How to Cook Chili Peppers

The subject of chili peppers can be very confusing for beginning and experienced cooks alike. There are more than 100 varieties of chilies in Mexico, each with its own unique characteristics. They are used both fresh and dried, and either type can be whole or ground. The same chili can even be found under different names depending upon its region of origin. Chilies range in degree of heat from very mild to incendiary, and the heat can vary within a variety.

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Due to increasing interest in Mexican foods, chili peppers that were once available only in Mexican grocery stores are now readily available in gourmet food stores and many local supermarkets. Not all chilies are available in all areas at all times.

Below are descriptions of the most common varieties and individual chili traits. This way, you'll be able to substitute one chili for another. The character of the dish may change slightly, but it will still be delicious and enjoyable.

A Note of Caution

The heat of chili peppers comes from the seeds, the veins (the thin inner membranes to which the seeds are attached), and in the parts nearest the veins. For milder dishes, the veins and seeds are removed and discarded. The oils from the seeds and veins can be very irritating to the skin and can cause painful burning of the hands, eyes, and lips. Do not touch your face while handling chilies. Wash your hands well in warm soapy water after handling. Wear rubber gloves if your skin is especially sensitive or if you are handling a number of chili peppers.

Fresh Chilies

Fresh chili peppers will keep for several weeks refrigerated in a plastic bag lined with paper towels. The towels absorb any moisture. When purchasing fresh chilies, select those that have firm, unblemished skin.

Anaheim, Jalapeno, Poblano, and Serrano chilies are used in Mexican cooking.
From top to bottom: Anaheim, Jalapeño, Poblano, and Serrano chilies. See more spice pictures.

Anaheim (also called California Green Chili)

A light green chili that has a mild flavor with a slight bite. They are 4 to 6 inches long, about 11/2 inches wide and have a rounded tip. Anaheims are also sold canned. For a spicier flavor, poblano chilies can be substituted.


A small, dark green chili, 2 to 3 inches long and about 3/4 inches wide with a blunt or slightly tapered end. Their flavor varies from hot to very hot. They are also sold canned or pickled. Serranos or other small, hot, fresh chili peppers can be substituted.


A very dark green, very large triangular-shaped chili with a pointed end. Poblanos are usually 31/2 to 5 inches long. Their flavor ranges from mild to quite hot. For a milder flavor, Anaheims can be substituted.


A medium green, very small chili with a very hot flavor. It usually ranges from 1 to 11/2 inches in length and is about 3/8 inch wide with a pointed end. Serranos are also available pickled. Jalapeños or any other small, hot, fresh chilies can be substituted.

Dried Chilies

Dried red (ripe) chilies are usually sold in cellophane packages of various weights. They will keep indefinitely if stored in a tightly covered container in a cool, dark, and dry place.

Pasilla, Pequin, Mulato, De arbol, and Ancho chilies are used in Mexican cooking.
From top to bottom: Pasilla, Pequin,
Mulato, De arbol, and Ancho chilies.


A fairly large, triangular-shaped chili, slightly smaller than the mulatto chili. It has wrinkled, medium to dark reddish-brown skin. Anchos are full flavored, ranging from mild to medium-hot.


A smoked and dried jalapeño chili. It has wrinkled, medium-brown skin and a rich, smoky, very hot flavor. Chipotles are also commonly available canned in adobo sauce.

De arbol

A very small, slender, almost needle-shaped chili with smooth, bright red skin and a very hot flavor.


A triangular-shaped, large chili that has wrinkled, blackish-brown skin. Its flavor is rich, pungent, and medium-hot.


A long, slender, medium-sized chili with wrinkled, blackish-brown skin. It has a pungent flavor, ranging from mild to quite hot. (Pasillas are sometimes called negro chilies.)

Pequin (also spelled piquin)

A very tiny chili shaped like an oval bead. It has a slightly wrinkled, orange-red skin. Use pequin chilies with caution as their flavor is very, very hot. (These are sometimes labeled tepin chilies.)

Cutting chili peppers is a skill you must learn if you want to add a little spice to your cooking. Find out more in the next section.

Not what you're looking for? Try these:

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  • Mexican Recipes: From enchiladas to tortilla soup, the delicious ideas on our Mexican Recipes page are sure to be a hit at your next fiesta.
  • Cooking: Learn the ins and outs of some basic cooking techniques in this helpful article.