Here’s a guide to chile peppers (alternatively spelled chilis and chilies) — the most common varieties, how to buy and use them, and how to gauge their heat levels.
It’s hard to imagine the world’s cuisines without the delectable fiery bite of chiles. But before explorers ventured into the Western Hemisphere in the late fifteenth century, chiles existed only in the warm areas of the Americas.
This excellent information is excerpted and adapted from Melissa’s Great Book of Produce: Everything You Need to Know About Fresh Fruits and Vegetables by Cathy Thomas ©2006, reprinted by permission of Melissa’s Produce.
Buying and storage
Choose those that are firm and glossy without shriveling or soft spots. Jalapefios sometimes have “scar cracks” at stem ends, but other varieties should be free of cracks. Refrigerate unwashed and wrapped in paper towels inside plastic bag up to 10 days.
Photo: Nick Koon
ALL CHILES EXCEPT HATCH
Chile peppers are an excellent source of vitamin C; significant source of vitamins A, K, B6, and folate.
Capsaisin and Scoville Units
Capsaicin is the incendiary substance in chiles that produces the sensation of heat. Because the amount of capsaicin varies greatly from one Chile variety to another, pharmacist Wilbur Scoville developed a system for measuring a pepper’s power. In this system capsaicin content is measured in parts per million, then converted into Scoville units. One part per million is 15 Scoville units.
Bell peppers weigh in with zero Scoville units, while the habanero registers a scorching 100,000—300,000 Scoville units. It should be noted that chiles of the same variety (even when picked from the same plant) can vary greatly in their hotness.
- 0 – 4,000: Mild
- 4,000 – 15,000: Medium
- 15,000 – 50,000: Hot
- Greater than 50,000: Very hot
Photo: Nick Koon
Basic preparation of chile peppers
Cooks with delicate skin should use gloves when working with chiles. Wash hands and work surface thoroughly upon completion and do NOT touch face or eyes. To use raw, remove stem. Most often, recipes advise the removal of seeds and veins to reduce heat; cut Chile into quarters
lengthwise, then cut out veins and seeds. Cut into desired shape.
To roast small chiles: Place in dry skillet on medium heat, turning until sporadically blackened and slightly softened. Most often small roasted chiles are not peeled.
To roast larger chiles: Use barbecue, gas flame, or broiler. Place on hot grill or flame from gas burner, turning with tongs as they blister. Or, under broiler, place on rimmed baking sheet and broil, about 6 inches below heated broiler element, turning as they blister (note that chiles roasted in oven have softer texture). Either way, when blistered and moderately blackened, place in a bowl or on a plate and cover with plastic wrap or kitchen towel, or place in plastic bag. Let sit 5 minutes, then uncover.
To peel and seed after roasting: Wear rubber gloves if hands are sensitive. When cool enough to handle, peel skin (or rub off skin if easier). Core with small knife, cut in half, and scrape out seeds. If necessary, rinse briefly with cold water, but water rinses away delicious juices. Sometimes, a moist hand can remove loose debris. Holding Chile in sink (but not under running water), rinse hand and run wet hand over surface. Repeat until seeds and skin are removed. Cut into desired shape. Can be refrigerated airtight up to 2 days, or frozen.
General uses for chile peppers
Use in salsas, bean salads, and sauces. Use in curries, stews or casseroles. And remember to add small doses to dishes; taste, then add more as needed. It is easier to add than subtract.
A trio of delicious sauces
Mango-habanero sauce: Heat 1 tablespoon vegetable oil in large saucepan on medium-high heat. Add 4 ripe mangos (peeled, seeded, and diced), 1 small onion (diced), and 1 habanero chile (seeds and veins removed, minced). Cook, stirring frequently, until onion softens, about 6 minutes.
Add 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice, 1/4 cup ketchup, and 3 tablespoons granulated sugar. Bring to boil, stirring constantly. Reduce heat to low; simmer 30 minutes. Remove from heat and cool. Whirl in blender is batches until smooth. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Delectable drizzled over tacos.
Lime ‘n’ jalapeño dressing: In blender or food processor fitted with metal blade, combine a medium clove of peeled garlic and about 15 large fresh mint leaves; pulse until minced. Add 3 tablespoons fresh lime juice, 1 minced (seeded) jalapeño, 1/3 cup vegetable oil, 1 teaspoon sugar, and salt to taste; process until well combined. Toss with cooked rice noodles, adding enough dressing to generously coat. Garnish with toasted sesame seeds and sprig of fresh mint.
Salsa and black bean dip: In a bowl, toss 1/4 cup finely chopped red onion with 4 diced medium tomatoes, 2 teaspoons fresh lime juice, splash of balsamic vinegar, 1 to 2 minced (seeds and veins removed) jalapeño chiles (or use serrano for a hotter version). Toss. Drain and rinse a 15-ounce can of black beans; add to mixture. Add 4 tablespoons of chopped cilantro. Toss and add salt to taste. Serve with tortilla chips, or on tacos or quesadillas.
Some common chile varieties
While this isn’t an exhaustive list, here are some common varieties you’re likely to encounter in global groceries and farm markets.
ANAHEIM (green, red): Elongated, tapered, and rather flat, about 6 inches long and 2 inches wide with apple-green skin and flesh. Sometimes called long green chiles or Chile verde. Mild, sweet flavor. Red when fully matured (but seldom available). Scoville units: 500—7,500.
BANANA WAX: Elongated, tapered, 3 – 5 inches in length with light yellow skin and medium-thick flesh. Sweet, gentle flavor. Scoville units: 1,000 – 3,000.
CHERRY BELL: Almost spherical with about I-inch diameters, deep red skin and thick flesh. Scoville units: 500—3,500.
CHILACA: Elongated, slightly flattened, and generally curved, about 6 – 9 inches long with 1-inch diameter, deep brown skin and dark green flesh. When dried, called Chile negro. Scoville units: 1,000 – 2,500.
Photo: Nick Koon
CUBANELLE, HUNGARIAN WAX: These two chiles are very similar and are often marketed interchangeably. In the Southeast, marketed as Cubanelle; on the West Coast, marketed as Hungarian Wax. Elongated and tapered, about 5 – 7 inches long. Greenish-yellow skin and thick flesh. Scoville units: 500 – 1,000.
FRESNO (green, red): Tapers from broad shoulders to rounded end, about 3 inches long and 1 inch at widest portion. Glossy red or green skin (red most common, green is rare) with thick flesh. Often mistaken for red jalapeño. Scoville units: 3,000 – 15,000.
HABANERO (green, orange, red, yellow): Lantern-shaped, about 2 by 2 inches. Can have orange, red, yellow, or green skin and flesh, but orange is most common. Often credited as hottest chile. The Red Savina is the hottest variety of habanero — it has measured up to 576,000. Scoville units: 100,000 – 300,000.
HATCH: Similar to Anaheim Chile, but generally curved and often hotter. Thick flesh. Named for town in southern part of New Mexico where grown. Most often picked green, but turns red when fully matured. Scoville units: 1,000—8,000.
JALAPENO (green, red): Tapered from broad shoulders, about 2—4 inches long; deep green skin and thick flesh. Turns red when fully mature, but most often sold green. Some cooks look for white lengthwise streaking, saying it indicates fully developed flavor. (Red seldom available). Note: Chipotle peppers are jalapeños that have been smoked and dried. Scoville units: 2,500—10,000.
MANZANA (orange, red): Often shaped like a large habanero Chile with about 2-inch diameter (but doesn’t have hot flavor profile like habanero). Yellowish-orange or red skin with thick flesh. Seeds are generally black. Red variety is rare. Scoville units: 10,000—60,000.
PASILLA, POBLANO (green, red): Labeled Pasilla on the West Coast, these fresh chiles are called Poblano elsewhere in the U.S. Dark forest-green flesh and skin (turns red when fully mature, but seldom seen red in marketplace). Thick flesh has rich, green bean-like flavor. Red is rare. Scoville units: 1,000—3,000.
SCOTCH BONNET (yellow, red, green, orange): Similar in shape to habanero but often slightly smaller. Can be green, orange, red, or yellow. Scoville units: 100,000 – 300,000.
SHISHITO: This small Asian chile pepper (known as kwari-gochu in Korea) has become popular in the West, just in the last few years. A very mild pepper with a medium-green, wrinkly skin. Scoville units: 100 – 1,000.
SERRANO: Thin and bullet-shaped, generally 1 – 2 inches long with deep green skin and flesh (turns red when mature, seldom available). Scoville units: 15,000 – 30,000.
THAI, BIRD’S EYE (green, red): Often called bird chiles, these small, narrow chiles are tapered and about 1-inch long with 1/4- inch diameters. Green Thai chiles turn red when fully mature. Scoville units: 40,000 – 100,000.
YELLOW: Plump, sweet, can be 3 inches long with I-inch diameter. Waxy yellow skin and thick flesh. Scoville units: 2,500—6,000.
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