10 Essential Chile Peppers for Making Mexican and Tex-Mex Recipes
One of the hallmarks of Mexican cuisine —both authentic and Americanized — is its addictive, delectable, tongue-tingling heat. That heat is brought to you courtesy of chiles in all their many forms. In Mexican recipes, chiles are used in a wide variety of ways, depending on the dish and what sort of heat and flavor you're going after. You'll find them used fresh, pickled, dried and ground, smoked, stuffed, and roasted.
The heat from a chile pepper is measured on the Scoville scale, a unit of measurement developed in 1912 by a pharmacist who was researching heat-producing ointments. While his research was medicinal, he used the human taste buds to develop the system of rating, diluting the spicy compound in a chile pepper (called Capsaicin) with water until the heat no longer registered on the taste buds. Tongues are no longer used to test the spiciness of a pepper, but the Scoville rating lives on, which can give those unfamiliar with the chile a sense of just how spicy it'll be. The higher the number, the hotter the chile pepper.
There are a few ways you can control the spice level of fresh and dried chiles in your cooking. Since much of the spiciness is concentrated in the seeds and the inner membrane, removing and discarding these will give you more flavor and less heat. Increasing and decreasing the recommended quantity of chile called for in a recipe is also a good option and typically won't detrimentally affect the finished dish. Finally, you can also use our guide and swap out a milder chile if a spicier one is called for.
Whatever chile you use, use caution when preparing it. Wear gloves or use utensils to avoid touching the cut chile with your bare hands. Wash your hands and the cutting board and utensils well afterwards with soap and water. And avoid touching your eyes and nose until you're sure there is no trace of chile residue left on your fingers.
Finally, you may be wondering: what's up with the different spellings of chile, chili, and chilli? According to Merriam-Webster, chile is the Spanish-derived term for the capsicums, and is commonly used throughout Latin American countries and the Southwestern United States. The rest of the United States uses the spelling chili for not just the peppers but also the spicy stew. And in Britain and other European English-speaking countries, the spelling chilli is used. Wherever you're from, though, chile is the preferred culinary spelling for the hot pepper, according to the Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University.
With that in mind, we'll stick to using the C-H-I-L-E spelling for the peppers in our guide below. While there are thousands of chile varieties, we've focused on the ones most commonly found in Mexican and Tex-Mex cuisines.
Ancho Chile Peppers
The dried version of poblano chiles, anchos are usually sold in their ground form, but can also be found dried and whole at a grocery store with a good Mexican food section.
Flavor and heat: Anchos have a smoky, fruity flavor and are milder than some other chiles, with a Scoville rating of 1,000-1,500.
How it's used: Ancho chile powder is often one of the main ingredients in adobo seasoning, a spice blend that's used as a rub for grilled meats, like in Adobo Lime Steak Tacos.
Substitute: Chipotle chiles are a good substitute if you're looking for another smoky flavor profile, while regular chile powder is also good for a mild heat.
Chile de Arbol Peppers
These tiny chiles are bright red and skinny, and can be found fresh, dried, or powdered.
Flavor and heat: Chiles de arbol are on the spicy side of the spectrum, with a Scoville rating of 15,000 to 30,000.
How it's used: These peppers are great for making hot sauce or for adding intense heat to a variety of foods, from salsa to tacos, such as Vegan Tacos with Mushrooms and Tomatillos.
Substitute: If you can't find them, try cayenne powder or serrano peppers, depending on what form of pepper the recipe calls for.
Chipotles aren't their own pepper type, but rather the dried, smoked form of jalapenos that have been left on the vine to ripen until they're red. You can find them in a dried, ground form as well as canned.
Flavor and heat: Chipotles are known for their robust smoky flavor and their mild to medium heat. They can range widely in heat, from 2,500 to 8,000 on the Scoville chart.
How it's used: Add chipotles to anything where you want heat and smoky flavor, whether it's a marinade or rub, sauce or salsa, soup, even mashed potatoes. One to try: Emily's Chipotle Chili
Substitute: A combination of smoked paprika and chile powder will give you both the smoky flavor and the heat. Or, try ancho chiles for a milder option.
Habanero Chile Peppers
Small and bell-shaped, habaneros might only be an inch long but what they lack in size, they make up for in intense heat. They can be either red or orange, and are usually sold fresh.
Flavor and heat: The heat on a habanero pepper — 100,000 to 300,000 SHU — often eclipses the flavor profile, but if you concentrate you might taste a trace of fruitiness.
How it's used: Habaneros are usually used in salsas and hot sauces, and make a particularly good complement to fruit flavors like peach or pineapple. Try it in Apricot Salsa.
Substitute: Serranos and Scotch bonnets are similarly spicy, while jalapeno is a good milder substitute in a recipe when you want a less spicy flavor profile.
Hatch Green Chile Peppers
Grown in the Hatch Valley of New Mexico, these chiles have an elongated shape and can be found fresh or roasted and canned or jarred.
Flavor and heat: Hatch green chiles have a fresh, vegetal flavor. Most have a fairly mild heat, between 1,500 and 2,500 on the Scoville chart, but some seasons have a spicier yield so it's best to ask the grocer or check the label on a packaged product.
How it's used: Green chiles are often roasted over an open flame until their skin blisters and can be peeled off, then seasoned with salt and garlic, and used as a condiment for tacos, enchiladas, or burritos, or as an ingredient in salsa.
Substitute: Look for another fresh, green, mild chile, such as anaheim or poblano.
Hatch Red Chile Peppers
If you've ever been to New Mexico and had red chile sauce on your enchiladas, chances are it was made with Hatch red chiles, the red, ripe versions of green chiles grown in the Hatch region. These types of chiles are also what are usually dried and in whole pounds, or ground to make chile powder.
Flavor and heat: Red chile has an earthy flavor and a spice level that can range from medium to extra-hot: typically the spice jar or package will be labeled. On the Scoville chart, the heat level ranges from 1,000 to 8,000.
How it's used: This is often what's found in the generic "chile powder" jar, especially if it comes from New Mexico. Use it to add heat and flavor to enchilada sauce or Tex-Mex chili.
Substitute: Ancho chili powder is practically interchangeable with Hatch red chile powder.
Jalapeno Chile Peppers
These compact green peppers are ubiquitous and can be found fresh, pickled, or canned at virtually any supermarket.
Flavor and heat: Jalapenos are known for their sharp, bright flavor. Their heat level ranges widely, from 4,000 to 10,000 SHU but is usually pretty palatable even for those who are sensitive to spice, especially if you remove the seeds and ribs.
How it's used: Diced, jalapenos can make a nice addition to a salad, fresh salsa, or sautéed dish. It's very versatile, and is often pickled, or stuffed and deep-fried. It even makes an occasional appearance in cocktails, like this Jalapeno and Cucumber Margarita.
Substitute: Try Hatch green chiles or Anaheims, or, if you want to pump up the heat, sub in a habanero.
Pasilla Chile Peppers
These dried chiles, dark brown in color, are dried chilaca peppers. They're usually found whole or powdered in supermarkets.
Flavor and heat: Pasillas have a smoky, earthy flavor and are not particularly hot; they measure 250 to 5,000 on the Scoville chart.
How it's used: Pasilla peppers are one of the stars in traditional mole sauce, a rich sauce that has chocolate and warm spices in it.
Substitute: If you can't find pasilla peppers, anchos are a good substitute.
Poblano Chile Peppers
Dark forest green in color, with a wide shape near the stem, tapering to a point about four to five inches in length, these chiles are usually sold fresh.
Flavor and heat: Poblanos have a mild flavor, almost sweet, and don't rank high on the Scoville chart, maybe 1,000 to 2,000 SHU at the most.
How it's used: Poblanos are best known for the famous Mexican dish Chiles Rellenos, in which they're stuffed with cheese or meat filling, breaded, and deep-fried. Their wide shape makes them perfect for this use. But they can also be used —usually cooked — in other dishes, such as Poblanos Rajas.
Substitute: Cubanelle chiles have a similar shape to poblanos, and a mild flavor, and could also be used in chiles rellenos and other dishes calling for poblanos.
Don't mistake serranos for jalapenos. They look similar but serranos are usually only an inch or two long and are much spicier.
Flavor and heat: Like other tiny peppers, serranos pack a punch: they measure 10,000 to 2,000 SHU. They have a fresh, almost grassy, flavor to them.
Substitute: Make a recipe calling for serrano peppers milder by substituting the similarly flavored, but less spicy, jalapeno.