Can You Eat Ornamental Peppers?

Ornamental peppers are truly beautiful—from the onyx-like Black Pearl to the colorful Bolivian Rainbow. But are the fruits of these plants more than just window dressing? Can you eat ornamental peppers, or are they just for show? The good news: Ornamental peppers are safe to eat. But there’s a catch. Let’s dive into what you need to know.

Bolivian Rainbow Pepper
The Bolivian Rainbow pepper is one of the most colorful ornamentals, and yes…edible.

Prepare for heat

That’s right, try these uniquely beautiful chilies in your next dish, but know going in that they are often surprisingly spicy. How spicy? Here are some examples:

  • Both the aforementioned Black Pearl and Bolivian Rainbow peppers range from 10,000 to 30,000 Scoville heat units (SHU). In comparison, jalapeño peppers range from 2,500 to 8,000 SHUs. So these two ornamentals range roughly four to twelve times hotter than a jalapeño. In fact, they can be even hotter than a serrano chili (10,000 to 23,000 SHU), closing in on the low end of cayenne pepper (30,000 to 50,000 SHU).
  • The NuMex Twilight—a beautiful sight to see—weighs in at 30,000 to 50,000 SHU. That’s the equal to cayenne.
  • And the Prairie Fire pepper, another incredibly colorful chili with a cute Christmas light look, tops all of these. They range from 70,000 to 80,000 SHU, putting them right within the Thai peppers overall range (50,000 to 100,000 SHU).

Grown for looks above all else

These levels of spiciness cause some surprising moments for first-time eaters of ornamental peppers. Ornamentals look nearly candy-like at times, with all the colors of the rainbow you see. Yet, they often have a surprising bite. Why is that? They are cultivated to optimize their appearance without consideration for toning down their heat or for flavor. After all, these are ornamentals.

What kind of flavor can you expect? Many ornamentals have a bell pepper-like grassiness, but there’s not much more to them than that. So if you’re looking for chili pepper flavor complexity, choosing ornamental peppers for your dish is not typically the answer.

Where they shine: Providing drama to the plate

This is where ornamental peppers have a leg up in the kitchen. They can turn even the most boring plated dish into something heightened. This plays right into why they are grown in the first place—to be an ornament, something that brings beauty to its surroundings. Used with a light touch (again, many are surprisingly hot), they can really add flare to a dish. Salsas and salads are obvious use cases here, but anywhere you’d use a chopped jalapeño, an ornamental pepper can work too.

Cooking with ornamental peppers

When using these beautiful chilies in the kitchen, here are some tips to keep in mind.

  • Don’t fall for small. Many ornamentals are tiny chilies, so it’s easy to think you need to use more to make up the difference in a recipe. You’re in for a surprise if you fall into that thinking. Look up the ornamental’s Scoville heat range and understand how it compares to a common chili you know (like the jalapeño, our reference point used on PepperScale.)
  • If using for aesthetics, use just enough to make a statement and sub in a milder chili for the remaining need. You could “add color” to the plate using a colorful ornamental, then use jalapeños (or even something milder) as the primary pepper in the rest of the recipe. This helps temper the overall spiciness.
  • Remove the membrane from the chili to lessen the surprising heat. The spiciness in any hot pepper (ornamental or culinary) is primarily in the white pith, where the seeds are held. Simply removing that membrane will remove a decent amount of the heat here.
  • Consider ways to dilute the spiciness. Most ornamentals are a heat source and not a flavor source, so cooking them with other ingredients (or even better, in soups and stews) can really help hide the heat.
  • Know how to combat chili burn. Many people have been surprised by the spiciness in most ornamentals, and that’s led to plenty of chili burn. Know how to combat it before using any pepper.

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UPDATE NOTICE: This post was updated on June 22, 2024 to include new content.
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Kort Kramer

I love using ornamentals in my dishes, even if they lack a bit in flavor. Heat is up there though.