Peppers are a staple in Latino cooking, adding extra flavor, color, and spice to many authentic dishes. Both spicy and sweet peppers are considered non-starchy vegetables, so you can add them to your meals for very few calories and carbohydrates. Most peppers are packed with vitamin C, are fat-free, and may provide vitamin A and other important nutrients. They also add visual appeal to food with their vibrant colors.
The hotness of a pepper is rated using the Scoville Heat Index. We've included each pepper's Scoville rating in this guide to help you choose which to use in your own cooking. Remember that the seeds and veins are the spiciest part of a chile pepper. So if you want to tone down the spice from a pepper, remove these parts before adding it to your food.
Peppers can easily be added to many dishes – Latino or not. You can read about some common peppers below, their degree of spiciness, and the foods that are commonly made with them.
If spicy food is not your thing, then bell peppers or sweet peppers are probably the best options for you. Bell peppers are a mild type of pepper. Fresh bell peppers are crisp, juicy, and have a slightly sweet flavor.
In the summer, their peak growing season, bell peppers come in all sorts of colors: dark green, red, yellow, orange, and even purple or brown.
Bell peppers are very versatile in the kitchen. You can add fresh bell peppers to sandwiches, wraps, or salads, or slice them up and dip them in hummus. You can also cook up these peppers and add them to many different rice and bean dishes, chili, soups, stir-fry, or pasta dishes.
Foodie Fun Fact: Red bell peppers are actually very ripe green peppers. They’ve been ripened on the vine longer, which gives them time to turn red and also gives them a sweeter flavor than green peppers.
Some other mild peppers similar to the bell pepper include pimento peppers and banana peppers.
Scoville Rating: 0 – 100
These peppers are medium green in color and have a long, narrow shape. They have a sweet taste but also have a hint of spice, so they are a bit hotter than bell peppers or sweet peppers. They are great for stuffing and are also used to make salsa.
Scoville Rating: 1,000 – 1,500
Ancho chiles are actually dried poblano chile peppers. They are about 3-4 inches long, and are a dark reddish-brown color. These peppers are ground up and used to make the chili powder that many of us keep on our spice racks.
Scoville Rating: 1,000 – 1,500
This type of chile pepper is a very dark green, and can be almost black in color sometimes. Its degree of spiciness can vary. The darker in color a poblano chile is, the richer in flavor it will be. They come in a triangular shape and are usually about 2-3 inches wide and 4-5 inches long. The thick walls of poblano chiles make them perfect stuffing, so they are often used to make chiles rellenos, a dish found on the menu at many Mexican restaurants.
Scoville Rating: 2,500-3,000
These smooth dark chiles range from hot to very hot. They are smaller in size – usually about 2 inches long and an inch or less in diameter. In their dried form, jalapenos are called chipotles or chipotle peppers. You can use them in sauces, as a topping for tacos or in other dishes like pizza or casseroles. They are also added to many salsas.
Scoville Rating: 2,500 – 5,000
Serrano peppers are a bit spicier than the jalapeno. This small chile is hot and savory. Serrano peppers are usually slightly smaller than a jalapeno and come to a point at the tip. They can vary in color from bright green to red to yellow. These peppers are often cooked and used in sauces, guacamole, or salsas.
Scoville Rating: 5,000 – 15,000
Chipotles are jalapeno peppers that have been dried and smoked. They can also be found pickled and canned in adobo sauce. In Latino culture, pickled chipotle peppers are often eaten as appetizers. But they are also added to stews, sauces, and salsas for a smoky, spicy flavor.
Scoville Rating: 10,000
This is a very hot, bright red chili. They are used mostly to make cayenne pepper, another spice found in many spice cabinets. Cayenne pepper is used in many types of cooking, and adds a distinct spicy flavor to your food. It is most commonly used in soups and sauces.
Scoville Rating: 30,000 – 50,000
Habanero chile peppers are extremely hot and have a distinct flavor. They are small and lantern-shaped. They can vary greatly in color, ranging from orange to pink to green or even white. You can find them in both fresh and in dried form at the store, and they are usually used to make very spicy sauces.
Scoville Rating: 100,000-350,000
To see a demonstration of how to cut and prepare peppers in the kitchen, check out our videos this month from Michael Marks:
by Olga V. Fuste, MS, RD, CD
Take a culinary journey through Latin America! This cookbook provides over 100 recipes in both Spanish and English. From empanadas and corn dishes, to rice, beans, and hearty stews - you’ll love bringing the taste of Latin America into your home
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