A Visual Guide to Peppers

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assorted hot peppers on a boardEating spicy food is a lot like running a marathon. They both hurt while you’re doing them, and the next day can be pretty painful, too. You have to fight the urge to quit. Crying is par for the course. Yet you persevere, all the while knowing that you’re going to sign up for the same suffering again in the future.

The world is cuckoo for chilis. Restaurants compete to have the spiciest wings, hottest chili, and most tear-inducing sushi. Competitors on television shows and YouTube series sear the inside of their mouths for our viewing pleasure. Self-proclaimed pepper-heads are always working to bring hotter and hotter peppers to market. In fact, the most tongue-blistering varieties we have nowones with ominous names like the Carolina Reaper and Trinidad Scorpiondidn’t evolve naturally. They are the result of systematic crossbreeding designed to create chilis so packed with heat that only the bravest (or most foolhardy, depending on your point of view) would dare try them.

Eating spicy foods satisfies the deeply ingrained human need to test our limits and see how much discomfort we can take. That’s not the only reason we’re drawn to spicy foods, though. The pain they cause seems to stimulate the release of endorphins, part of the body’s endogenous opioid system, which accounts for why spicy foods “hurt so good” instead of just plain hurting. Capsaicin, the chemical in hot peppers that imparts the characteristic burning sensation, is anti-inflammatory and has numerous health benefits.

Can you feel the burn?

Chili, Pepper, Chili Pepper: What’s the Difference?

Sometimes the English language is unnecessarily confusing. This is one of those times.

Chilis all belong to the genus Capsicum, while peppers are a separate plant belonging to the genus Piper. The black pepper and white pepper on your spice rack are Pipers. However, the cayenne pepper and red pepper flakes next to them are Capsicums, as are bell peppers and all the fruits (yes, fruits) we lump into the category of “chili peppers.” Also, chili, chile, and chilli are all acceptable spellings for members of the Capsicum genus depending on where you live.

Confused yet? Sorry about that, but don’t fret. The difference only matters if you’re a botanist or you’ve been cornered by an incredibly pedantic foodie at a party. For common usage, feel free to use the terms chili (chile), pepper, and chili pepper interchangeably.

What is the Scoville Scale?

The Scoville Scale describes how hot a given pepper is using a unit of measure called Scoville Heat Units, or SHU.

In the original method for rating peppers, developed by the eponymous pharmacist and researcher Wilbur Scoville, a panel of tasters judge the heat level of different peppers. Today, food scientists employ high-performance liquid chromatography to measure how many capsaicinoid compounds a pepper contains, but human tasters still provide subjective ratings and validate the results.

Bell peppers rate a 0 on the scale. There is no upper limit. Currently, the hottest known pepper on the planet, the mysterious sounding Pepper X, claims to clock in at more than three million SHU. That would make it 600 times hotter than the average jalapeño!

Hot Pepper Safety

Capsaicin is an oily substance that can burn your skin and mucous membranes if you aren’t careful. The best way to avoid chili burns is:

  • Always wear gloves when cutting hot peppers.
  • Never touch your eyes when cooking with chilis.
  • Wash your hands with dish soap immediately after handling hot peppers.
  • Be careful not to inhale dried and ground (powdered) chili peppers. Chefs who work with the chilis at the top of the Scoville scale will even wear respirators!

If you forget the gloves and your hands feel like they are on fire, try washing them with rubbing alcohol, vodka, vinegar, baking soda, and/or dish soap. Each of these substances can neutralize and wash away the capsaicin.

The casein in dairy products can help, too. Drinking milk or eating yogurt will ease the pain in your mouth. You can also dunk your burning hands in milk if washing them hasn’t helped. However, should you be so unlucky as to touch your eyes with chili hands, the only solution is to flush them thoroughly with water.

Ultimately, though, the best course of action is prevention. Once you’ve burned yourself, these remedies are only going to provide moderate relief. You’ll still have to live with the pain for a while.

10 Types of Chili Peppers You Should Know

Variety is the spice of life. When it comes to culinary delight, one of the most fun—and potentially most painful ways—to mix it up in the kitchen is by experimenting with the spice level of your food. Here are some chilis you might want to try.

1. Jalapeño Peppers

Also known as:

Chipotle pepper (when smoked and dried), chile gordo (“fat chili”)

How hot are jalapeño peppers?

2,500 – 8,000 SHU

Jalapeño facts:

  • Native to Mexico
  • Used in a wide variety of Mexican and Tex-Mex dishes
  • Not very spicy as chili peppers go, but enough to bring some heat
  • Smooth-skinned fruit that grows 2 to 6 inches in length
  • Generally eaten while green, but you can let them continue to ripen on the plant until they are red

Try these jalapeño recipes:

2. Serrano Peppers

Green serrano peppers

How hot are serrano peppers?

10,000 – 23,000 SHU

Serrano pepper facts:

  • Native to Mexico
  • Can substitute for jalapeño peppers in most dishes, and vice versa, though serranos are a bit hotter
  • Grows 1 to 4 inches long
  • Usually eaten raw, frequently in salsas, sauces, and relishes

Try these serrano pepper recipes:

3. Habanero Peppers

Orange habanero peppers

How hot are habanero peppers?

100,000 – 350,000 SHU, but can be even hotter

Habanero pepper facts:

  • Originally from South America but now grown mostly in Mexico
  • Commonly used in Mexican and Central American cooking
  • Related to much spicier peppers like the ghost pepper and Scotch Bonnet
  • Short, plump fruit usually 1 to 2 inches long
  • Come in a variety of interesting colors and flavors, from traditional orange-colored habanero to the dark purple-brown chocolate habanero
  • Just one habanero pepper delivers more than the recommended daily allowance of vitamin C

Try these habanero pepper recipes:

4. Poblano Peppers

Also known as:

Ancho chili (when dried)

How hot are poblano peppers?

1,000 – 2,000 SHU

Poblano pepper facts:

  • Native to Mexico
  • The largest pepper on this list, growing 3 to 6 inches long and about 2 to 3 inches wide
  • Also the mildest pepper on this list
  • Usually eaten cooked, not raw

Try these poblano pepper recipes:

5. Mirasol Peppers

red hot mirasol peppers

Also known as:

Guajillo chili (when dried), travieso chili

How hot are mirasol peppers?

2,500 – 5,000 SHU

Mirasol pepper facts:

  • Originally from Mexico
  • Also grown in Peru and popular in Peruvian cooking
  • Bright red, skinny pepper that grows 3 to 6 inches long
  • Often used dried (as guajillo)
  • Best known as a central ingredient in mole sauce

Try these mirasol/guajillo pepper recipes:

6. Cayenne Peppers

Red cayenne peppers

How hot are cayenne peppers?

30,000 – 50,000 SHU

Cayenne pepper facts:

  • Native to French Guyana
  • Bright red, skinny, curve pepper that grows 2 to 5 inches long
  • Most often used in dried and ground form to bring the heat to a wide variety of dishes and cuisines
  • The “red pepper flakes” you buy at the grocery store or sprinkle on your pizza are most likely cayenne peppers

Try these cayenne pepper recipes:

7. Thai Chilis

Red Thai chilis

How hot are Thai chilis?

50,000 – 100,000 SHU

Thai chili facts:

  • The term “Thai chili” may refer to many different species, most often bird’s eye chilis
  • Skinny, deep red fruit measuring 1 to 2 inches long
  • Used both fresh and dried in chili pastes, sauces, stews, and curries

Try these Thai chili recipes:

8. Scotch Bonnets

scotch bonnet peppers

Also known as:

Caribbean red peppers, bonney peppers, goat peppers, githeyo mirus

How hot are Scotch bonnets?

100,000 – 350,000 SHU

Scotch bonnet facts:

  • Native to the Caribbean
  • Also popular in the Maldives
  • Short, roundish pepper grows 1 to 2 inches long
  • So named for its resemblance to Scottish tam o’ shanter hats
  • Traditionally used to make Jamaican jerk seasoning

Try these Scotch bonnet recipes:

9. Ghost Peppers

Red and green ghost peppers on the plant

Also known as:

Bhut jolokia

How hot are Ghost bonnets?

855,000 – more than 1 million SHU

Ghost pepper facts:

  • Native to northeast India
  • Red, yellow, orange, or brown pepper 2 to 3 inches in length
  • Once considered the world’s hottest pepper, but has since been beaten by the Trinidad scorpion pepper and the Carolina Reaper
  • First pepper to be measured over 1 million SHU
  • Used by the Indian military in “chili grenades”

Try these ghost pepper recipes:

10. Carolina Reapers

assorted hot peppers in a bowl including carolina reaper

How hot are Carolina Reapers?

1.4 million to 2.2 Million SHU

Carolina Reaper facts:

  • Wrinkly, roundish red pepper measuring 2 to 3 inches long with a pointed tail
  • Created by Ed Currie of the Puckerbutt Pepper Company (yes, really)
  • Currently holds the world record for hottest pepper (as of October, 2021)
  • Can cause severe burns if eaten raw or handled with bare hands

Try these Carolina Reaper recipes:

Are you serious? Don’t try this at home!

Let us know in the comments: What’s the hottest thing you’ve ever eaten? Do you have a favorite chili that didn’t make the list? Maybe the hearty Anaheim, guindilla verde, or aji amarillo?

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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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