Different types of peppers number in the thousands, so how do you choose the right one? It gets even more confusing when you realize that one pepper variety often has two names depending on whether it’s fresh or dried. For example, that fresh poblano pepper in your Queso Fundido is the same pepper as the dried ancho in your Chicken Mole. As for heat, you certainly can’t substitute a Scotch Bonnet for an Anaheim and expect the same results. This guide will help you sort out the different types of peppers most commonly found in grocery stores and farmers markets so you’ll know if they’re mild, medium or flaming hot.
What is a Scoville Heat Unit?
In 1912, Wilbur Scoville devised a method to determine the heat level (spiciness) of foods and, although more scientific now, the Scoville Heat Unit scale is still used today. The sensation of heat associated with eating peppers is due to the chemical capsaicin—the more capsaicin, the hotter the pepper. While a sweet bell pepper may have a score of zero, the hottest peppers can rank at more than 1,500,000 Scoville units. Zero to 4,000 is considered mild; 4,000 to 15,000 is medium; 15,000 to 50,000 is hot; much greater than 50,000 and you may need the fire hose. It might be worth a taste test of different peppers to determine where your heat tolerance lies on the Scoville scale, and then stick to pepper varieties in a range you know you can handle.
Types of Peppers, from Mild to Hot
Photo: Shutterstock / topseller
0 Scoville units
Length: 3-6 in.
Bell peppers have a sweet, mild flavor and are available in green, red, yellow, orange and sometimes purple and brown. Green peppers have a grassier taste, and the orange variety is a bit less flavorful than the red. Bell peppers have thick flesh, are crunchy and juicy, and often eaten raw, sauteed, roasted or stuffed. Here’s a tip: Look at the bottom of the bell pepper and count the lobes. If it has four lobes it’s a female pepper, which produces more seeds and is sweeter than a male pepper, making it a good choice for crudites or chopping into salads. Male bell peppers have three lobes and are a good choice for roasting and making stuffed peppers.
Shutterstock / Teerapong Teerapong
0-500 Scoville units
Length: 2-3 in.
Banana peppers live up to their name in shape and color, although they can change to red or orange as they ripen. Also known as yellow wax pepper, don’t confuse them with Hungarian wax peppers, which are much hotter. Banana peppers have a mild, sweet taste that adds flavor to sandwiches, pizza and Greek salads. Try the pickled variety in this Italian Basil Pasta Salad.
Shutterstock / travis manley
0-500 Scoville units
Length: 2-3 in.
Also known as sweet Italian or Tuscan peppers, pepperoncini peppers have a mild taste and heat with just a hint a bitterness. They start out green but ripen to red when mature. Pepperoncini are most often pickled green and add a lovely tang to pizza, salads and antipasto platters.
Shutterstock / Only Fabrizio
100-500 Scoville units
Length: 3-4 in.
You’re probably most familiar with these peppers stuffed into green olives. Pimento is a large, sweet red pepper similar to a bell but with an extra-thick, juicy wall. That makes them a great dipper for dill vegetable dip. They’re also a wise choice for roasting because the skin comes off more easily than other varieties.
Shutterstock / abc1234
100-1,000 Scoville units
Length: 2-4 in.
This pepper is popular in Japan, where it is often fried, drizzled with sesame oil and soy sauce, and eaten as an appetizer. Shishito peppers are thin-walled with a mild, slightly sweet flavor and also make a tasty addition to tempura.
Shutterstock / Simic Vojislav
250-1,000 Scoville units
Length: up to 8 in.
This large, cone-shaped pepper originally from Hungary is most often ground and used as powder. The pepper is readily available in grocery stores in powder form with mild heat. It also is smoked and ground, which has a strong, outdoorsy flavor perfect for dry rubs and barbecue spice. Many cooks like to sprinkle paprika powder on top of their deviled eggs.
Shutterstock / Debra James
500-2,500 Scoville units
Length: 5-6 in.
These large, mild peppers with a curved, tapered shape are versatile in the kitchen and generally mild enough for family dishes, although those grown in New Mexico can be hotter than those grown in California. Anaheim peppers are a mild form of a Hatch chile (see below) and make great salsa, are wonderful stuffed and are often used as a substitute for poblano peppers. They’re a key ingredient in Anaheim chicken tortilla soup.
Shutterstock / Hortimages
1,000-8,000 Scoville units
Length: 4-12 in.
Hatch chiles are grown in New Mexico’s Hatch Valley and have been cultivated by New Mexico State University for more than a century. There are so many subvarieties that heat level and size can range dramatically from one to another. With a much earthier flavor than similar chiles, Hatch chiles have a delicious, smoky, buttery taste when roasted, and they’re used in savory and sweet applications (like this amazing peach pie). Because their season is so short—six weeks from August to September—they are often roasted and frozen to be used later in the year. They can be found in upscale grocery stores during the season or in canned and powdered form outside the growing season.
Shutterstock / Quang Ho
1,000-2,000 Scoville units
Length: 4-5 in.
Poblano peppers are the ultimate for grilling and stuffing because of their thick walls and mild, earthy flavor. They’re generally sold fresh, young and dark green, but once ripened and dried, they’re called ancho peppers and hold much more heat. Confusing, I know—same pepper, two names and different heat levels. Poblanos are prevalent in Southwestern and Mexican cuisine, and are the go-to pepper for the ever-popular chiles rellenos. For a twist, try them in these chicken-chile relleno tacos.
Now We’re Getting to the Hot Stuff!
Shutterstock / Binh Thanh Bui
2,500-8,000 Scoville units
Length: 2-3 in.
Poppers, anyone? This could be the most popular pepper around for appetizers, salsa and any dishes where you want a manageable but noticeable kick. Harvested green or red (red is a touch sweeter), jalapenos once dried and smoked are called chipotle chiles. (That double name thing again.) The spice level can vary greatly from pepper to pepper, so you may want to test a bite first. Most of the heat is concentrated in the seeds and membranes, so remove them to reduce the fire.
Shutterstock / Holbox
10,000-25,000 Scoville units
Length: 1.5-2.5 in.
Serrano peppers look like a smaller, elongated version of a jalapeno and are a good next step up on the heat scale. Their thin skin doesn’t need peeling, so you can roast them and dice them right into your favorite salsa recipes. While some serranos can be mild, it’s tough to know what you’ll get because they can vary widely in heat.
Shutterstock / JULWITUL TONGBAI
30,000-50,000 Scoville units
Length: 3-5 in.
While fresh cayenne peppers mature from green to red and are long, skinny, curved and very hot, this variety is usually sold dried and ground. A staple in most kitchens, it lends nice heat to soups, meats and even desserts. If you like heat, try making cayenne pretzels for your next party. And that bottle of red pepper flakes we like on our pizza? It’s usually a combination of peppers, but it’s cayenne that gives it the heat.
Shutterstock / Daiiji
50,000-100,000 Scoville units
Length: 1-2 in.
There are 79 separate varieties of Thai chiles, all hot and spicy. A staple of southeast Asian cuisine, Thai peppers add lots of heat to sauces, fish and curries. Most grocery stores carry them in the fresh produce section, or you may find them canned in the international foods section. Get used to their heat with Thai chili sauce in colorful shrimp pad Thai.
Shutterstock / Hans Geel
Scotch Bonnet Peppers
100,000-325,000 Scoville units
Length: 1-2.5 in.
Scotch Bonnet’s squashed shape resembles a Scottish hat, or Tam O’ Shanter, thus the name. It’s the most popular pepper in the Caribbean—very hot but with an underlying sweetness that lends itself well to that region’s cuisine, particularly in pepper sauce or jerk chicken. Brightly colored yellow, orange or red, Scotch Bonnets are a good substitute for habanero peppers.
Shutterstock / Joerg Unfried
150,000-350,000 Scoville units
Length: 2 in.
This little pepper packs a fierce heat that’s complemented by a subtle, fruity flavor. Orange is the most common color, but they can be red, white or brown. Habaneros are particularly good for salsa, hot sauce and jerk recipes. Add zest to grilled pork, chicken or salmon with a topping of Jerk-Spiced Mango Pineapple Chutney.
Shutterstock / Joerg Unfried
Ghost (Bhut Jolokia) Chiles
855,000-1,041,427 Scoville units
Length: 2-3 in.
What can you say about a pepper that is so hot the Indian government has made it into military grade smoke bombs? At one time a Guinness World Record holder as the hottest pepper around, it has since been eclipsed but is still too hot to handle for many people. You can find bottled ghost pepper sauces, and if you can handle the heat, go for it, but PROCEED WITH CAUTION!
Shutterstock / 12photography
Carolina Reaper Peppers
Length: 1.5-2 in.
The name should say it all. In November 2013, Guinness World Records named the Carolina Reaper the new official reigning champ in the hottest pepper contest. Developed by Smokin’ Ed Currie in South Carolina, this pepper gives new meaning to the term flaming hot. I wouldn’t advise eating it raw, and never handle it with bare hands. Surprisingly, the Carolina Reaper is very flavorful and sweet for a super-hot pepper, so sauces made from it can be tasty if you don’t mind eating something akin to pepper spray.
Handle with Care
Keep in mind that, in general, the smaller the pepper the hotter. My heat tolerance index for peppers hovers somewhere around a jalapeno, so I don’t need to worry much about handling super hot peppers—because I don’t. I’m perfectly content with simple stuffed pepper recipes that don’t make my eyes water. But be aware that if you do handle them, very hot peppers can cause a severe reaction. Always wear gloves, avoid touching your face and eyes, and wash your hands thoroughly after handling. If your hands sting after handling peppers, wash them in whole milk or yogurt. Eat a very hot pepper and find your mouth on fire? Dairy comes to the rescue again. Reach for a glass of whole milk, not water. Milk works to dissolve capsaicin, while water will simply spread it around. And if you’ve added a bit too much spice to your dish, tone it down by adding dairy, potatoes, sugar or peanut butter.