Here’s Every Type of Pepper You Need to Know

Pick the wrong pepper and you could be in for a spicy surprise. Discover which types of peppers work best in which dishes—and avoid accidentally setting your mouth on fire!

There are thousands of different types of peppers, so how do you choose the right one? To make it even more confusing, one pepper variety may have one name when it’s fresh and another when it’s dried. For example, that fresh poblano 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 to need-to-know pepper varieties will help you navigate grocery stores and farmers markets so you’ll pick just the right pepper for your dish—whether you’re looking for mild, medium or flaming hot.

guide to peppers_heat graphic_1200x1600Sydney Watson/Taste of Home

What Is a Scoville Heat Unit?

The most important distinction between peppers is heat. That sensation of heat when eating peppers is due to the chemical capsaicin—the more capsaicin, the hotter the pepper. The heat level (spiciness) of food is measured according to the Scoville Heat Unit scale (based on a method devised by Wilbur Scoville back in 1912). On the scale, peppers have a huge swing—sweet bell peppers rate a zero, while the hottest varieties can score over 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 past 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

Bell Peppers

Red, yellow and green Bell Peppers are seen stacked side by side in a farmers market display.Amit Basu Photography/Getty Images

Scoville units: 0
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. The orange variety is a bit less flavorful than the red. Bell peppers have thick flesh, are crunchy and juicy, and are 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. Three lobes, and it’s a male—a great choice for roasting and making stuffed peppers.

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Banana Peppers

Raw Organic Yellow Banana Peppers Ready to Cutbhofack2/Getty Images

Scoville units: 0-500
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, banana peppers have a mild, sweet taste that adds flavor to sandwiches, pizza and Greek salads. Slice one up to use in this recipe for Tex-Mex cheesesteaks. Although they look similar, don’t confuse them with Hungarian wax peppers, which are much hotter.

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Pickled Peppers, PepperonciniLauriPatterson/Getty Images

Scoville units: 0-500
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 when green and add a lovely tang to pizza, salads and antipasto platters.

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Pimento Peppers

cherry peppers on old black wooden table backgroundS847/Getty Images

Scoville units: 100-500
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.

Shishito Peppers

Raw Green Organic Shishito Peppers in a Bowlbhofack2/Getty Images

Scoville units: 100-1,000
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.

Paprika Peppers

Detail of red chilli peppersOscar Sánchez Photography/Getty Images

Scoville units: 250-1,000
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. Sometimes the peppers are smoked before being ground—smoked paprika has a strong, outdoorsy flavor perfect for dry rubs and barbecue spice. Many cooks like to sprinkle paprika on top of their deviled eggs.

Anaheim Chiles

Fresh anaheim chili peppers roasting over a charcoal grillSageElyse/Getty Images

Scoville units: 500-2,500
Length: 5-6 in.

These large, mild peppers with a curved, tapered shape are incredibly versatile—they make great salsa, are wonderful stuffed and are often used as a substitute for poblano peppers. They’re 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 and are a key ingredient in this Anaheim chicken tortilla soup.

Poblano Peppers

This image portrays 5 Poblano peppers roasted and deskinned, laid over a cutting board. This chili originates from Puebla, Mexico, and is typically used this way for recipes likes Chiles Rellenos (stuffed peppers) or Chiles en Nogada (Stuffed peppers drenched in walnut-based sauce). They are a common sight in Mexican households and a cultural staple in the country's culinary roots.Edgar Cervantes/Getty Images

Scoville units: 1,000-2,000
Length: 4-5 in.

Poblano peppers are the ultimate pepper 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. Prevalent in Southwestern and Mexican cuisine, poblanos are the go-to pepper for the ever-popular chiles rellenos.

For a twist, try them in chicken-chile relleno tacos.

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Hatch Chiles

Red hot chili peppers. Stack of vegetables.Aleksandr Zubkov/Getty Images

Scoville units: 1,000-8,000
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. With a much earthier flavor than similar chiles, Hatch chiles have a delicious, smoky, buttery taste when roasted, and they’re used in both 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.

The Hottest Peppers

Jalapeno Peppers

jalapeno peppersMichelle Arnold / EyeEm/Getty Images

Scoville units: 2,500-8,000
Length: 2-3 in.

Poppers, anyone? Jalapenos are 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. 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 membranes, so remove them if you want to reduce the fire.

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Serrano Chiles

Chiles serranos on a plate and white backgroundVictor Yee/Getty Images

Scoville units: 10,000-25,000
Length: 1.5-2.5 in.

Serrano peppers look like a smaller, elongated 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.

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Cayenne Peppers

Basket of HOT CAYENNE PEPPERS photographed close up on a farm stand in central Pennsylvania. Produce, Food, Onions, Farm, Vegetable fresh on country farm stand. Good background imageStan Dzugan/Getty Images

Scoville units: 30,000-50,000
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.

Thai Chiles

Close on some Red Thai ChiiliesLouis-Ortiz/Getty Images

Scoville units: 50,000-100,000
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.

Piri Piri

Red and green bird's eye chili peppers on an old wooden grey garden tableZsuzsanna Békefi/Getty Images

Scoville units: 50,000-100,000
Length: 1-2 in.

The piri piri (or peri peri) is a small, elongated pepper that so closely resembles Thai chiles that they’re often confused, but these peppers have their roots in South America. In the United States, you’re most likely to find this pepper in sauce form—piri piri sauce is a spicy, flavorful pepper and garlic sauce used in all sorts of savory dishes, marinades and wet rubs, including piri piri chicken, a Portuguese answer to jerk chicken.

Scotch Bonnet Peppers

Red hot chilli peppers called Scotch Bonnet on white background.Beachmite Photography/Getty Images

Scoville units: 100,000-325,000
Length: 1-2.5 in.

The Scotch Bonnet got its name thanks to the resemblance its squashed shape holds to the classic Scottish tam o’ shanter hat. 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, and they’re a great addition to soups, stews and curries.

Habanero Peppers

Assortment of Habanero Peppers on WoodSteve Terrill/Getty Images

Scoville units: 150,000-350,000
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.

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Ghost Chiles (Bhut Jolokia)

Red hot chilli pepper Bhut Jolokia on a plant. Capsicum chinense peppers on a green plant with leaves in home garden or a farm._jure/Getty Images

Scoville units: 855,000-1,041,427
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 the 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!

Carolina Reaper Peppers

Red hot chilli pepper Trinidad scorpion on a plant. Capsicum chinense peppers on a green plant with leaves in home garden or a farm._jure/Getty Images

Scoville units: 1,400,000-2,200,000
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.

How to Handle Peppers with Care

In general, the smaller the pepper, the hotter it is. Here’s how to avoid the burning feeling also known as jalapeno hands.

  • Hot peppers can cause a severe reaction when they come in contact with bare skin. 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.
  • Contrary to popular belief, the seeds of a pepper don’t actually hold the heat; it’s the white membrane that holds the seeds in place that contains all the capsaicin. If you want to scale back the heat, remove that membrane.

How to Soothe the Hot Pepper Burn

While Cooking

Chile is the hot version of salt—it’s easy to overdo it, so it’s best to start with a little and add to taste as you go. However, just as with an oversalted dish, there a few tricks to tone down the heat.

  • Add water or more vegetables to increase the volume of the dish; diluting the capsaicin molecules.
  • Add dairy, like cream or yogurt.
  • Add something sweet, like honey or sugar, to balance the spiciness.
  • Cut the acid. Adding something acidic, like vinegar or lemon juice, will just amp up the heat. In case of a real emergency, try stirring in a little bit of baking soda.

After Eating

If your mouth feels fiery, go for a glass of milk—not water. Milk works to dissolve spicy capsaicin, while water simply spreads it around. And carbonated drinks, such as sodas and fizzy beers, actually heighten the tongue’s sensitivity, so they’re not a relief, either.

Dana Meredith
Dana is an editor and writer who shares her passion for travel, food and the beauty of American landscapes. When she's not wielding her red pen, she can be found tending her flower gardens, remodeling her house, creating one-of-a-kind jewelry or dancing to "Uptown Funk."