Cayenne pepper plants are not difficult to grow in the right conditions. Native to tropical and subtropical parts of the Americas, cayenne peppers start out green and then turn red when they ripen. Some heirloom cayenne peppers turn bright purple before they turn red.
But when will your cayenne peppers be ready to harvest? Depending on the variety, it takes between 80 and 100 days after sowing seed for cayenne peppers to be ready to harvest. If you want them to be fully ripe, they will be red and firm to the touch. But many people harvest green peppers that they eat green or leave to ripen off the plant.
How Do You Know When Your Cayenne Peppers Are Ready to Harvest?
The purists will tell you that you need to wait until your cayenne peppers are red and the skins look waxy. This is excellent advice for anyone who wants their cayenne peppers to be fully matured.
While it is true that they will be red when ripe, if they feel soft, there’s a good chance that they are starting to rot. So, you can leave your peppers growing until they are bright red, but make sure they are still firm when you harvest them.
Cayenne pepper plants are perennial and they will live for a good three years. In colder temperate regions, many home gardeners grow them as annuals. The caveat here is that frost can kill the fruit.
So, if you live in a colder region, rather than leave your peppers growing to full size, pick them if there is a chance of frost. Generally, if night temperatures fall to 35°F (1.6°C), it’s best to pick your peppers because they are unlikely to survive the chill.
Use The Seed Packet As A Guide
The time it will take for your cayenne peppers to ripen and be ready to harvest depends on the variety you have planted. Although it will commonly be in mid-summer, the seed packet will be a good guide.
Instructions on your seed packet will also tell you how long your cayenne peppers should be. They could be anything from 4 to 6 inches long (100-150 mm) when mature, again depending on the variety you have chosen to plant. Some might be smaller.
You Can Pick Your Cayenne Peppers When They Are Green
Many people advise that cayenne peppers must be red when you harvest them. But lots of people enjoy eating green cayenne peppers, and despite some claims to the contrary, green peppers of this type can be very, very hot.
They won’t taste like cayenne peppers that will blow your head off, but they won’t taste like mundane green peppers of the bell pepper variety either. If you like a small amount of heat with your food, green cayenne peppers will be far from mundane!
An advantage of picking your cayenne peppers when they are green is that your plants will continue to produce more fruit. But don’t pick the whole of your initial crop green, leave some to ripen on the vine. The more you pick, the more flowers and fruit your cayenne pepper plants will produce.
If you want red cayenne peppers, it’s best to leave them on the vine until they turn a red color. Nevertheless, they will usually turn red after they have been picked if you leave them in a bowl in a warm spot.
What Happens If You Don’t Harvest Cayenne Peppers?
If you don’t harvest the chilies on your cayenne pepper plants, they will stop producing new flowers. This means that whatever’s on your cayenne pepper plants at this stage will likely be the last of your crop.
Another thing that happens if you don’t harvest your peppers is that they tend to get stress cracks that look like tiny brown lines on the fruit. If you still don’t pick them, eventually the chilies will dry out and shrivel up – or rot.
How to Harvest Cayenne Peppers?
Use a sharp knife or secateurs (small pruning shears) to harvest your ripe cayenne peppers. Generally, peppers will pull off the vine easily when they are ripe, but you will risk breaking the stem. That won’t matter if you use them immediately, but they won’t store well if the skin is damaged.
If you are growing cayenne peppers as an annual plant, you can cut off long pieces of stem. Then cut the individual peppers leaving a short piece of stem attached to each one. Otherwise, harvest them one at a time leaving a bit of Stem at the top end.
Precautions to Take When Harvesting Peppers
If you know anything at all about chilies, you will know that if you touch the juice or seeds and then rub your eyes, it’s going to sting like hell. For this reason, it’s a good idea to wear gardening gloves when you harvest any sort of chili.
If you don’t wear gloves, don’t touch your face, and be sure to wash your hands thoroughly once you’ve finished picking your ripe chili peppers.
Hot peppers get their fiery flavor from capsaicin, a compound that determines the ultimate heat of different chili types. This is ranked on the Scoville Scale, which measures the heat in Scoville Heat Units (SHU).
The higher the SHU, the hotter the pepper. The SHU for mild chili peppers ranges from 100 to 2,500, while the hottest, which are ranked “extremely hot” have a SHU above 300,000.
According to the University of Florida’s Institute of Food & Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) Gardening Solutions website, cayenne peppers, like habanero peppers, can have a SHU of 50,000-250,000.
The hottest of them all, according to the Michigan State University Extension’s Smart Gardening series, is the ghost pepper, Bhut Jolokia, which has 1 million SHU. If you handle these hot chili peppers, there’s a good chance that if you break the skin of the fruit, it will break your skin by causing blisters or skin burns!
Some people recommend wearing a mask to avoid inhaling capsaicin fumes from cayenne peppers. But even if you are chopping them, you’re not likely to inhale fumes. It is, though, a good idea to wear surgical or rubber gloves when you chop them or remove the seeds.
What to Do After Harvesting Cayenne Pepper Plants
If you are growing cayenne peppers as annuals, once they have fully matured, and you have harvested all the fruit, pull the plants out of the ground. They are good for the compost heap.
If you live in a warm-climate part of the world, let them do their thing as perennials. Pruning cayenne pepper plants back to about three or four inches (76-102 mm) above the ground will usually result in much bushier plant growth.
Should You Wash Cayenne Peppers after Harvesting?
You must wash cayenne peppers if you are going to eat them or cook with them immediately after you have picked them. Otherwise, it’s your choice.
You can store them without washing them first, or wash them and pack them loosely in a plastic bag in the refrigerator. They also store well in sealed glass or plastic containers kept in the fridge. But check them regularly for mold because they have a short storage life of not more than about 1-2 weeks.
If you are going to wash them, rub the peppers gently under cold running water. Place on a dish cloth and let them air dry or pat dry with paper towels.
Can You Eat Cayenne Peppers Immediately after Harvesting?
Whether you harvest your cayenne peppers when they are green or red, you can eat them immediately. But, lots of home gardeners dry their cayenne peppers and use them later for cooking or for making a hot sauce.
Otherwise, you can store them in the fridge or even freeze them. They will keep it in the fridge for at least a week.
They will last for months if you freeze them. Just be aware that while they won’t stay firm, you can still use them for cooking or to make hot sauce.
How to Dry Red Cayenne Peppers
You can place your peppers in a single layer on a flat dish to dry. Otherwise, string them up in your kitchen. This works well, and the fiery red peppers look decorative.
Once your long red cayenne peppers have dried out, you can pop them into a grinder and make chili flakes or chili powder. Or you can store the dried peppers in an airtight container in your pantry or a kitchen cupboard.
Of course, if you like the farmhouse kitchen style, leave them hanging in bunches and pull them off as you need them. Just be sure to dust them off before you cook with them.
Cayenne peppers will add some spice and color to any vegetable garden. Better still, you can harvest and eat or cook with them at any stage of growth.
Ideally, wait for them to reach full size, which is about 5 inches long. You can pick them when they are green or when they are fully matured and turn red. It just depends on how hot you want your cayenne peppers to be.