Don’t let their bright, bold colors fool you. Peppers are easily one of the edgiest fruits out there.
With their patented capsaicin bite, these little wonders can bring tears to the toughest eyes, and, never scared to turn up the heat, they practically dare us all to try them.
The Spice of Life
Peppers have so long been associated with their assertive taste that their very name is taken from it – with pepper thought to be an adaptation of picante, the Spanish word for spicy.
Formally, peppers are known as capsicum, from the Latin capsa, meaning “box,” most likely referring to their pod-like shapes. And that scientific designation lends its name to the other crowning feature of most peppers: capsaicin, the spice-fueled chemical responsible for all those running noses, watery eyes and roiling stomachs.
Indeed, peppers have been cultivated for their capsaicin for centuries, with many native tribes in their native Americas using the spice as a medicinal herb. And today, they’re bred to be hotter than ever, sparking games of capsaicin chicken among pepper enthusiasts – and daredevils – everywhere.
Still, not every pepper will leave you running for the closest cold beverage. In fact, there’s a wide variety of these fantastic fruits to enjoy, with a perfect pepper for every heat tolerance.
Bell Peppers AKA Sweet Peppers
The gateway fruit to pepperhood, these babies are mild, tangy, crunchy – and decidedly un-hot. In fact, bell peppers often go by the alias sweet peppers, thanks to their slight sugary bite.
You may recognize bell peppers from their role as the eye-popping rainbow of goodness in the produce aisle (or the veggie dip platter at your garden variety get together). Sweet peppers come in nearly every color, including green, yellow, red, orange and even purple, with each hue imbued with its own subtle taste.
But just because they’re heat-free doesn’t mean they're devoid of flavor. Versatile enough to fry, grill or enjoy gloriously raw, bell peppers are the keystone in everything from Thai stir-frys to Mexican burritos and every delicious bite in between.
Hot Peppers AKA Chili Peppers
Now we’re starting to feel the heat!
There are literally thousands of hot pepper cultivars in the world, and with capsaicin quickly becoming a must-have item in any recipe, more bred all the time.
So we’ve whittled our list down to some of the most popular picante out there:
- Jalapeño peppers: Perhaps the most well-known hot pepper, jalapeños are technically on the average-to-mild side of the Scoville scale, the official chart tracking capsicum spice levels. But their small bites of spice are just the thing to break through rich, creamy dishes like guacamole – or add just a hint of heat to anything from soup to stir-fry. (Bonus: when these babies are smoked and dried they become something known as chipotle peppers, a wonderful ingredient of many Mexican dishes.)
- Habanero peppers: Small but mighty, these little devils are insanely hot – something their fiery red, orange and yellow skin perfectly portrays. Not for the faint of heart, or the pepper beginner, these tiny terrors also pack a bit of a citrusy flavor and flowery aroma, for anyone brave enough to get close to them.
- Cayenne pepper: Taking it back down a few notches, these long, thin red peppers are a bit more palatable for the average human. In fact, Cayenne peppers are typically dried out, ground up and used as a spice to add a bit of punch to any number of dishes.
- Ghost peppers: One of the world’s hottest peppers, too much of these absurdly hot fruits can really make you wish for death – or at least a huge glass of milk. The powerful punch of capsaicin in ghost peppers makes them over 400 times hotter than the average jalapeño. Proceed with caution!
These little guys are as small, round and red as their namesake – and even sport some sweetness in their flavor profiles.
You may also know cherry peppers by their more proper name: pimentos. And you may recognize them from their long standing place at salad bars, in antipastos or sitting snugly inside an olive. That’s right, those mysterious red dots have been cherry peppers all along!
Mild, mid-sized and mostly heat-free, these types of peppers – sometimes also called banana chilis or yellow wax peppers – are thin, long and yellow like their namesake, and also delightfully tangy and just a bit sweet.
Banana peppers are one of those types of peppers people really like to pickle, and as such, they’re most frequently found riding on top of a properly put together sandwich or mixed in with all the other goodies in Italian antipastos.
On the lower side of the chili scale sits the poblano, a large, deep green and pointy-shaped pepper that resembles a bit of an overgrown jalapeño.
Their larger size makes them a popular choice for anyone in search of a pepper with more meat on its bones – relatively speaking. And their mild, slightly sweet flavor makes them a favorite in many Mexican and Central American recipes, where they’re most often roasted, peeled, seeded, and enjoyed for all their smoky peppery goodness.
They may be described as rich and sweet, but don’t let the kind words fool you. These peppers back more than a bit of a bite, ranking 5 times higher than jalapeños on average.
Serrano peppers can come in a variety of colors, including red, brown and yellow, but they’re most typically seen wearing green and growing in long, lean pods that measure anywhere from 1 to 3 inches long, on average.
And though they originally hail from Mexico, their reasonable spice-to-taste ratio has also made them a popular ingredient in all manner of cultural cuisines, including Thai food, Indian food and Caribbean food.
Scotch Bonnet Peppers
Also known as Caribbean red peppers (despite also coming in green, yellow and a beautiful bright orange), Scotch Bonnets are actually offshoots of the Habanero, so you know they pack some serious heat.
Aside from the shock to the palette they offer, these types of peppers are perhaps most recognizable for their unique shape: small, with a billowing top half and almost squished on the bottom. In fact, they’re named after the tam o' shanter hat they resemble – the plaid and be-puffballed toppers most often seen paired with traditional Scottish threads.
Despite being named after the Southern California city, Anaheim peppers actually originated in New Mexico, where they’re more popularly known as New Mexico Chilis or Hatch Chilis.
These types of peppers are usually pretty robust, measuring out to anywhere from 6 to 10 inches. And much like the famous salsas of their native state, Anaheim peppers come in two varieties: red and green. Either packs just enough heat to keep things interesting, while remaining mild enough to substitute for bell peppers in most recipes.
And with so many delicious options to choose from, when it comes to peppers, it’s not variety that makes the spice of life, but spice that makes all the variety.