Chili peppers are cultivated in a range of sizes, shapes, and degrees of hotness. While nearly all of them belong to one species—Capsicum annuum—the number of varieties is daunting, and the names are confusing because they vary from region to region.
Fresh chili peppers are generally available year round, especially since the rise in popularity of Mexican, Asian, and other “spicy” cuisines. They are grown in California, New Mexico, Texas, and Mexico. Dried chilies are also available at all times of the year.
The list below can help you distinguish the most common chili pepper varieties, but it’s tricky, if not impossible, to determine how hot an individual pepper will be. Peppers of the same variety—even those on the same plant—can differ in hotness.
A rule of thumb: The more mature the pepper, the hotter it will be. For example, a red Anaheim will pack more punch than a green one. Soil, climate, and other conditions also affect the amount of capsaicin in a pepper. Here are some common varieties of chili peppers.
Aji pepper: These hot chili peppers (25,000 to 50,000 Scoville units) range from green to yellow to orange to red. It is 3 to 5 inches long and thin. The Aji pepper has a fruity flavor, which can be hard to appreciate in peppers as hot as this. Native to the Andes, the aji is an essential (and revered) ingredient in traditional Incan cuisine.
Anaheim pepper: Among the most commonly used chilies in the United States, with a bite ranging from mild to moderately hot (500 to 1,000 Scoville units), these long, slender, lobed peppers come in varieties also known as New Mexico, long green, long red, or California. Anaheims are eaten in both the green and red stages of development. When mature and red, they are often made into “ristras”—strands of peppers strung together on a cord—and left to dry. Green Anaheims are often used in American versions of the Mexican dish called chiles rellenos (the Mexican chili of choice is the poblano). The “heat” of Anaheims ranges widely, because Anaheim peppers grown in California tend to be milder than those grown in New Mexico.
Ancho pepper: Technically, ancho refers to a dried poblano pepper, but many distributors and markets also apply the term to the fresh version. Dried anchos are flat, wrinkled, and heart-shaped, ranging in color from oxblood to almost black. Considered one of the mild to moderately hot peppers (like poblanos), anchos are often soaked or ground for use in cooked sauces. Anchos are fairly mild (600 to 1,000 Scoville units).
Bird pepper: This is not a type of pepper, but a group of about a dozen wild chili peppers that have one thing in common: They are so small that birds can eat them whole (the birds do not taste the chilies’ heat). The benefit of this is that when the seeds arrive at the other end of the birds’ digestive system, they are out of their pods and are surrounded by natural fertilizer. Bird pepper varieties favored by cooks include chiletepin, piquin (also pequin), and Thai. They are quite hot, in the range of 50,000 to 100,000 Scoville units.
Cascabel pepper: These moderately hot chilies (1,000 to 10,000 Scoville units) are mostly available dried. In their fresh state, they are green or red and shaped like a small tomato. Dried, their skin turns a brownish-red and becomes translucent, and their seeds rattle around inside. The name cascabel means “jingle bell” in Spanish.
Cayenne pepper: Among the hotter chilies (25,000 to 50,000 Scoville units), cayenne peppers are long, thin, sharply pointed red pods that are either straight or curled at the tip. They grow to a length of 6 to 10 inches. (The chile de árbol is closely related and similar in shape, but grows only 2 to 3 inches in length and usually does not have a curled tip. Ground, dried cayenne is a popular spice.
Cherry pepper: Cherry peppers are round and red, and so-named because they resemble the fruit. They range in pungency from mild to moderately hot. They’re sold fresh and pickled.
Chile de árbol pepper: About 2 to 3 inches long and ½ inch wide, this hot pepper (25,000 to 50,000 Scoville units) is a good substitute for cayenne.
Chiletepin pepper: These tiny, pea-sized peppers are a type of bird pepper. Their heat levels can range quite a bit, but, like bird chilies, they usually are in the range of 50,000 to 100,000 Scoville units.
Chipotle pepper: Also known as smoked jalapeños, chipotles are not very hot (1,000 to 10,000 Scoville units), and have a deep, smoky flavor. They can also be found canned in adobo sauce.
Fresno pepper: This variety—developed in Fresno, California, in the early 1950s—is similar to jalapeño peppers, but with thinner walls. Fresnos are available green in the summer, and then red and hotter in the fall. Like Jalapeños, their heat usually ranges between 1,000 to 10,000 Scoville units.
Guajillo pepper: These long peppers measure about 6 by 1 ½ inches and have a sweet, flavor, with heat in the range of 1,000 to 10,000 Scoville units. The guajillo is frequently used in Mexican cooking.
Habanero pepper: These lantern-shaped peppers, measuring about 2 by 2 inches, are Capsicum chinense, not Capsicum annuum. Their color is most often yellow-orange, but can be yellow, orange, or red. Habaneros are among the more fiery of chili peppers (100,000 to 1,500,000 Scoville units, depending on the variety). Their heat can sneak up on you, so beware of taking a second bite if you think the first one wasn’t hot. Also, rather than dissipating quickly, the heat of habaneros persists.
Hungarian wax pepper: These are the hot (1,000 to 10,000 Scoville units) version of sweet banana peppers. They are never green—the peppers start out yellow and ripen to orange or red—and are mostly sold when yellow, either fresh or pickled in jars.
Jalapeño pepper: Probably the most familiar hot peppers—and almost as popular as the Anaheim—jalapeños are tapered, about 2 inches long, and have slight cracks at their stem ends. They vary in degree of heat; the range is 1,000 to 10,000 Scoville units. So some may taste like a slightly hot green bell pepper and others may be quite hot, with a bite that you notice immediately. Most often, these peppers are consumed at the mature green stage, but sometimes you will find fully ripe red jalapeños at the market. In addition, they are sold canned, sliced, and pickled, and are used in a wide array of products including sausage, cheese, and jelly. Canned types may be milder than fresh because they are usually peeled, seeded, and packed in liquid—but they still pack a punch. Pickled jalapeños are always hot.
New Mexico green chili pepper: These large chilies are similar in size to Anaheims, but they’re hotter (in the range from 1,000 to 10,000 Scoville units).
Pasilla pepper: In Spanish, pasilla means “little raisin,” and this pepper is so named because of its deep black color and raisin-like aroma. Also called “chile negro”, it is the dried form of the chilaca chili pepper and has a mild (600 to 1,000 Scoville units), smoky, rich flavor. “Pasilla” is sometimes used (incorrectly) by grocers to describe the Poblano or its dried form, Ancho.
Pequin (also Piquin) pepper: These small orange-red chili peppers are a type of bird pepper and are respectably hot (50,000 to 100,000 Scoville units). They are most commonly sold dried. Because they are so small, you can use one whole pepper to add a small amount of heat to a dish, instead of having to cut into a larger pepper.
Poblano pepper: These are ancho peppers in the green state. They look like small bell peppers at the stem end, tapering to a thin point at the blossom end. Ranging from fairly mild to slightly hot (600 to 1,000 Scoville units), poblanos are usually roasted and peeled before using in casseroles, soups, and sauces, or stuffed with meat or cheese for chiles rellenos.
Scotch bonnet pepper: These chilies looks just like habaneros and are equally hot. There are botanical distinctions, but no culinary ones.
Serrano pepper: Very popular in Mexico and the southwestern United States, these 1- to 4-inch long torpedo-shaped chilies are primarily consumed fresh, usually in salsas. Serranos are fairly hot (10,000 to 25,000 Scoville units) and are typically sold in their mature green state, though they are also sometimes available red.
Tabasco pepper: Made popular by the Louisiana hot sauce of the same name, these bright red-orange chili peppers are moderately hot (25,000 to 50,000 Scoville units) and are named for the region they originally came from in Mexico. They are a different species—Capsicum frutescens—from most other peppers. Tabascos look like elongated Christmas tree lights.
Thai chili pepper: These small and flavorful bird peppers can pack an incredible punch (50,000 to 350,000 Scoville units). As you would expect from their name, Thai bird chilies are common in Thai cuisine.