A Visual Guide to Peppers

PeppersFirst I got this email from reader Rodney:

Dear Mark,

As I read yet another awesome recipe on your blog today I realized that you frequently include different varieties of pepper.  As someone coming from a lifetime of bland Midwest eating I wanted to suggest a future post on all things pepper.  I have no idea of the degree of hotness, best or most common uses, or even where to get them.  Chipotle, serrano, pasilla, jalapeno, …the list goes on.  If I was more educated I could then substitute the appropriate pepper if your recipe included a variety that was too hot, too hard to find locally, or whatever.  No need to reply, I just wanted to make a suggestion.  Thanks again for the ongoing education!


And then this comment from reader Stacey:

Hi Mark,

What are “pasilla peppers”? If you don’t have easy access to those kinds of peppers, say if you live in Podunk, PA, what can you use as a substitute?

I guess living in Southern California has spoiled me. There’s a veritable bevy of pepper varieties available year round, and I hadn’t even considered the fact that some of the peppers we casually mention in our recipe posts might be obscure or scarce elsewhere. Let me make it up to you with a visual guide to peppers.

Peppers are amazing things, for many reasons. They can be hot, sweet, spicy, bitter. Aesthetically, their vibrant colors explode onto the visual palate. Entire cuisines revolve around their use. The word “pepper” is both a noun and a verb, and word has it that consumption of especially spicy peppers can inflame lustful passion.

Peppers are healthy, too, with good amounts of vitamin C and carotene (especially in red, riper chiles). They’re also good sources of B vitamins, potassium, magnesium, and iron. Researchers are even looking into possible medicinal benefits of hot peppers – the capsaicin might be an effective anti-inflammatory (you know I love the sound of that), all the more reason to work spicy food into your diet.

Finally, a person’s sense of masculinity can hinge on his ability to eat one. Now, wouldn’t you love to learn more about this amazing little vegetable?

To most people, a pepper is only as good as its Scoville unit rating. The Scoville index measures how “hot” a pepper is; the heat comes from an alkaloid compound called capsaicin. Mild, sweet bell peppers register quite low on the Scoville scale, while chart-topping habanero peppers almost break it. Of course, there are dozens of varieties located somewhere in between the two extremes – somewhere out there a pepper exists with your name on it (no matter your heat tolerance). With any luck, this visual guide will help you find it.

Oh, and remember: to minimize heat, you can remove the seeds and inner white membrane from your peppers (or leave them in and be a man! Kidding…).

(Note: The pepper photos are not to scale.)



The jalapeño is a popular one and should be available pretty much everywhere in the US. It features prominently in Mexican cuisine, and its rich flavor and moderate spiciness makes the jalapeño pepper a good choice for the amateur. It’s hottest when raw. 5,000 Scoville units.


Pasilla Pepper

Big dark green pepper, about 7-10 inches long. These are commonly found in the dried, wrinkled form (especially in Latin food stores or a similar section in the normal grocer), but if you can find a fresh pasilla (sometimes called chilaca), go for that. My experience tells me that a pasilla pepper can be about as hot as a jalapeño, or much milder, so take care before you start cutting. Up to 5,000 Scoville units.



Although it’s technically a form of jalapeño, I figured the chipotle deserved its own section. These are totally unavailable fresh, even here in California, because a chipotle – by definition – is a smoked jalapeño, providing considerably more spiciness. They either come dried or in cans (my personal favorite) doused in tasty, spicy adobo sauce. Any major grocer or Latin food store should carry canned, if not dried, chipotle. 8,000 Scoville units.


Serrano Pepper

Ranging from red, brown, orange, to yellow, the serrano chile is a fairly small, fairly meaty pepper. It’s also quite spicy, and frying or sautéing one seems to enhance the heat (whereas with most peppers – the jalapeño, for example – cooking smooths the heat out). These go quite well in guacamole, finely diced. The smaller the serrano, the hotter. 10,000 – 20,000 Scoville units.



Another big dark green pepper, but much milder and wider than the pasilla, the poblano chile is perfect for stuffing. And although it’s mild, it has a rich flavor that goes well in chili. Dried poblanos are often sold in the form of ancho chile powder, which has a more chocolate-chili flavor than the fresh poblano. 2,000 Scoville units.

Thai Chiles

Thai Chiles

Anyone who’s ever enjoyed the sear of Thailand on their tongue has probably tasted the thai chile. They are small, thin peppers that range in color from red to green when fully mature. Though usually found in Thai curries or other Asian dishes, the thai chile’s heat doesn’t discriminate; you can experiment with them in any dish that calls for heat. They’ll often come dried – perfect for sprinkling on some lemongrass chicken salad. If your town has a sizeable Asian population with a corresponding market, you’ll probably be able to find these guys. 150,000 Scoville units.



Feared by many, loved by some, and misunderstood by more, the habanero chile pepper is the hottest pepper available on the market (barring some freak of nature concocted in a chile nut’s backyard nursery). But don’t let the intense heat scare you off from these small orange-red peppers. Used intelligently (for most, that means seeded, cored, and in tiny amounts), the habanero has a wonderful smoky, almost sweet flavor to it that softens with cooking. I also like to buy a handful and dry them in my oven over super low heat overnight, then crush them and keep the powder on hand to add a bit of kick to dishes. If you can conquer this beast, you’ll have dominion over all peppers – and you’ll be able to enjoy them to their fullest potential. Closely related and almost identical in appearance (and just a bit milder) are the Scotch bonnet peppers, which are used frequently in Caribbean cooking. 325,000 to 570,000 Scoville units.

Bell Pepper

Bell Peppers

These are the most common mild peppers. Large, squat, and colorful (red, yellow, green, or orange), the bell pepper is sweet and crispy – and not at all spicy. They’re perfect for salads, vegetable arrangements, dips, or just sliced into strips and tossed with lime juice and salt. No Scoville unit rating, sorry.



No, this isn’t only used in pepper spray. Cayenne is actually a very viable food source. It’s most widely available in bright red powder form, but get the fresh if you can. The greener, the milder. Red peppers are the most mature and the spiciest. 60,000 Scoville units.



These Italian sweet peppers are usually only experienced in bottled, pickled form. I’ve never actually had a fresh one (if anyone has, I’d like to hear about it!), but they’re apparently quite tasty. I like the pickled pepperoncinis just fine, especially in salads. They aren’t quite spicy, but the vinegar definitely lends pungency. 0-500 Scoville units.

Seeing as how most cuisines that employ hot peppers come from the warm climates, it may follow that fresh versions of these chiles are difficult to get – as evidenced by the emails I received. If that’s the case, you can always use dried peppers. I also wouldn’t give up hope that some of the peppers in this guide are locally available. Spicy food is growing more and more popular across the country, and supply usually licks at the heels of demand. And hey, maybe you’ve been passing over the pasilla chiles all this time without even knowing it (if you think we’ve missed any prominenet peppers, let me know and we’ll try to get them in the guide too!).

Now that peppers are on your mind, we’ve got a pepper recipe post coming up this Friday, so bone up on your peppers and get ready!

Further Reading:

A Visual Guide to Antioxidants

Smart Fuel: Hot Peppers

Color Me Healthy: 8 Ways to Add More Color to Your Diet

TAGS:  cooking tips

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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31 thoughts on “A Visual Guide to Peppers”

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  1. Ah… peppers. I love peppers. They are such a good way to add color and flavor to almost any meal. I think i need to make some stuffed peppers soon.

    The SoG

  2. I love peppers too. I have a bowl full of serranos at my house. I toss them into everything. Omelets, stews, Primal pizza, broccoli casserole, herbal tea. Nothing can escape my serrano peppers.

    1. on Cayenne, in my experience it is when they turn red that they get a bit of sweetness and they are hotter when green (I usually eat them raw green and dry them for soups and stews and pizza topping when red)

  3. A couple buddies and I had a contest as to who could eat a habanero one night. Warning: not a good idea! We were all crying…

  4. Thanks for the further clarification. Even in my simple use, its a great addition to meals. Definitely adds flavor! No blandness in the Primal Blueprint..

  5. The nearby Taquería makes a hot sauce that I love. I always try to get them to give me extra little cups so I can use it my omelets. I need to find a way to make it on my own. They will not tell me the recipe, but I do know they use olive oil. The color is a very dark brown, almost black. The flavor is hot and smoky. I’m guessing that they roast or grill a certain pepper, but, which one? I’m going to start experimenting.

  6. Love me some peppers!

    Red Bell Peppers and a nice fresh mozzarella (if you do dairy) is one of my favorite snacks. Yummmmmm.

  7. Thanks Mark, this is exactly what I was looking for. Now I just need to find a grocery store that knows their peppers well too. The one I usually go to always has their peppers mislabeled and when I ask for assistance I get a different response almost every time. They can’t even figure out how to scan them at the checkout and usually just ring up the cheapest one rather than figure out what I am actually buying…sigh! Maybe I can teach then a thing or two now. Looking forward to the upcoming recipes!!!

  8. I thought nightshades were actually inflammatory. I’ve heard of research that has found that nightshades, such as peppers (they are nightshades right? I’m not confused here), actually cause aches and pains, inflame arthritis, slow recovery time from workouts, etc etc.

  9. Ryan:

    Some people think the solanine in nightshades is inflammatory. The riper tomatoes and peppers are, the less solanine they should have in them. Green tomatoes and potatoes are verboten.

    If you think you may have an adverse reaction to them, try an elimination diet: don’t eat any nightshades for 4-6 weeks, then try eating some and see if you notice ill effects.

  10. Did we ever stop to think that these peppers are hot for some genetic evolutionary reason. Meaning were not supposed to eat them.

  11. Scott,
    I see what you are trying to say but how would it be justified tht they are delicious then? I am one of those people that can just take a bite of most peppers and eat them straight to enjoy the flavor.

    The SoG

  12. Scott – Many if not most fruits and veggies have some sort of built in defense mechanism. The fact that we can eat these peppers raw and enjoy them is some indication that they are healthy for us despite the painfully (no pun intended) obvious defense mechanism in the form of heat/spiciness. It certainly isn’t defense enough for a huge number of people on this planet and it likely wouldn’t have been for Grok either.

  13. Every year here in Albuquerque is an event called the Fiery Foods Festival. I haven’t gone in a couple of years, but my favorite thing to get there was the chocolate covered habaneros. A buck a piece and is the ultimate sweet/spicy experience.

  14. Son of Grok, did you say stuffed peppers, i’d love to have your recipe!!! I absolutely LOVE peppers, i eat them every single day in salad or even if i make stir-fry, i throw in green, red, orange bell peppers,( almost too pretty to eat) HOW do you bake it, what’s your recipe?

    About pepperoncinis peppers, you’re talking to me now!!! When i saw @ 1st glance, i immediately knew what that is. Actually, i did not know it was called “pepperoncinis” In Louisiana we ate them ALL the time picked AND fresh, but both my grandma’s taught us it was “banana peppers” Actually, my grandma’s and my parents and everybody else in the family that grows veggie gardens always has them. They are excellent taste either way-fresh or pickled, soooooo GOOD!!! They’re sweet and i say “fun to eat.” My family kept pickled jars all year round. And eat’em as a snack is out of this world!!! BON’ APPETITE’

  15. Great stuff! When you have tried a few different types you can enhance your awareness of different flavours and types of hotness.

    Just watch those Scotch Bonnets though, I think that’s what they were. My ex had bought some and I happily shredded about three into something I was cooking, thinking they were small paprikas. Now we both like(d) hot food but this was a disaster and almost inedible. She fell about laughing and told me she would put a whole one in the cooking and then remove it again before serving . . .

    . . . like Habaneros with a turbocharger, they were

  16. remember that this capsaicin doesn’t dissolve in water. but it does in fat and alcohol. so when it’s gotten too hot in your mouth, rather than trying to wash it down with water – take a shot of wine or vodka 🙂

    another thing is, the carotene is absorbed best with fats – so use a little olive or cream in your salads to maximize benefits.

  17. Son of Grok,
    Thank You!I’ll be on the look out for it, can’t wait, i just know it’s going to be delicious, much appreciated!!!

  18. Are you serious about the Habanero being the hottest? You’re not aware of the Red Savina or Naga Jolakia? They’re both hotter than the Habanero, and the Naga Jolakia is absolutely natural. Do you know of any place that lists all the peppers instead of a select few (most sites only list five or six like yours)

  19. Something to remember- if your are cutting peppers, wash your hands thoroughly before touching your face or using the bathroom.

  20. For those looking for a superb list of pepper check out cheyennedianne.com . There’s also recipes. For those wondering the hottest pepper as of Nov.2013 the Carolina Pepper is according to the Guinness Book.

  21. I had a pepperoncini fresh small pepper and I loved it. It is not hot, a little different flavor then a red, yellow or green pepper . It was at a memorial gathering and I am calling the guest tomorrow to find out where she got them. I live in Spokane Washington, and find it unusual to find special foods.

    Kathy Kohlieber

  22. I’ve stuffed pablanos, but came across a long light green pepper and thought ok, I’ll stuff this one as well. Split reseeded, cleaned. About 4-6 inches long and appears “perfect” for stuffing. I got it in the Navy commissary. Known for importing desired foods for dependents. This is HOT

  23. Excellent quick guide. One other thing to keep in mind about capsaicin is that you may tolerate or love the heat in your mouth, your body might react badly. My wife likes to eat hot peppers, but touching them gives her fingers painful blisters and pepper vapor causes her throat to close. Beware of an allergic reaction, especially if you’re cooking with or serving to guests!

  24. Recently,I went to a restaurant,whilst on holiday,here in UK, and amongst the salad leaves were the tiniest little red sweet peppers or tomatoes I have ever seen.
    I have searched online but am unsure what they were.Any advice,please?