Ever look at the colorful bins of chile peppers and wonder which ones to get for salsa versus a stir-fry? I know I've accidentally purchased serranos instead of jalapeños and gotten a spicy surprise, but I've also stayed away from other chile peppers since I don't know what they taste like or how hot they are.
While there are hundreds of varieties of chile peppers and a fervent race to keep breeding hotter and hotter ones, most of us just want to know how to identify what's at the supermarket, know how hot they are, and figure out ways to use them. Here's all you need to know about the four most common ones out there!
Where Does The Heat Come From?
Before we dive into some common chile peppers, let's talk heat, since that's the whole reason why you cook with them anyway! Capsaicin is the compound that gives chiles their pungency and heat. Up to 80% of a chile pepper's capsaicin is located in the seeds and the membranes, so if you're sensitive to heat, trim these parts off.
Cooking or freezing the chile pepper won't diminish the capsaicin's intensity. And remember that the mouth isn't the only part of the body sensitive to capsaicin, so wear gloves or wash your hands thoroughly when handling super-spicy chile peppers!
As a general rule of thumb, the larger in size a chile pepper is, the milder the heat level. Smaller chile peppers contain a higher proportion of the spicy seeds and membranes, making them much hotter.
From left to right: habanero, bird's eye (green and red), serrano, jalapeño
How is Heat Level Determined?
The Scoville scale, invented in 1912, is the most well-known measurement of heat. The scale is based on human taste buds trying to detect heat in an alcohol-based extract made with the chile pepper as it is diluted. The degree of dilution translates into Scoville heat units (SHU). The hotter a chile pepper is, the higher the SHU since it needs to be diluted more to reduce or eliminate the heat.
Nowadays, scientists use a less subjective approach and figure out how many parts per million of heat-causing alkaloids are present in a given chile pepper instead. They've found that if they multiply their results by 16, the number corresponds to a chile pepper's SHU.
So now that you know about heat levels and where heat comes from, here's a guide to the 4 most commonly sold chile peppers so that you can buy the appropriate one at the market that will best suit your cooking needs and heat sensitivities!
1. Jalapeño Peppers
Jalapeños are one of the most common chile peppers. While green is the common color, red is also available. Chipotle peppers are made out of smoked, ripe jalapeños.
Size: 2-4 inches long
Scoville heat units: 2,500-10,000 (mild to hot)
Flavor: similar to a green bell pepper
Common uses: salsa, pickled, stuffed, Mexican cuisine
2. Serrano Peppers
Serrano peppers are jalapeños' spicier cousins and are often used as substitutes for jalapeños when more heat is desired. The most common color is green, but they can also be red, brown, orange, or yellow.
Size: 1-3 inches long
Scoville heat units: 10,000-25,000 (hot)
Flavor: bright, biting
Common uses: salsa, guacamole, Mexican cuisine
4. Habanero Peppers
Habanero peppers are cute little guys that look like mini bell peppers, but beware, these puppies pack heat! This visually striking chili is usually orange or red but can also be white, brown, or pink. (Oh, and by the way, contrary to what you may have seen, the 'n' in habanero shouldn't have a tilde above it like in jalapeño!)
Size: .75-2.5 inches long
Scoville heat units: 100,000-350,000 (extremely hot)
Flavor: bright, fruity
Common uses: salsa, hot sauces, Mexican cuisine
→ Get a recipe: Salsa Habanero
4. Bird's Eye Chiles
These tiny, thin, pointy chiles are also known as Thai chiles. While they may look small and cute, they are quite spicy and a little goes a long way. Bird's eye chiles are most often green or red but can also be orange.
Size: .75-over 1 inch long
Scoville heat units: 50,000-100,000 (very hot)
Common uses: stir fries, Southeast Asian cuisine
(Image credits: Christine Gallary)