When it comes to types of peppers, some like ‘em hot, and some like ‘em really, really hot. With the post-winter thaw in full effect, we’re warming up with a whole slew of chili peppers. In addition to the spicy notes of these nightshades, each one has such a distinctive flavor underneath the heat. Chili peppers are supremely versatile and the various types are used in myriad ethnic cuisines (and cocktails—who doesn’t love a jalapeño margarita?!). So, for all the fire-breathers out there, we’ve put together a list of the essential chili peppers (though there are more than 200 varieties out there!) and included their Scoville scale rating—the official spice measurement rubric, which ranges from 0 to 2.2M (heat) units.
Of all the chilis we’re diving into, the jalapeño is perhaps the most widely recognized and available in the United States. Smooth, dark green and about two inches long, the jalapeño is named after Jalapa, the capital of Veracruz, Mexico. Because they can be easily de-seeded (the seeds and veins contain all the heat), jalapeños are very popular, and used most frequently in Mexican cuisine. They are fantastic pickled, and also often served as a spicy garnish to Vietnamese pho. Fully ripened jalapeños turn scarlet red and become much spicier after maturing. When they are dried and smoked, they are referred to as chipotle chilis. The jalapeño tends to vary in spice level by pepper, though it is generally on the milder side. Scoville rating: 2,500 to 8,000.
This larger (about 4–5 inches long and 2.5–3 inches wide generally) chili is very dark green—verging on black often—and is known for its heat level, which can be very mild to slightly spicy. Poblanos are particularly delicious roasted and/or charred, and are usually grown in Mexico and, more recently, in the Southwest U.S. When they age, they turn reddish-brown and develop a sweeter flavor. A dried poblano is known as an Ancho chili. Scoville rating: 1,000 to 2,000.
Habaneros are on the smaller side (usually 2–6 centimeters), and have a distinctive rounded, lantern-like shape. These very spicy chili peppers are usually red or orange, though other colors like green, white, and even purple can be found. Habaneros are native to the Yucatan, the Caribbean, and Northern South America. Named for the Cuban city of Havana (La Habana), habaneros are rarely eaten raw because of their extreme spiciness, and are generally cooked into sauces in both raw and dried forms. We like to use habanero peppers to infuse honey for a spicy-sweet accompaniment to cheese and crackers. Scoville rating: 100,000 to 350,000 (and even hotter in some instances!).
Small and fairly thin, Serranos are quite spicy and usually green, though they mature from green to red to yellow. Serranos are native to Mexico, and found in many areas of the country, particularly in the states of Puebla and Hidalgo. The mountains in these regions give the chili its name, as “sierra” means mountain, and “serrano” is derived from that word. Serranos can be used fresh or cooked, and are often included in raw sauces like guacamole and salsa. The chilis are also found canned, pickled, and sometimes packed in oil. Their spiciness varies hugely, which accounts for the large range in their scoville rating (10,000–23,000).
Also known as the Thai chili, this relatively small (1–1.5 inches long and .25 inch wide, generally) chili has serious bite. It’s quite fiery, and its heat doesn’t decrease when cooked, like some other chili varieties. The chili goes from green to red depending on ripeness, and is popular in Southeast Asian dishes like curries and homemade hot sauce. Scoville Rating: 5,000 to 10,000
Usually green, long and narrow, and very mild in flavor, the Anaheim chili is named for the Southern California city (incidentally home to Disneyland). It’s commonly available throughout the United States, and the red version is called the chili Colorado. Anaheims are sweet with a hit of spiciness and are often used in salsa or stuffed, as in chiles rellenos. Scoville rating: 500 to 1,000
Though you’ve undoubtedly encountered cayenne powder in recipes and dishes, don’t be fooled: the actual cayenne chili packs a ton of spice. These bright red chilis are generally sold in their dried form, and range from 2 to 5 inches long and about .5 inch wide. When dried, they are used to make cayenne powder, which can be found in a number of dishes and condiments including spice rubs, soups, and more. Scoville rating: 30,000 to 50,000
The ghost chili is notorious for extreme spiciness. For many years, it held the ranking of spiciest chili out there, and this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Other names include Bhut jolokia, ghost pepper, red naga, and more, and it is largely cultivated in India. Ghost chilis received notoriety after “pepperheads” posted videos of eating the chilis (or eating dishes prepared with the chilis) online. Needless to say, they were in some serious pain—we definitely do not recommend purchasing, cooking or eating a ghost chili! Scoville rating: 1,000,000+