By Tracy Morin

Despite their widespread popularity and mind-boggling range of varieties, peppers remain misunderstood by many. In the first place, they’re not even a vegetable—and they’re probably even more versatile than you think. “Technically, peppers are fruits (berries, in fact), but they’re eaten as vegetables, and there’s a plethora of peppers out there,” explains Julia Chebotar, New York City-based chef, culinary nutrition consultant, and former Food Network Chopped champion. “In the age of the chili-head, there’s a big market for habaneros, serranos, poblanos and New Mexico chilies as pizza toppings, while bell peppers can balance richer toppings such as crumbled sausage, caramelized onions and roasted garlic.”

Peppers can even go beyond the food menu, where they shine in pizzas, pastas, appetizers, soups, salads and more. “What I love about peppers is, because they’re fruits, they work really well for use in cocktails,” notes chef Brad Kent, chief culinary officer and co-founder of Blaze Pizza, based in Pasadena, California, with about 350 locations. “They can really accentuate other flavors if you choose the right combination, like habaneros with apricots and oranges.” In other words, the pepper possibilities are practically endless.

Sweet ’n’ Mild
At the milder end of the pepper scale, bell and banana peppers remain fan favorites, adding characteristics like juiciness, tang or crunch, depending on the type used and how it’s prepared. For example, Chebotar notes that bell peppers possess a natural sweetness, one that is further pronounced by the cooking process. But they can also add beautiful color and texture to dishes. “When teamed up, these toppings make for a spectacular-looking pie,” Chebotar says. “If you want a full color spectrum on your next pizza, try banana, green, red and yellow peppers!”

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Fabio Errante, London-based pizzaiolo and author of Fabioulous Pizza, agrees that peppers in general boast impressive versatility, especially in Italian foods. Red bell peppers remain his favorite—such as in a simple “bruschetta” that replaces the typical tomatoes with peppers, topped with melted provolone, or in his go-to pasta salad recipe, which combines red pepper cream, sweet corn, fresh arugula and cubed mozzarella. (Make red pepper cream by blending together raw red peppers and cream cheese, plus a pinch of salt to taste.)

This photo shows an overhead view of a pizza topped with yellow peppers and deep-fried eggplant ribbons.

Fabio Errante combines fleshy, sweet yellow peppers with marinated, deep-fried eggplant ribbons on a specialty pie.

“During a heat wave, I would eat this pasta salad every day,” Errante says. “I like how peppers slightly change their taste depending on the color. Green bell peppers are a bit sour and pungent, so I’d use them with meats or strong cheeses.”

Meanwhile, banana peppers “can do so much more than soup up your sandwich,” Chebotar explains. “They’re one of the most underrated pizza toppings out there.” Banana peppers star on Blaze Pizza’s BBQ Chkn specialty pie, which features grilled chicken, mozzarella, red onion, banana peppers, Gorgonzola and a barbecue sauce drizzle. Kent loves the “beautiful color” they add to this visually appealing pizza.

Heat ’n’ Smoke
Seeking incredible depth of flavor with a little kick? Enter the world of hot peppers. If it’s smokiness you’re after, choose chipotles (smoked and dried jalapeños)—they’re especially useful in sauces. “We see people using chipotle sauce as a base on pizza, instead of marinara or white sauce. Chipotle peppers are very trendy right now,” notes Amy Wilson, managing director of Spin365 Marketing (agency of record for La Morena U.S.) in Bentonville, Arkansas. “Chipotle pairs well with many pizza toppings: proteins like pulled pork, chicken, bacon, steak, sausage and ham; veggies such as sweet peppers, black beans, corn, onion and cilantro; and cheeses like a Mexican blend, mozzarella or cotija.” Or mix chipotle with ketchup for a smoky dipping sauce, ideal for serving with fries or onion rings.

Related: Pigging out: Pick the perfect pork toppings for your next pizza

this photo shows Julia Chebotar, with red hair and wearing an off-the-shoulder green blouse, holding up a slice of pepperoni pizza from a delivery box.

Julia Chebotar

Meanwhile, Chebotar points to serranos and poblanos as perfect pizza toppers. “Serrano is the spiciest of the green pepper pack, with a thin skin and thick flesh—excellent for eating raw in salsas, but also great roasted or grilled and then chopped up (no need to peel!) on top of your pizza,” Chebotar explains. “Poblanos, which get their name from the state of Puebla, Mexico, are perfect for roasting and stuffing, thanks to their heart shape and thick flesh. They’re typically mild, though you may get the occasional spicy one—a great option for keto-friendly stuffed pizza peppers.”

As many modern palates seek ever-spicier taste sensations, an increasing number of customers are big fans of peppers that add a kick. One of the best-selling pizzas at Blaze Pizza is the Hot Link, which includes Italian sausage, jalapeños, black olives, red onions, mozzarella, spicy red sauce and banana peppers. “In about 12 of our locations, in New Mexico and Utah, we also offer hatch chilies, which have a more vegetal flavor that goes very well with tomato and works exceedingly well with cream sauce,” Kent says. “They reduce the heaviness of dairy and balance it out by adding acidity and a ‘green’ flavor that enhances proteins like chicken. On pizzas especially, peppers just offer great flavor and texture to give the palate a break from the fattiness of cheeses.”

this photo shows two men sitting outside in a large field where yellow peppers are being grown.

Blaze Pizza

Pepper Obsessed
For chef Brad Kent, chief culinary officer and co-founder of Blaze Pizza, the quest for the perfect peppers became a bit of an obsession. In light of Blaze Pizza’s fast-casual model, with all ingredients laid out before customers in-store, he knew that toppings had to exude vibrancy and freshness even before they got placed on a pizza and baked.

However, Kent soon realized that canned or jarred banana peppers and jalapeños weren’t always up to his standards. “They typically come from a faraway country and are heat-treated, which destroys texture and crispness unless a chemical is added,” he explains. “Also, because of heating and shelf life, colors fade, so banana peppers may have artificial yellow color and sulfites to prevent browning, plus a preservative for food safety. And it’s the same story with jalapeños, too.”

To address his concerns, Kent worked with a family-owned pickle factory in Michigan to create high-quality banana peppers and jalapeños for Blaze. The peppers are fresh-packed, sans heat treating, and are bolstered by only natural color enhancers like turmeric. “These peppers keep their fresh taste,” Kent reports. “They maintain their color, texture and flavor, and the jalapeños retain their heat. We can then take advantage of those attributes for our pizzas!”

Tracy Morin is PMQ’s chief copy editor.

Food & Ingredients