Pleasure Spiked with Pain: A Beginner’s Guide to Chile Peppers

Humans have relied on hot chile peppers to add spice to keystone dishes for generations. Scores of different strains are used all over the globe, each with its own level of heat and flavor profile. Luckily, in accidental service to spicy food-lovers everywhere, American pharmacist Wilbur Scoville invented the Scoville Scale supposedly while trying to create a warming ointment in 1912. It’s based on the amount of added sugar necessary to no longer taste spice in the solution. More than a century later, we still use Scoville Heat Units to measure the intensity of a pepper’s spiciness. In honor of Scoville’s gift to us heat seekers, here’s a short guide to some of the most culinarily common peppers in the United States today so you can avoid pulling a Homer Simpson and explore the wide world of chile peppers safely.

Banana Pepper (Pepperoncini)

100-500 Scoville Heat Units
These are actually two different types of peppers, and are often used interchangeably depending on availability. They’re both mild and with waxy, yellow-greenish skin, but banana peppers are longer and skinnier (like a banana). With a fun tangy flavor, you’re most likely to find them in Italian-Ameircan dishes like pizza, cured meat sandwiches and thrown into leafy salads.

Poblano Pepper

1,000-2,000 Scoville Heat Units
Still considered mild, Poblanos are large and green and originate from Puebla, Mexico. They’re used quite ubiquitously in Mexican cuisine—when dried they’re renamed to Ancho, a linguistic nod to their “wide” structure when fresh. Poblanos are also the star of the popular Mexican dish Chile Relleno, in which one is most often halved, grilled, stuffed with cheese and baked.

Jalapeño Pepper

2,500-5,000 Scoville Heat Units
Probably the best-known pepper to Americans on this list, you can find jalepeños on your nachos, salsas and Margaritas. They’re small and green and waxy, bring moderate heat and lend a very digestible pep to any dish whether pickled or fresh.

Serrano Pepper

6,000-23,000 Scoville Heat Units
Serranos are often mistaken for jalapeños by pepper newbies as both are small and green, but serrano peppers are spicier and have a more complex and nuanced flavor. Found in elevated areas of Mexico like Hidalgo, their name means “of the mountains.” They’re the perfect substitute for jalapeños when you’re looking to add more heat to your guacamole, ceviche, salsa and enchiladas verdes.

Piri Piri Pepper (Thai Chile; Bird’s Eye Pepper)

50,000-250,000 Scoville Heat Units
We’ve come to the part of the list when those who are unfamiliar with these peppers should use caution when first sampling. That being said, if you’re looking for serious heat, piri piri peppers deliver. Most often found in Southeast Asian cuisine but also in Portuguese dishes and African delicacies (their geographic origin), piri piri peppers are small, round and red.

Habanero Pepper

100,000-350,000 Scoville Heat Units
Though no longer considered the world’s hottest pepper as it once was, habaneros still pack a punch. If you use them in your cooking, be careful to wash your hands thoroughly after touching them and avoid putting your hands near your eyes and other sensitive areas of your body. Small in scale and most often orange or green, they can also be yellow, brown, green or purple and are most often found in garnishes like salsas, sauces and jams.

Ghost Pepper

850,000-1,050,000 Scoville Heat Units
Hailing from India, ghost peppers are among the hottest in the world. They had a moment of zeitgeist popularity a few years back during which their heat was incorporated into novelty food items like potato chip flavors and special whiskeys. These little wrinkly red peppers are so hot that they’re grown around high-prized crops to keep animals like elephants away.

Carolina Reaper Pepper

1,050,000-2,200,000 Scoville Heat Units
Though the winner of the World’s Hottest Pepper has changed a few times in recent years, Carolina reapers currently hold the title. A hybrid strain of the ghost and the habanero that was invented in South Carolina by breeder Ed Currie, they’ve landed numerous pepper enthusiasts in the hospital. We highly recommend employing the look-but-don’t-touch (and-definitey-don’t-taste) approach to these gnarly red heat grenades.