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Become a pro at picking the right pepper.

Arielle Weg
August 23, 2018

I was recently preparing fish tacos for dinner, and the recipe called for serrano chiles, chipotle chiles in adobo, pico de gallo (often made with jalapeños), and it suggested swapping in fresno chiles for less heat. I stared at the recipe trying to make sense of all the spicy elements involved—seemed like a lot of heat. However, I followed the recipe as written and had quite a tasty (and yes, spicy) dinner to enjoy. But this got me thinking; what are all those hot peppers really doing to my dish? How can I be sure I’m reaching for the right thing in the grocery store?

The pepper family ranges from sweet bell pepper to the hottest carolina reaper, and are used in Mexico and West Indies more than anywhere in the world, according to LaRousse Gastronomique. The spicy flavor comes from the oil leaching from the seeds, flesh, and ribs, called capsaicin. The spice level of any hot pepper can be toned down by removing the seeds and ribs and soaking the pepper in cold water. In addition, the spice level of peppers is measured by the concentration of capsaicin, called the Scoville scale. The scale goes as high as a plant native to Morocco at 15 billion Scoville heat units, to as low as a bell pepper containing no capsaicin at zero Scoville heat units.

Here are 10 of the most common hot peppers you’ll see in recipes and in the supermarket, so you’ll always be prepared to handle the heat.

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Shishito

All the trendy restaurants have shishitos on their menus (and their grills), because these little guys are so snackable and delicious.

How They Look: They’re fairly small, about one to two inches, and bright green. The skin is thin and ridged.

How They Taste: Generally these peppers have a mild to medium heat, with a slightly bitter and meaty bite. But beware—it’s estimated one in 10 of these deliver a significantly hotter kick.

How to Use Them: Shishitos are bite-sized, so they’re often served whole and charred with a creamy dipping sauce. You can also pop them on a skewer and let them hit the grill.

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Poblano

Poblanos are similar to a green bell pepper, but are slightly more flavorful and spicy. They’re are also known as ancho chiles when ripened and dried, and can be found dried in whole or ground into a powder.

How They Look: Larger than many other varieties of spicy peppers, these dark green peppers average about 4 ½ inches long and 2 ½ inches wide.

How They Taste: Poblanos vary in heat, but are typically on the milder side. They have a meaty and grassy flavor akin to a green bell pepper, with a heat that ranges from 1,000 to 1,500 concentration of capsaicin.

How to Use Them: They’re most commonly eaten in their whole form, like in Chile Rellenos, but they can be sliced and stir-fried into Seared Pork Chops with Poblano Peperonata or baked into enchiladas.

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Hatch Chile

You’ll hear buzz about these chiles during peak season from mid-August to the end of September. They can be used similarly to a poblano or anaheim chile, and are native to New Mexico.

How They Look: These peppers are ripe when bright green, and have a signature hooked and pointed end.

How They Taste: This variety has a rich flesh, with a mild to medium spice level.

How to Use Them: Hatch chiles add great flavor to Tex-Mex burgers, blended into salsa, or even in a savory breakfast bowl.

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Fresno

Fresnos were developed in the United States as a cross-breed of two chile peppers, but these slightly spicy chiles can be a little hard to find at your local store.

How They Look: These are often mislabeled as jalapeños, because they look identical to a deep red jalapeño.

How They Taste: The flavor is similar to that of a jalapeño, but the heat is much milder. They’re perfect for people who want to add gentle warmth to dishes rather than bold heat.

How to Use Them: You can char these bright red beauties, blend them into a mild chimichurri, and top off your favorite dishes with thin slices for an extra kick.

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Jalapeño

Ah, the glorious jalapeño. This variety of chile is the most well known outside of Mexico, and is often recognized as the mild to medium spicy green circles sprinkled all over your favorite Mexican dishes. When these chiles are smoked and dried, they’re sold whole and canned as Chipotles en Adobo or ground into a powder known as Chipotle. This powder extremely hot, with a light smokey and fruity flavor. The whole Chipotles in Adobo have a vinegary, smoky flavor with a burning heat.

How They Look: Jalapeños have a smooth and shiny red or green skin and a pointed end. They grow to be about 2 ½ inches long and 1 inch wide.

How They Taste: Jalapeños vary in heat, but generally are a medium heat pepper. Their concentration of capsaicin ranges from 2,500 to 10,000.

How to Use Them: Jalapeños can be pickled, canned, or sliced onto dishes—just be sure you seed them properly. Serve them sliced raw over dishes for extra heat, like this Taco-Tot Casserole or stuff them for a super spicy-cheesy appetizer.

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Serrano

This pepper is the most commonly used in Mexico for sauces, and is prepared with the ribs and seeds intact.

How They Look: The green peppers are small, about 2 inches in length and ½ inch wide, and have a pointed end. Their heat ranges from 5,000-23,000 concentration of capsaicin.

How They Taste: This variety is significantly hotter than a jalapeño, but has a similar flavor.

How to Use Them: These are perfect blended into spicy sauces, like this Fresh Tomatillo-Serrano Sauce or cooked directly with a protein like Thai Basil Chicken Stir Fry.

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Cayenne

You know this pepper as the powdered red pepper found on the spice aisle of your local grocery store, and it’s often labeled as a generic ground red pepper.

How They Look: Cayennes are often sold ground, but a whole cayenne pepper is bright red and thin at about 3 inches long, according to LaRousse Gastronomique.

How They Taste: These are extremely spicy. Their heat ranges from 30,000 to 50,000 concentration of capsaicin.

How to Use Them: Sprinkle the bright red powder into almost any dish for intense heat, like this Rum and Honey-Roasted Cayenne-Cumin Carrots. But be warned—a little goes a long way.

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Bird’s Eye Chile

Often referred to as Thai chiles, these are most commonly used is Southeast Asian cuisine.

How They Look: Long and lean, these green, red, or orange chiles are only about 1 inch long.

How They Taste: These chiles are very hot, coming through at about 50,000-100,000 heat units. They’re flavor is spicy and pungent.

How to Use Them: Use raw and sliced for a hint of heat in Asian-inspired dishes, like this Smashed Cucumber Salad or Tofu Curry with Lemongrass and Chile

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Habanero

If you’re looking for some extreme heat—we have the pepper for you. Habaneros are commonly used in Mexican cuisine, and can be enjoyed raw or cooked.

How They Look: This chile is distinctively stout, at about 1 ¾ inches long and 1 ¼ inches across. They’re sold from light green to a deeper orange as they ripen.

How They Taste: Known as one of the hottest peppers, and is the best way to bring extreme heat to your favorite sauces. Their heat ranges from 80,000 to 300,000 concentration of capsaicin.

How to Use Them: Slice them into guacamole, as a meat marinade, or a spicy Habanero Sauce.

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