The chile peppers near the end of this list will burn the heck outta you, so proceed with extreme caution.
These smooth, dark green peppers are probably the most common chile outside of Mexico. You can find jalapeños in thousands of dishes across a variety of cuisines. The bright grassy flavor is reminiscent of a green bell pepper, but the subsequent heat is not. You can purchase them fresh, roasted, pickled, candied or smoked (called a chipotle) to use in sweet and savory applications. The heat varies from mild to hot depending on growing conditions, so removing the veins and seeds, then adding them back in to taste during or after cooking is a good way to moderate heat.
Beyond salsas and other Mexican foods, you can use jalapeños in sauces and soups, ceviches, or infuse them in vinegar to add some oomph to salad dressing. You can also replace them with a half measure of serrano peppers, but be careful. The pungency difference is significant.
While most chiles are dried in the sun, jalapeños would rot because of their higher water content. Instead, they are smoke-dried to yield a rich, nutty chipotle chile. There are two varieties: larger, sandy-brown chipotles mecos, and smaller, darker chipotles moritas, which have a bit of a molasses flavor and are more fragrant.
Jalapeños’ thick skin survives the smoking process and absorbs tons of smoky flavors. So, chipotles are best used in soups and stews. And their smoky umami goodness enhances low-and-slow vegetable and meat applications. You can also purchase chipotles in a tomato-based adobo sauce, which is great for ease of use, as they’re rehydrated but will bring other flavors in. Or, you could use a few splashes of TABASCO® brand Chipotle Pepper Sauce. The heat will be less intense.
These small chiles (the smaller, the hotter) start out green but can ripen into yellow, orange, red or brown. The hot, clean flavor also has notes of citrus, which makes it a good choice for Thai dishes, as it pairs well with cilantro, garlic, lime, mint, onion and vinegar. You can use serranos raw or cooked, chopped or ground—but the seeds and veins are not generally removed. (They’re so tiny!) You can find them raw or roasted in many Mexican salsas—especially salsa verde. You can also replace serranos with habaneros if you want to up the Scoville rating for the pepperheads, or jalapeños to go the gentler route.
Chile de Árbol
Sold dried (and too easily mistaken for the hotter Thai bird’s eye chile on appearance), the chile de árbol is dark red with a bright, vegetal flavor reminiscent of a bell pepper, without the sweetness and adding a fierce heat. The slender profile, bright color and shiny skin make it popular for infusions and garnishes, and the powder appears in thinner, saucier salsas. You can finesse the heat a bit with seeding, toasting and soaking, but this little beast will resist being tamed—it cannot become mild. It can also be replaced by dried cayenne or cayenne-based crushed red pepper, but the flavor of such substitutes is less complex.
The red cayenne pepper gets its name from the city in French Guiana and owes its international dispersion to early port-hopping Portuguese traders. It’s usually sold dried or powdered, but is also the base for crushed red pepper. The pepper has a deceptively mild aroma, but is quite pungent with a long burn. Cayenne is most frequently found in Mexican, Cajun and Indian cuisines, but can be found in many other Asian pantries as well. Workable, but less pungent, substitutes are hotter paprika or chili powders, or a few shakes of TABASCO® brand Original Red Sauce.
Thai Chile (also Bird’s Eye or Bird Pepper)
The tiny, thin-fleshed Thai chile is very pungent, and a little goes a long way! Easily mistaken for the serrano in appearance, they’re usually green or red, but occasionally orange. Red Thai chiles tend to have a delayed potency, with the heat slowly building after the first bite. The heat can be mellowed through de-seeding and blanching … but only a bit. The flavor is clean, but lacks complexity, so they complement a wide variety of ingredients. Thai chiles are a quintessential ingredient and garnish in Southeast Asian cuisine, a classic component of Thai curry, and commonly mixed with fish sauce, lime juice, vinegar, and sugar in Thai-style dipping sauces.
This pepper is a Capsicum chinense variety, same as the habanero, but long-term cultivation in Jamaica lead to a smaller pepper with lower pungency, available in bright yellow, orange and red. This is where the Scoville units become significant, as the side effects of a newbie munching on a Scotch bonnet include dizziness, numb hands and face, as well as severe heartburn. They are generally used whole in Caribbean stews, rice dishes, soup and fricasseed chicken to harness the sweet, fruity flavors and temper the heat. Just be careful not to let them burst! Scotch bonnets also appear in jerk mixes and spice blends.
Found as far north as Mexico and well into South America, the habanero is the hottest chile grown in Central America. Larger and hotter than its cousin, the Scotch bonnet, habaneros start out green and ripen to orange or red, though white, pink, brown and dark purple are also seen. For all their intense heat, these little peppers also have a unique flavor profile you won’t find in other peppers—tropical fruit and herbs, with a floral aroma. They’re less sweet than the Scotch bonnet, but pair equally well with tropical fruits and citrus.
Commonly used to season table salsas in the Yucatán, it also works well in chutneys and seafood marinades where the sliced pepper is used to reach optimal heat. The longer the infusion, the more powerful the result.
Ghost Pepper (or Bhut Jolokia)
In Assam, India, the origin of this legendary chile, ghost peppers are the base for military grade pepper spray and elephant repellent. It’s more than 400 times hotter than a jalapeno, and upwards of 8 times more pungent than a habanero. You cannot take too many precautions when handling ghost peppers. Double gloves, long sleeves, mask, goggles, apron—and be very aware of every surface the peppers touch, and clean them thoroughly. Capsaicin has oil-like qualities, so it will linger if not cleaned thoroughly, and it doesn’t take much to get a chemical burn at this level.
But, the benefit of that potency means a tiny bit goes a very, very long way, a trait popular for large-scale foodservice. Like the habanero, it has a distinct fruity flavor, but with a notoriously slow heat build. It’s used both fresh and dried in curries, pickles, chutneys and the occasional salsa. Restaurant chains are taming the pepper through extreme dilution in sauces, dressings and jellies to snag the interest of the heat-hunting consumer.