What to Know about Buying and Handling Mexican Peppers
Plus, a detailed guide to the most common Mexican chile peppers.
By Carlos C. Olaechea for Food Network Kitchen
Carlos is a contributing writer at Food Network.
Peppers originated in the Americas, and Mexico is considered one of the centers of pepper cultivation. For thousands of years, the peoples that lived in the area that is modern-day Mexico have been growing, processing and cooking with peppers. In fact, peppers are one of the main native ingredients that give Mexican dishes their signature flavors. However, if you’re not used to cooking with peppers, diving into the world of Mexican chile peppers can seem daunting. There are many varieties, and the names change depending on how ripe they are when they’re picked and whether a pepper is fresh, dried or smoked. Here we break it all down for you, from explaining what scovilles are to how to buy and handle chiles so you don’t burn yourself.
The Scoville Scale
The first thing you should know about peppers will actually help you choose ones that are right for your tastes. The Scoville Scale is a type of rubric developed in 1912 by an American pharmacist named Wilbur Scoville. It measures how hot a pepper is in units called Scoville Heat Units (SHUs), but these are commonly referred to as scovilles. This is done by extracting the capsaicin in a pepper, which is the chemical compound responsible for creating the sensation of burning or spiciness. The extracted capsaicin is then diluted in a sugar water solution and given to a panel of tasters. They keep tasting the same sample diluted in more and more water until they can longer detect any heat. It is a subjective test, since it depends on people’s tastes to determine the number of scovilles. However, it has been the most reliable method to date. Scoville ratings run from under 100 to over 3 million. On the lowest end of the spectrum you have mild bell peppers, while peppers in the millions include the infamous Carolina Reaper.
How to Buy Peppers
There are different things to look for when buying fresh versus dry Mexican peppers.
When selecting fresh peppers, you want to make sure the skin is taut and shiny and the pepper is firm. You shouldn’t be able to squish it, and there shouldn’t be any wrinkles on the skin. Don’t worry about blemishes, “stretch marks,” dirt, or a really gnarled appearance. All of that is normal in fresh chiles. What you do want to look out for are any browned or mushy bits or scars.
In most grocery stores in the US, dried Mexican peppers will come in bags, so it can be tough to see whether they’re still good. Dried peppers don’t necessarily rot, unless they’re exposed to moisture. However, they do become stale and can give foods an off taste. If you can, try to find peppers that are a little flexible, almost like a slipper. If a dried pepper cracks when you bend it, it’s old and stale. It’s not the end of the world if you’re stuck with such a pepper, but the dish you’re trying to prepare may not come out as expected.
How to Store Peppers
You can store fresh Mexican peppers at room temperature, and they should be fine for about a week. Be careful about fluctuations in temperatures, though. If your kitchen gets very hot, it may cause your fresh peppers to go bad early. Also be careful about keeping them near other produce, such as bananas, which can make them go bad in just a couple of days. A safer bet for fresh pepper storage is to keep them in the refrigerator. There, they can last a couple of weeks. If you don’t use fresh peppers that often and plan to cook with them rather than using them raw, you can store them in the freezer. This will soften the peppers, but they are still good to use in soups, stews, marinades and salsas.
You should store dried chiles in an airtight container at room temperature. Storing them in the freezer won’t necessarily prolong their shelf life. As well, the exposure to moisture and the fluctuating temperatures from opening and closing the freezer door can make them go bad or get freezer burnt.
How to Prep Fresh Chiles
How to Handle Fresh Chiles Safely
If you are chopping dozens of fresh peppers to pickle or make a huge batch of salsa, then we do recommend wearing gloves. Capsaicin, which gives hot peppers their kick, can cause burning sensations not just on your tongue but also on your skin, eyes, lips, nose and other parts of your body. When you handle chiles with your bare hands, that capsaicin seeps into the porous skin on your fingertips. However, the more chiles you handle in a short period of time, the more capsaicin will penetrate your skin. You may not feel it on your fingers, and that’s what can lead to some uncomfortable (and sometimes dangerous) situations.
If you are just chopping one or two peppers, you can vigorously wash off most of the capsaicin with dish soap and warm water. Wash your hands immediately after handling fresh hot peppers. The more time that has passed, the more capsaicin seeps into your skin and the longer it’ll stay on your hands.
Eliminate Seeds and Veins to Minimize Heat
The seeds and veins of hot peppers are the spiciest parts, but apart from heat they don’t add much flavor and can actually be a little bitter. That’s why you typically don’t use the veins and seeds in mild peppers, like bell peppers.
If you don’t want a dish to be that spicy, simply slice the chile lengthwise, and using a paring knife or spoon, scrape out the seeds for spicier dishes or the seeds and veins for milder dishes. You can also blanche them in plenty of boiling water to remove some of the capsaicin. However, this isn’t a very common technique in Mexican cooking but rather a technique from Peruvian cuisine that may be helpful if you want the flavor of a chile but not so much of the heat.
How to Prep Dried Chiles
Dried peppers are a lot more forgiving than fresh chiles in that they won’t transfer capsaicin directly to your skin the second you touch them. In traditional Mexican cooking, you typically toast dried chiles first to bring out more of their inherent flavors. Toasting not only gives more flavor to Mexican peppers but also makes the chiles more brittle, which makes them easier to grind in a mortar, food processor or coffee grinder.
1: Stem and Seed the Chiles
Cut the stem off with a paring knife, then slice down the length of the chile and shake out the seeds.
2: Toast the Chiles
Add to a dry skillet, heat over medium heat and toss until pliable, you see light brown spots and smell a roasty aroma, about three minutes.
3: Grind or Soak the Chiles
What you do next depends on how you plan on using the dried chiles. You can turn them into a powder for seasoning by grinding them up. Or, if you’re making a sauce or mole, soak the chiles. Submerge them in hot water and soak until they're soft. Speed up this process by microwaving them on high for a few minutes. Then puree in the blender or food processor with a little stock or water. Use it to infuse great chile flavor into your recipes. Use about four times the chili puree as powder. Keep purée covered in your fridge for up to a week or in the freezer for up to six months (store tablespoon-fuls in ice cube trays for easy use).
Types of Mexican Chile Peppers
There are many types of peppers used in Mexican cuisine from common jalapenos to more obscure regional varieties you can only find in certain parts of Mexico. Below, we go over some of the more popular varieties you’ll come across in the United States. These are also some of the most popular peppers used in Mexican cuisine, so you can rest assured that with this guide you’ll be well equipped to make your favorite Mexican dishes.
Poblano: 1,000 - 2,000 SHUs
This is a large forest-green chile that is usually eaten fresh. It has smoldering heat and an herbaceous quality to it. It’s sometimes used raw. However, it’s most commonly roasted and cut into strips called rajas. These are a popular taco filling and are also excellent chopped up and mixed into queso. Poblanos are also a favorite chile for stuffing and turning into chiles rellenos.
Habanero: 100,000 - 350,000 SHUs
These peppers are hot! They are small and round, and several can fit into the palm of your hand. They come in a variety of colors from green and yellow to orange and red, but they all pretty much taste the same. Besides their intense heat, they have a fruity, almost citrusy flavor. They’re very popular in recipes from the Yucatan region. This pepper also goes by the name scotch bonnet and is popular in Anglo- and French-Caribbean recipes. It’s also popular in many West African cuisines.
Jalapeno: 2,500 - 8,000 SHUs
These are one of the most popular Mexican chile peppers in the US, and you most likely have encountered them with nachos even at a gas station. These are commonly eaten fresh when they are unripe and still green. They have a bit of heat but are mild enough that most people can handle them. You can eat them raw or cooked, but many people in Mexico and the US like to pickle them in a simple vinegar and water solution. The red jalapeno peppers have a sweeter, fruitier flavor to them and are used in making American-style sriracha sauce, like Rooster Brand.
These peppers closely resemble jalapenos in appearance, except that they tend to be a little smaller. If you’re unsure whether you’re working with a serrano or jalapeno, ask someone who really knows peppers. Serranos are several times hotter than jalapeno peppers. As such, they are very popular for making salsas. You can roast, blanche or use them raw in recipes. You can puree them with some seasonings to make a fiery hot sauce, too. Slices of serrano peppers are also popular garnishes for pho in the United States.
Pequin: 30,000 - 60,000 SHUs
These bright red, tiny peppers pack a lot of heat, and they’re very versatile. Some compare them to Thai chiles because of their size and potency, and Thai chiles can definitely stand in for pequines if you can’t find them fresh. You can also (and more readily) find them dried or powdered, and this way they have a nutty and lightly smoky flavor to them. You can add just a couple in a pot of soup or stew to give it some serious heat and flavor.
Ancho: 1,000 - 2,000 SHUs
This is the dried version of the fully ripened, reddish poblano pepper, so it’s about the same size but dark ochre and wrinkly. These are one of the most popular peppers in Mexican and Tex-Mex cuisine, but you have to prepare them correctly. They need to be soaked in hot water and pureed first. You can then add the puree to soups, stews, moles or as a marinade.
Arbol: 15,000 - 65,000 SHUs
These skinny red chiles are a workhorse in that you can use them in pretty much any dish that requires a bit of heat – and not just Mexican recipes. These are the closest to cayenne peppers and offer heat without many additional flavors. It’s great when you don’t need any smokey, nutty or fruity flavors from other types of chiles because you don’t want to mask the flavor of other ingredients. You can use them whole, grind them or snip off the stems and shake out the seeds for less heat.
Chipotle: 2,500 - 8,000 SHUs
Chipotles are actually dried and smoked fully ripe, red jalapenos. It’s incredible to think that these two chiles start out the same because they couldn’t be more different from each other in flavor. These have a deep, smokey flavor and give a beautiful reddish brown color to dishes. Like other dried chiles, these are typically reconstituted and ground. However, you can also find them canned in an adobo sauce, which makes things a lot simpler. This is a popular chile for making smoky salsas, as well as for marinades.
Guajillo: 2,500 - 8,000 SHUs
A little spicier than ancho chiles, the guajillo gives a beautiful rust color to dishes. Guajillos also provide a delicate sweetness, so they help to balance out savory flavors in meat dishes. These need to be soaked in hot water before using, and they are usually pureed before being added into recipes.
Pasilla: 250 - 3,999 SHUs
This pepper ranges in spiciness from very mild to assertively hot, but it’s not the heat that makes this such a popular chile in Mexican cooking. It gives a deep, almost chocolatey flavor to recipes. It’s often used in making salsas because it adds so much flavor to any preparation. Because it’s a dried pepper, it needs to be soaked and pureed before using. However, you can also use ground dry peppers.