A Home Cook's Guide to Chile Peppers

You've probably eaten a chile pepper before, but do you know the difference between a serrano and a poblano?

Published May 4, 2017.

Chiles, both fresh and dried, are the backbone of Mexican cuisine, with their unique flavors that range from mild and fresh to acidic and spicy to rich and deeply toasty.

Some chiles are used for their heat, while others are used to provide flavor to sauces, stews, and spice rubs. Fresh chiles often have vegetal or grassy flavors, with clean, punchy heat. Dried chiles tend to have deeper, fruitier flavors, with nutty or even smoky undertones.

Chiles get their heat from a compound called capsaicin, which is concentrated mostly in the inner whitish pith (called ribs), with progressively smaller amounts in the seeds and flesh. If you like a lot of heat, you can use the entire chile when cooking. If you prefer a milder dish, remove the ribs and seeds. Keep in mind, though, that even among chiles of the same variety, heat levels can vary.

Here are some of the most common chiles we use in the test kitchen, as well as others that are popular in Mexican cooking.

Fresh Chiles

When shopping for fresh chiles, look for those with bright colors and tight, unblemished skin. Be aware that the same chiles can go by different names in different parts of the country, and can even vary in color.

Chile: Poblano
Appearance and Flavor: Large, triangular, green to red-brown; crisp, vegetal
Heat: ☆
Substitutions: Bell pepper, Anaheim

Chile: Anaheim
Appearance and Flavor: Large, long, skinny, yellow-green to red; mildly tangy, vegetal
Heat: ☆☆
Substitutions: Poblano

Chile: Jalapeño
Appearance and Flavor: Small, smooth, shiny, green or red; bright, grassy
Heat: ☆☆½
Substitutions: Serrano

Chile: Serrano
Appearance and Flavor: Small, dark green; bright, citrusy
Heat: ☆☆☆
Substitutions: Jalapeño

Chile: Habanero
Appearance and Flavor: Bulbous, bright orange to red; deeply floral, fruity
Heat: ☆☆☆☆
Substitutions: Thai

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Dried Chiles

When shopping for dried chiles, look for those that are pliable and smell slightly fruity. For most recipes, we find that the flavor of whole chiles is far superior to commercial chile powder.

Chile: Ancho (dried poblano)
Appearance and Flavor: Wrinkly, dark red; rich, with raisiny sweetness
Heat: ☆
Substitutions: Pasilla, mulato (You can also use 1 tablespoon powder in place of 1 chile.)

Chile: Mulato (dried smoked poblano)
Appearance and Flavor: Wrinkly, deep brown; smoky with hints of licorice and dried cherry
Heat: ☆
Substitutions: Ancho

Chile: Pasilla
Appearance and Flavor: Long, wrinkled, purplish or dark brown; rich grapey, herby flavor
Heat: ☆☆
Substitutions: Ancho, mulato

Chile: Chipotle (dried smoked jalapeño)
Appearance and Flavor: Wrinkly, brownish red; smoky and chocolaty with tobacco-like sweetness
Heat: ☆☆
Substitutions: You can use 1 teaspoon powder or 1 teaspoon minced chipotle in adobo sauce in place of 1 chile.

Chile: Cascabel
Appearance and Flavor: Small, round, reddish brown; nutty, woodsy
Heat: ☆☆
Substitutions: New Mexican

Chile: New Mexican
Appearance and Flavor: Smooth, brick red; bright with smoky undertones
Heat: ☆☆
Substitutions: Cascabel

Chile: Guajillo
Appearance and Flavor: Wrinkly, dark red; mild, fruity, smoky
Heat: ☆☆
Substitutions: New Mexican

Chile: Arbol
Appearance and Flavor: Smooth, bright red; bright with smoky undertones
Heat: ☆☆☆
Substitutions: Pequín

Chile: Pequín
Appearance and Flavor: Small, round, deep red; bright, citrusy
Heat: ☆☆☆☆
Substitutions: Arbol

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What's your favorite chile pepper to cook with? Let us know in the comments! And for more on Mexican cuisine, read these posts: 

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