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.
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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
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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.
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.
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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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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
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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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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.