Home Cook's Guide to Chile Peppers
We all have an epic hot chile pepper story. That one time, when our best friend offered us five bucks to eat the ghost pepper, or we failed to recognize the serrano masquerading as slivers of bell pepper. Or when the server asked us if we wanted it extra spicy and for some reason — a giant miscalculation of our chile-ability — we said, “Yes!” And then our brains were melting, and no amount of milk could save us.
Yet we always come back for more. Chile peppers burn, but it’s a tasty, tasty pain, and they’re the life of so many of our favorite dishes, sauces, and condiments. While some peppers are so hot it can be challenging to recall their other attributes, fresh chiles are full of crisp texture and flavor, ranging from pungent and grassy to fruity. On the other end of the spectrum, velvety-soft roasted peppers tend to be smoky and a little sweeter.
The secret to cooking with them is to choose the pepper that suits both the level of heat you like and the recipe in hand. We can help! Here’s a guide to a few of our more popular peppers.
A few hot tips from the test kitchen:
Chiles get their heat from capsaicin, much of which resides in the white pith and seeds of the pepper — trimming them out will help reduce some of the heat.
Wear gloves while you’re working with the truly hot peppers. They’ll protect your hands (and other parts of your body) from capsaicin, which can be hard to remove even with soap and water. Pepper in the eyes? No, no, no.
Cooking peppers releases their heat, so roasting or cooking a pepper, like a habanero, before you add it to a dish will definitely make it more tame.
Jalapeño Pepper (mild to hot)
This pepper is every home cook’s best chile friend. Although it’s sometimes bred to be mouth-meltingly hot, it’s generally on the milder side — and if you nix the seeds and pith, it’s downright snackable. It’s definitely one to eat raw: its flavor is mild and vegetal like a green bell, and it adds a crisp, easy bite everywhere it goes.
Jalapeños are our go-to for salsa, from a classic salsa fresca to a cumin-y peach salsa. We love to pair their mild heat with cheesy and creamy stuff, from cheddar biscuits to ranch dressing. The very best? Impossible™ Burger nachos, where the little wheels of jalapeño add vibrant color and kick.
Habanero Pepper (extremely hot)
These are quite possibly the cutest peppers around — they look like little lanterns. But don’t be fooled: they’re screaming hot. That said, underneath all that pungent heat, habaneros have a distinctly fruity flavor, bright and sweet. In the test kitchen, we’ll roast them before we use them to temper the burn and bring out that fruitiness.
Habaneros are great for next-level-hot condiments. Think cooked sauces, like hot sauce and rich, spicy chutneys and marinades. We like to simmer them into jams: try a mango habanero jam with jerk chicken. They’re also great in long-simmering, meaty braises. And for those with heat-seeking bravado, they can be delightful poppers: stuff them with Jack cheese, batter them, and deep fry them.
Anaheim Pepper (mild to medium)
The Anaheim looks like a skinny bell pepper, and it eats like one too — crunchy, lightly sweet, with a very mild heat that doesn’t hang around too long. If you’re feeding kiddos or anyone, really, who is wary of big heat, use Anaheims in recipes that call for jalapeños.
Anaheims are terrific raw in salads and salsas, but roasted they develop a wonderfully smoky sweetness. In fact, they taste a lot like our beloved Hatch chiles, and in the off-season, we’ll use them in our favorite Hatch recipes, from Bloody Marys to chocolate chip cookies. Queso fundido? Heck yeah, here’s the recipe.
Shishito Pepper (mildest of the mild, most of the time)
Oh how we love these wrinkly little peppers! Raw, they have a grassy, almost lemony flavor, but roast or fry them and they taste amazing — savory and full of nutty smoke. They are for the most part pretty darn mild, but be warned, about 1 in 10 shishitos has a deceptive kick!
In our minds, there’s only one way to prepare shishitos: fry them in a pan of smoking hot oil ‘til their very thin skin blisters. Once you’ve done that, you can sprinkle them with sea salt and lemon and eat them as an appetizer. A little bowl of ranch for dipping? Yes, please. The wee peppers are also great tossed on pizzas and tucked into omelets with a mild cheese.
Poblano Pepper (mild)
In terms of flavor, poblanos resemble many other chile peppers: fresh, they taste like an earthy green pepper, and they develop sweet, smoky notes with cooking. But their size sets them apart — they’re big and stuffable.
Our favorite way to eat a poblano is to fill it with queso fresco, batter it up, and fry it to a golden brown crisp. Heaven! For a heartier repast, try Spanish rice, beans, and veggies or spicy ground lamb. We also like to keep a jar of roasted poblanos around to use in black bean salad, egg bakes, or spreads, like tapenade.
All those cooked poblanos aside, fresh poblanos are amazing whirled up in our honeydew and tomatillo gazpacho.
Red Chile Pepper (mild to hot)
Red chile peppers have a similar texture and spice level to jalapeños with a slightly sweeter, fruitier flavor. Unlike their green cousins, their heat is fleeting — no burning lips here.
You can shave a red chile pepper into almost anything for a brilliant pop of color. We’ve recently used them in a summery tomato tomatillo salsa for swordfish. They’re also great for adding kick to a puréed sauce, like red pepper pesto, chimichurri, or romesco, because their subtle heat won’t overrun the herbs. And, they’re one of our go-tos for fermented hot sauce because we love the glowing red sauce they turn out.
Serrano Pepper (hot)
A test kitchen favorite, serranos have a bright flavor — a little acidic, a little sharp — and a big, scorching heat. If you’re thinking about moving up the Scoville ladder from jalapeños, this is your pepper.
We like to play up that brilliancy by using it in stuff like puckery shrimp ceviche appetizers and quick dill pickle chips. (The chips are magic on sandwiches, but do yourself a favor and batter fry them!) They’re also our choice for chopping into spicy, flavorful dishes, like Impossible Burger larb or cauliflower and potato curry. They bring the zing! And our current favorite is the Daybreak cocktail, which features mezcal, watermelon, and serranos — sweet, summery, and very sassy.