A Guide to Mexican Chili Peppers
Here is a list of chili peppers used in Mexican cuisine, including fresh peppers, dried peppers and smoked peppers.
Chili peppers are an essential ingredient to many global cuisines, and this is absolutely clear when it comes to Mexican cooking. Mexican cuisine incorporates a large number of different chili peppers, both fresh and dried, though only about a dozen or so are more commonly used. Anyone who has ever tried Mexican food would have to agree that it ranks among the world’s most flavorful.
Chili peppers offer up both heat and flavor, though the best Mexican recipes focus on a balance of the two, without a specific emphasis on Scoville heat, though there are plenty of pepper options that offer a wonderful heat level for the spicy food lover.
Below is a list of the most commonly used chili peppers in Mexican cooking. It is not an exhaustive list. You’ll notice that many fresh peppers have different names when they are dried. This is because dried peppers offer a completely unique flavor compared to the fresh version.
Many peppers are dried and smoked to add another flavor dimension, and also have different names. For example, a smoked jalapeno pepper is called the chipotle.
Mexico is filled with diversity, and certain regions favor certain chili peppers over others, though these are the most popular.
Fresh Mexican Chili Peppers
500-2,500 Scoville Heat Units. The Anaheim pepper is a mild, medium-sized chili pepper that grows to 6-10 inches in length. It is often used for cooking in recipes when green, though it can be used when red. It is a versatile pepper named for its city of origin, Anaheim, California, though you’ll find it used in Mexican cuisine.
They are often referred to as California peppers, New Mexico peppers, or Magdalena. When picked and dried when green, the peppers are called “seco del norte”, “chile de la tierra”, or “verde del norte”. When picked and dried red, they are called California red or “chili colorado“, which is also the name for a famous pot of chili.
1,000-2,500 Scoville Heat Units. The chilaca pepper is a mildly hot pepper that is an important part of Mexican cuisine. The fresh pods are rarely used. When dried, the dark green skins darken to a richer brown-black color. The chilaca is usually dried, and in this form is known as the Pasilla or Pasilla Bajio.
The fresh chilies are rarely used, but the popular dried form, the Pasilla, is great for many sauces in Mexican food such as enchilada sauces and mole sauces, or can be ground and made into a table sauce, or condiment. They are widely used in Mexican cuisine, though the dried pods have gained much popularity in the United States for their flavor and versatility.
1,000-2,000 Scoville Heat Units. The poblano is an extremely popular Mexican chili pepper. They are mostly picked when green for general cooking. They are mild peppers, perfect for stuffing. They are often roasted and peeled when cooking with them, or dried. When dried, they are called ancho chilies.
Poblanos are commonly dried, coated and fried, stuffed, or used in mole sauces. Also, they are often roasted and peeled to remove the waxy texture, and preserved by canning or freezing. They are also dried and sold as Ancho Peppers, which are also extremely popular and form the base for many sauces and other recipes.
100,000-350,000 Scoville Heat Units. The habanero pepper is named after the Cuban city of La Habana. They are smaller pods and quite hot. You’ll most likely encounter them as bright orange or red peppers, though there are many varieties.
With its terrific heat, its hint-of-citrus and fruity flavor and its flowery aroma, it has become a well-loved ingredient in many preparations including hot sauces and other spicy foods. In Mexico, it is sometimes soaked in tequila or mezcal bottles for days or even weeks in order to make drinks even more fiery.
2,500-8,000 Scoville Heat Units. America’s favorite chile pepper is by far the jalapeño pepper, a bright green little guy that can be lovingly incorporated into just about anything, from soups to Lemonade, so widely used in the United States. The majority of our jalapeño peppers come from Mexico, where the natives eat them as snack foods, plucking them in droves from sidewalk carts and fields. The red variety of the jalapeño is a bit fruitier than the green variety, and sweeter as well.
The flavor of fresh jalapenos as bright, vegetable and very green, with a slight level of heat. Roasted jalapenos peppers are richer, slightly smoky, earthy with good heat. Jalapenos are widely used in Mexican cuisine in many different ways.
2,500-8,000 Scoville Heat Units. The mirasol pepper is a popular chili pepper in the Mexican culture widely known for making traditional Mexican mole sauces. The name translates to “looking at the sun” in Spanish, taken from how the peppers grow upright on the plant, literally “looking” at the sun as they grow on the plant with their bright red color. You may know mirasol peppers by their dried variety, the guajillo pepper, which is much more common and hugely popular in Mexican cuisine.
10,000-23,000 Scoville Heat Units. The serrano pepper originated in the Mexican states of Puebla and Hidalgo, in the mountainous regions. The name of the pepper, serrano, actually is a reference to the mountains (sierras) of those areas. Serrano peppers are quite spicy, perfect for salsas, sauces, relishes, garnishes, making hot sauce and more. They are usually best when roasted.
I personally love serrano peppers for their delicious spicy kick, either roasted, pan cooked, or fresh as a garnish.
5,000 Scoville Heat Units. The Chilhuacle Amarillo is a Mexican chili pepper variety, part of a trio that also includes the Chilhuacle Negro (Brown) and the Chilhuacle Rojo (Red). Together they are an important part of Oaxacan cuisine, particularly mole sauces.
This pepper grows in the Andes from Chile to Columbia, as well as in Central America and Mexico. It is also known as the” locoto pepper”through South America, or as the “rocote”, or as the caballo or “horse” in Guatemala and some parts of Mexico.
30,000-60,000 Scoville Heat Units. Pequin peppers are very small chili peppers that pack a punch of heat. The pods ripen to a vibrant red, and offer a spicy, nutty, smoky flavor.
Pequin peppers are popular for making sauces, hot sauces and salsas because of their combination of fruitiness and heat. They can be easily added to pots of soup or stews, with just one or two of these tiny peppers, punctured or sliced, adding a nice kick of heat to a whole pot of food. They can be dried and ground into chili flakes or powdered, or pickled.
Dried Mexican Chili Peppers
1,000-2,000 Scoville Heat Units. The Ancho Pepper is the dried version of the poblano pepper, and one of the most popular peppers in Mexican cuisine as well as Tex Mex cooking and of the southwest U.S. It is so important, in fact, that the peppers get their own name after being dried. Instead of simply calling them “dried poblanos”, they are called “ancho peppers”.
Just like any dried chili pepper, ancho peppers are usually rehydrated before using for cooking. The process involves soaking the ancho peppers in very hot water for 15 to 30 minutes until they are softened. They are normally seeded and stemmed first. Once they are rehydrated, ancho peppers is commonly used for making thick sauces, such as mole sauce or adobo sauce or enchilada sauce. The Ancho is used to add flavor, heat, and color to the sauces, as well as the distinctive red color.
1,000-3,000 Scoville Heat Units. The name “cascabel” means “little bell” or “sleigh bell” or “rattle” in Spanish, because of the dried pods distinctive rattling sounds from the seeds within, which come lose from shaking them.
The cascabel pepper is characterized by a slightly smoky flavor with notes of nuttiness. Terms like earthy or nutty certainly apply. With a mild to moderate heat level, the Cascabel is perfect for adding a touch of heat to soups, salsas, stews and sauces. They are mostly consumed dried, and often ground into chili flakes.
15,000-65,000 Scoville Heat Units. Chiles de Árbol are small and thin Mexican peppers, growing to 2-3 inches long and less than a ½ inch wide. They mature to a bright, vibrant red, and are harvested and used at this stage. Chile de Árbol means “tree chili” in Spanish, a name which refers to the woody stem of the pepper.
Chile de arbol peppers can be used in any dish to add heat and spice, especially chili, salsa, and hot sauces. It usually only takes a few peppers added to a pot for significant heat. One of the most popular recipes using these peppers is chile de arbol salsa, which can be made from either fresh or dried chiles. Use them to make salsa roja for drizzling over tacos, burritos, tortas, eggs like huevos rancheros and more.
I also enjoy using chiles de arbol for making hot sauce because of their nice level of heat.
2,500-8,000 Scoville Heat Units. Chipotle Peppers are smoked, dried jalapeno peppers. Most jalapenos are sold green. However, as jalapeno peppers age, they turn red on the vine as they fully ripen and eventually begin to dry. These red jalapeño peppers are plucked and smoked for days with soaked wood until dried, turning them into chipotle peppers. There are actually 2 types of chipotle pepper.
2,500-8,000 Scoville Heat Units. The guajillo pepper is a beloved pepper used in Mexican cuisine. It is the dried form of the mirasol chili pepper, second in popularity only to the ancho, offering sweet flavor and mild-medium heat. They are great in moles, sauces, salsas and soups and chili, especially in salsa for tamales.
2,500-8,000 Scoville Heat Units. Morita peppers are a type of chipotle pepper made from smoked, red-ripe jalapeno peppers. The main difference is that Moritas are smoked for less time, which leaves them softer and retains their slightly fruity flavor.
Chipotles offer up an earthy, smoky flavor and lend that spicy smokiness to any dish you’re cooking. As they are dried, you can grind them into chipotle powder for mixing into soups, sauces, salsas and chilis, or you can rehydrate them and process them into a wonderful chili paste that will flavor anything you’d like.
It is widely used in Mexican cuisine, but also Tex Mex cooking, and has found it’s way into all manners of American cooking.
2,500-3,000 Scoville Heat Units. The Mulato pepper is a mild to medium dried poblano, similar to the ancho pepper, but with a slightly different flavor. The ancho is a poblano that ripens to a deep red, while the mulato is a poblano that ripens to brown, then is dried.
Mulato chilies have been used consistently for hundreds of years in Mexican cooking. It is part of the “holy trinity” (which is really more of a loose term) of chiles used in Mexican mole sauces, along with the Ancho and Pasilla chiles, and often Guajillo chiles. It has flavors of chocolate or licorice, with a hint of cherry and tobacco. Because it is dried, it is commonly ground into chili powder. Whole or ground, it is perfect for many sauces in addition to mole.
They do have a delicate smoky flavor, however, which makes them very popular in many different kinds of Mexican dishes.
250-3,999 Scoville Heat Units. Pasilla (chile pasilla) or “little raisin” refers to the dried chilaca pepper, a popular Mexican chili pepper. Pasilla peppers are very popular in Mexican cuisine and cooking, particularly for making sauces like moles, table sauces and salsas.
Featuring a rich smoky taste and earthy flavor, the pasilla often turns up in dried whole form or as a powder in Mexican salsas as well as in mole sauces and adobo sauces. The pasilla can even create an interesting twist in the flavor and appearance of the standard red chili enchilada sauce. It is also a favorite in combination with fruits or accompanying duck, seafood, lamb, mushrooms, garlic, fennel, honey or oregano.
2,500-8,000 Scoville Heat Units. The puya chile is a Mexican pepper similar to the popular guajillo pepper, but smaller and hotter known for its fruity flavor and aroma.
Puya chile peppers are a favorite in Mexican cuisine for making salsas but also for making sauces, particularly mole sauces, to flavor beef and pork, various seafood dishes, vegetables, and for use as ground chili flakes. They are used for seasoning soups and stews, breakfasts and dinners and anything in between.
Notes and Comments
There are, of course, other peppers that are used in Mexican cooking. As mentioned, this is not an exhaustive list, but meant to introduce you to the more commonly used peppers.
If you have any suggestions for peppers that might be added, please feel free to contact me and I will be very happy to review. — Mike H.
A Note about Spelling and Nomenclature
The spelling of “chili” is a somewhat contentious one in the United States, primarily depending on region. In Mexico, it is spelled “chile”, which is native to the language. In the U.S., it is variably spelled either “chili” or “chile”. “Chile” is used mostly in the American Southwest and New Mexico.
“Chili”, on the other hand, is used more often, and is the Americanized spelling. In England and Europe, “chilli” is more commonly used. See my post on How to Spell Chili Pepper? Is it Chili, Chile or Chilli?