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Your Ultimate Guide to Chile Peppers—From Mild to Spicy

Learn how the heat of chiles is measured in this spicy guide.

Associate Digital Food Editor
Eight Varieties of Chile Peppers
Photography by: Emma Darvick

Can you handle the heat? The variety of super spicy chile peppers can get confusing, especially when they're all similar in size and color. Rather than taking a huge bite out of a chile that will set your mouth ablaze, we're breaking down eight common varieties of chile peppers from mildest to hottest. Chile peppers are ranked on the Scoville scale, which measures the heat of spicy foods. As a baseline, bell peppers have a score of zero on the Scoville scale; jalapeños, which have medium heat, have about 2,500-8,000 SHU (scoville heat units). For those who prefer a little kick, we're also sharing our favorite recipes for cooking some popular types of fresh chile peppers.

 

Related: How to Cook with Fresh Peppers, from Mild Bells to Super-Spicy Habaneros

 

Poblano Chile (1,000-1,500)

These medium-sized dark green peppers are about as mild as chiles get. Once dried, they become a dark reddish-brown color and are known as Ancho Chiles. When shopping for poblanos are the grocery store, look for peppers with a shiny uniform color and strong, firm flesh. Any discoloration or wrinkly skin is a sign they're past their peak. They're delicious roasted or diced and added to cornbread or in a Lima-Bean Salad with Roasted Poblanos and Queso.

 

Jalapeño Peppers (2,500-8,000)

One of the most popular varieties of chile peppers, jalapeños are used in guacamole, relish, and jelly, and even add a surprising, spicy kick in macaroni and cheese. They also amp up flavored butter to pair with a rib-rye steak. The seeds in jalapeños contain the majority of the spice so you can scoop them out for a milder flavor.

 

Fresno Chiles (2,500-10,000)

Shiny red Fresno chiles are about as spicy as jalapeños, and often get mistaken for them. Fresnos are a hybrid of peppers from California and if you happen to come across a Fresno, feel free to substitute it in a recipe that calls for jalapeños as the heat will be roughly the same. They're also delicious in this recipe for Pork Shoulder with Roasted Clams and Fresno Chiles.

 

Serrano Peppers (10,000-23,000)

Tiny serrano peppers aren't messing around. They're about three times as spicy as the average jalapeño, though their flavor is similar. The heat may not register immediately when you taste one, as it often hits the back of the throat rather than at the tip of the tongue. Taste it in this Smoky Serrano-Mint Margarita recipe. Though they're tiny, just about two inches long, you'll spot them by their bright emerald green color in grocery stores.

 

Bird's Eye Chile (50,000-100,000)

Small and tapered, bird's eye chiles are most commonly used in Thai and southeast Asian cuisine. These petite-sized peppers certainly pack a punch—they're about 50 times as hot poblano peppers. 

 

Scotch Bonnet (80,000-400,000)

Native to the Caribbean and Central America, these multi-colored hot peppers are named after the traditional Scottish hat known as a tam o'shanter. What these stumpy peppers lack in size, they more than make up for in heat. Cut out the membrane (the pithy white part) and seeds to cut down on spice.

 

Habanero Chile (100,000-350,000)

Habaneros are the spiciest chile pepper that you're still likely to find in regular grocery stores. While the flavor is said to be a bit sweet, the intense heat will be overpowering, so use them carefully, like in this Ceviche with Tropical Fruit and Habanero. You'll find habaneros in shades of firetruck red, sunny yellow, tangerine orange, and pine green. As the color changes from green to orange to red, they become hotter and hotter.

 

Ghost Pepper (855,000-1,041,427)

Ghost peppers are about as hot as it gets—seriously, there are less than half a dozen known chile peppers that pack in more heat than these. Also known as Bhut Jolokia, the ghost pepper originated in northeast India but has gotten worldwide fame for its painful heat. Traditionally, Bhut Jolokia have been used to make pepper spray and animal repellents. While you won't find them in many grocery stores, their growing popularity in Western cuisine has resulted in them showing up in some farmers' markets and spice markets stateside.