Peppers are typically grouped into two categories: sweet and hot. Sweet peppers aren't necessarily sweet, rather they are categorized for their lack of heat. This includes bell peppers, as well as other popular varieties like shishito and Italian frying peppers.
I'll cover all sorts of sweet pepper varieties in this article, starting with bell peppers.
The most common sweet pepper are bell peppers. Although they're are sold in a variety of colors, they all start out green.
Even though they all start out green, they aren't necessarily the same pepper. Each variety has a specific final color and can go through various other colors to get there. For example, one variety might start out green, then ripen to red. Another variety will start out green, then turn yellow, then red.
A report (PDF) from The University of California Davis explains this as well. But out of curiosity, I looked up two dozen of the most common varieties planted by commercial growers. I found that every single one of them started green, then eventually turned red (85%) or yellow (15%) as their final color.
Peppers only change color (and flavor) while ripening on the plant. They can be picked at any color stage. However, once picked, that color doesn't change. A bell pepper that's picked when it's green will not turn yellow or red.
Why does color matter? It impacts flavor.
Peppers are a fruit, botanically speaking, although they are classified as a vegetable for culinary purposes. As with all fruits, they change flavor as they ripen.
Green bell peppers are picked before they ripen to a different color. Because of this, they retain more bitterness and that raw vegetable flavor.
If you've noticed that more vegetal or grassy flavor in green bell peppers, but not in yellow or red ones, you're not imagining things. A chemical analysis reveals that the compounds responsible for this grassy aroma lessen as the pepper ripens. On top of that, the compounds giving yellow and red peppers that almost citrus aroma increase with ripening.
Bell pepper flavor characteristics
- Green: slightly grassy or vegetal flavor and often bitter. The bitterness complements certain types of dishes that other colors don't.
- Orange and yellow: slight citrus or 'bright' flavor and almost no bitterness
- Red: similar to orange and yellow and even slightly sweet
Other types of sweet peppers
The world has a lot more sweet peppers to offer than just the popular bells. There are so many unique flavors and uses.
All of the varieties listed below are much more mild than jalapenos, making them fairly approachable for all but the most heat-sensitive pallets.
- Mini peppers (aka gypsy) are usually a mix of red, orange, and yellow and share the same flavor characteristics as bell peppers. They have no heat to them.
- Shishito peppers are considered a 'sweet' pepper and their hotness is about 5% as hot as a jalapeno (so pretty mild). They have a vegetal flavor without the bitterness some green bell peppers have. Great for roasting and eating whole (minus the stem).
- Pimento peppers have a sweet flavor with a tiny hint of spice (about 1/10th the heat of a jalapeno). Paprika is made from dried pimento peppers.
- Banana peppers (aka yellow wax) - mild and tangy flavor. Great for eating fresh and slicing into rings.
- Pepperoncini are mild and are often sold pickled in jars.
- Cubanelle and Jimmy Nardello peppers (aka Italian frying peppers) have thin walls so they fry up fast. They come in a range of colors from green to yellow to red, and are slowly gaining popularity over bell peppers.
Up next: bell pepper recipes
Over 50 recipes from 14 different categories, including stuffed bell peppers, pastas, soups, stews, and more. The recipes include all colors, from green, to red, and every color in between.