It may come as a surprise (to some) that bell peppers are technically chili peppers. What isn’t a surprise (to most) is bell peppers have no heat. But is that always true? Are bell peppers spicy, ever? Or is it always that zero placeholder on the pepper scale? Well, like many things on the pepper scale, there’s a simple answer and a more complex one as well.
The simple answer: Heirloom bell peppers are not spicy
That’s the truth of it. They are a big goose egg on the Scoville scale. While heirloom bell peppers are technically nightshades and part of the capsicum family, they are the only chili pepper that carries a recessive gene that stops any capsaicin from being made in the fruit. No capsaicin means no spiciness. Simple as that. Because of the zero heat, bell peppers are thought of as sweet peppers more than as chili peppers.
The more complex answer: There are similar-looking bell pepper hybrids that are spicy
And here is where the confusion occurs. There are some spicy chili peppers that look like bell peppers. They are bell pepper hybrids, containing roots from both a bell and a hotter chili pepper. Because they look like bell peppers, it can come as a shock to eaters to discover a subtle warmth (or more) to the flavor.
To add even more to the confusion: There are popularly sold and commercially grown bell pepper hybrids and unintentional hybrids grown by unknowing gardeners.
These unintentional bell pepper hybrids occur when a gardener grows bell peppers close to other chili peppers (like jalapeños), then harvests bell pepper seeds for the next year’s growing season. Those seeds may have been cross-pollinated by the hotter pepper, leading to peppers that may look like a bell, but contain a surprisingly spicy kick when eaten.
Note – These unintentional hybrids don’t happen in the current growing cycle. Any potential cross-pollination does not impact the currently growing plant. Your current crop of bell peppers will be bell peppers, even if planted next to jalapeños or another chili pepper.
What are some of these bell pepper hybrid doppelgängers?
There are quite a few, but two of the most popular are the Mexibell pepper and the Cajun Belle.
The name hints at the hybrid nature of this chili. The Mexibell looks and tastes a lot like a bell, with a very mild level of heat. It ranges from 100 to 1,000 Scoville heat units (which is more inline with a poblano than a jalapeño). See our full profile on the Mexibell here.
This chili also sports a name that hints at its hybrid roots. The Cajun Belle, though, has much more of a kick than the Mexibell. It ranges from 500 to 4,000 Scoville heat units. The upper level of its heat places it squarely in range of a milder jalapeño pepper. And, as you can see, it looks quite like a bell pepper with a comparable flavor as well. See our full profile on the Cajun Belle here.