until they were imported from the Americas? Do some research.

        August 1, 2011 at 3:45 pm |
      • vulkin'68

        Use the internet for its non porn purposes and you will quickly find that chilihead is dead right. While the old world did have Peppercorns, and szechuan Peppercorn (both from a completely different plant than chilil peppers). Chilli peppers are a membeof the Solanaceae family. This family includes not only peppers but also potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant and interstingly enough tobacco. You will notice all of these plants have something in common. They are all "New World" Plants. It is a testiment to the power and lure of the pepper that it has wormed its way so far into so many "forien" cultures. Tomatoes and Italian food is another amazing story of adoption as there where no tomatoes in Italy until after the discovery of the Americas either.

        August 1, 2011 at 4:21 pm |
    • alf

      There are plenty of places in America that use the hottest peppers in the world for sauces on things like chicken wings, some even use pepper extract which is the hottest thing in the world. This "pakistani food" is not going to be anywhere even CLOSE to a lot of wing sauces out there, they are far beyond what any culture considers normal food.

      August 1, 2011 at 4:48 pm |
  22. Mildred

    I'm more A warm glow is good - and it can go on for a while. Occasional tearing up and sniffles, but I don't need to have been watching Old Yeller by the time I'm done.

    August 1, 2011 at 2:22 pm |
  23. I want da gold!

    I ate 8 Ghost chile wings at a local bar/restaurant a couple weeks back. Wow! I love hot things. I have 15-20 bottles of hot sauce in my kitchen at any given time, heat ranges varying from mild to super hot. After one wing I was crying and breathing heavily, heart racing, and starting to sweat. By the end I was in another world altogether. I loved the heat and the endorphin rush. The stomach pain I could do without. If you can handle heat, I recommend it. It was fun. But, I will never do it again. Thank goodness I remembered to wash my hands BEFORE I peed this time!

    August 1, 2011 at 1:21 pm |
    • Dill Weed

      Tell us about the Ring of Fire! I wanna hear about Ring of Fire! : D

      August 1, 2011 at 2:59 pm |
      • I want da gold!

        Not only was there the ring of fire for a day or two after, I had the freaking river styx going on if you're picking up what I'm putting down. That's the first time the capsaicin made it's escape through the front. Never again...well, who am I kidding? I say that every time I eat stuff like that. haha

        August 1, 2011 at 4:21 pm |
  24. alf

    I think people voting "nuclear" just order their "hot" hot wings and have no idea what kind of heat things like chili extract and ghost peppers are capable of, if they did they wouldnt have picked that choice.

    August 1, 2011 at 1:16 pm |
    • I want da gold!

      I voted nuclear but I also got the ghost chile wings and regretted it for days after. I like it hot but that was even a little much for me. It was fun but I won't be ordering them again anytime soon.

      August 1, 2011 at 4:14 pm |
    • Kip

      I also voted nuclear, but I have enough sense to stop at habaneros.....I think I'll leave the ghost alone. I have noticed that different people react to different peppers. Last time I was in Thailand, I freaked out the restaurant staff with the amount of birds eye peppers I ate; however serranos can at times be pretty hot for me. Jalapenos I eat like candy. Has anyone else noticed a different reaction to different peppers?

      August 1, 2011 at 8:54 pm |
      • Tim

        I also get different reactions to different peppers. I have no problems eating hot peppers from Asia and India but find peppers from Central and South America too hot.

        August 2, 2011 at 4:35 am |
    • kalira

      actually, i think ppl selected nuclear, because this article is self-selecting. ppl who like hot food will be more drawn to read an article about peppers

      August 2, 2011 at 10:53 am |
    • MoiraOn1

      I thought that as well. I did vote nuclear, but I stand by it. Haven't met anything too hot to eat so far. A friend tried to challenge this and swore I would meet my match at Spicy City...nothing. Mediocre City at best.
      Definitely won't be snacking on habanero's either but the hotter the better for me. Not to be confused with spicier, putting a million dried spices in my dish doesn't make it hot.

      August 5, 2011 at 6:46 pm |
  25. Adair

    I dry our peppers on a pan on the porch. When they are dry, I store them in an airtight container whole or crush them and store in a jar. In Korea we saw mountains of them, air-drying under a shelter in a field.

    August 1, 2011 at 1:11 pm |
  26. les

    rooster sauce = my #1 condiment

    August 1, 2011 at 1:08 pm |
    • Jennifer

      Have you tried the Sriracha Cookbook? It's a whole cookbook of recipes that include rooster sauce.

      August 2, 2011 at 11:19 am |
  27. RichardHead

    Oh Yeah, Bring on the Heat. It helps keep the brain and sinuses clear,after excess tearing and sweating.

    August 1, 2011 at 12:23 pm |
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