Here’s Your Guide To Cooking With Hot Peppers


Right next to salt, hot peppers rank pretty high up on the scale of versatile spices. You can use hot peppers to flavor sauces, roast them, dry them or eat them on their own if you can handle the heat. The hot and spicy flavor compound capsaicin, found in many hot peppers, is known to boost your metabolism, so there’s an added bonus.

When you’re browsing the pepper section at your grocery store or local farmer’s market, you should know what’s what before you accidentally buy a pepper that’ll burn your face off. Hot peppers generally come in three different categories: sweet, mildly hot and hot. Here’s your guide to cooking with hot peppers.

Serrano Peppers

Characteristics: Serranos are small to medium in size with a sharp flavor and fiery heat. They resemble jalapeños in size, but they’re a little bit smaller, thinner and their spice level exceeds jalapeños. The heat is delayed so it takes a few minutes before it hits you. As a serrano ages, it turns from green to red to yellow.

Cooking Use: You find serranos mostly in marinades, salsas, sauces and chilis. It’s hard to seed and core a serrano because of its shape, so the less you play with it, the better.

Scoville Heat Units: 6,000 to 23,000

Cayenne Peppers

A post shared by Hannah G (@hannahrey1) on

Characteristics: Ripe cayenne peppers are bright red or yellow in color and they look like crooked fingers, which is why they’re nicknamed “finger chilies.” They’re between four to six inches long with thick flesh, which is usually somewhat wrinkled looking and has a thin green stem. When cayenne pepper is dried and ground into a fine powder it’s dark red and looks like chili powder.

Cooking Use: You can eat these peppers raw, dried, roasted or pickled. Fresh cayenne peppers are found in spicy salsas and sauces. Cayenne powder is used as a seasoning to make all kinds of stew, chili, seafood dishes, cocktails, roasted vegetables and everything in between.

Scoville Heat Units: 30,000 to 50,000

Scotch Bonnet Peppers

Characteristics: Scotch bonnet peppers range from light yellow to orange to red in color. They have a small irregular shape that looks like the lantern-shaped habanero pepper. Their taste is spicy and fruity, and the flesh is crispy and firm. They’re available all year and are around 1 to 1.5 inches in length. You might see them labeled as “Bahama mamas or “Jamaican hots.”

Cooking Use: Wear gloves when you’re handling scotch bonnet peppers. You don’t want to touch your eyes, lips or face after handling them. These peppers are commonly used in Caribbean cuisine like Jamaican curried chicken, jerk chicken with scotch bonnet sauce or West Indian pepper sauces.

Scoville Heat Units: 100,000 to 350,000

Habanero Peppers

A post shared by Art Meripol (@ameripol) on

Characteristics: Habanero peppers resemble lanterns in shape and they’re bright orange or yellow. The habanero is probably the spiciest most readily available hot pepper available in American grocery stores. These peppers have a tangy and floral flavor, but the heat is so intense that you should wear gloves when you handle them. If you rub your eyes after touching a habanero, get ready to feel the burn.

Cooking Use: You can use habanero peppers in anything from chicken wings to salsas to margaritas to chilis to pickled onions and hot sauces. Flavor your mac and cheese or pork, or use them to give desserts a kick, like with a spicy peach pie. A little goes a long way. It’s best to underuse habaneros and add more as you go. A general rule when cooking with spicy peppers is that you can remove the seeds inside to slightly tame the heat.

Scoville Heat Units: 300,000 or more

Jalapeño Peppers

A post shared by 918living (@918living) on

Characteristics: Jalapeños are the household hot pepper. They’re easy to find and work with. Jalapeños have a moderate level of heat that most people can handle. They’re dark green, red when they’re extra ripe, and have a sweet flavor that can be compared to a bell pepper, but with a little more heat. You can work with a jalapeño without removing its seeds.

Cooking Use: The world is your oyster when it comes to cooking with jalapeños. You can eat them raw, roast them, lightly sauté them or pickle them. Jalapeño and cheddar work really well together. You can add them to a pizza, make a cheddar and jalapeño corn bread, add the peppers to a quesadilla, put them on top of nachos or add them to a salad. Make a pineapple salsa, infuse your vodka for a spicy cocktail or make a marinade for your ribs. Balance out the heat with Greek yogurt and make a creamy dipping sauce. Jalapeños give the perfect sweet, fiery kick to just about anything they touch.

Scoville Heat Units: 2,500 to 5,000

Hot Banana Peppers

A post shared by John Paytosh (@paytosh) on

Characteristics: Hot banana peppers are medium-sized with a moderately hot and tangy taste. For reference, think a jalapeño times four. They’re typically bright yellow, but it’s possible that they’ll change to green, red or yellow when they ripen. You might also see them sold as yellow wax peppers or hot Hungarian peppers. Hot banana peppers are about six inches by 1.5 inches in size. The heat gives a little bit of a bite without scaring away people with milder palates. Be sure not to confuse these babies with the sweet banana peppers in your garden.

Cooking Use: They can be pickled, fried or roasted in the kitchen. Eat them with cheese and crackers or fry them up and eat them as a side dish. Try hot banana peppers stuffed or in hot sauces, sandwiches, stews, relishes or salsas.

Scoville Heat Units: 5,000 to 10,000

Thai Peppers

A post shared by Ankur Shah (@ankursnap) on

Characteristics: Thai peppers, also called bird’s eye chili peppers, can be anywhere between six to forty times hotter than a jalapeño. These peppers are small in size and about an inch long with smooth skin. The flesh has a meaty texture and there are a ton of seeds inside each one. The green ones aren’t ripe, but the red ones are. You can always mix them together for a color contrast.

Cooking Use: Red Thai peppers are often sun dried, toasted and ground and then used on the dinner table as a condiment. They’re common in Southeast Asian cuisine and you can make all kinds of curry pastes or use them as a garnish for spicy dishes. The original Sriracha recipe used red Thai peppers, but now it’s predominately made with serrano peppers.

Scoville Heat Units: 50,000 to 100,000

Shishito Peppers

A post shared by Pizzeria Bebu (@pizzeriabebu) on

Characteristics: These mild Japanese peppers can be found year-round. They’re finger-length and slender with a thin wrinkly skin and a mild sweetness. One out of every ten shishito peppers is spicy. They’re usually harvested when they’re green. When shishito peppers are uncooked you’ll notice a taste similar to a bell pepper.

Cooking Use: Shishito peppers are perfect as a snack when they’re roasted and tossed with sea salt or a little bit of sesame oil and soy sauce. Cook the peppers until they become fragrant and begin to blister. Nibble on a plate of them when you’re having a drink or make them as a side dish for the next dinner party. It’s a fun game to see who ends up with the spicy pepper.

Scoville Heat Units: 50 to 200