Cayenne Vs. Habanero – How Do They Compare?

Cayenne and habanero peppers are widely recognizable hot peppers. Though, there’s a lot of differences between the two. How different? How hot are these chilies? How different are their flavors? Their shapes? Let’s compare the two. To note: we compare the fresh version of the cayenne here, but much of this is also true for its popular ground form. We reference places where there are differences between fresh and ground cayenne.

Quick comparison: Cayenne vs. Habanero

Scoville heat units (SHU)30,000 – 50,000100,000 – 350,000
Median heat (SHU)40,000225,000
Jalapeño reference point4 to 2012 to 140
Capsicum speciesAnnuumChinense
OriginFrench GuianaSouth America
SizeApproximately 3 to 5 inches long, curved1 to 3 inches long, pod-like and smooth
FlavorNeutral (peppery)Sweet, Fruity, Tropical, Smoky

Which is hotter, habanero or cayenne?

While both of these chilies are quite a bit hotter than a jalapeño pepper, there is a wide gap in the heat level between the two. Though neither of these chilies top the Scoville scale. 

Cayenne peppers sit at the upper-end of medium heat chilies, ranging from 30,000 to 50,000 Scoville heat units (SHU.) This is a heat range that, while hot, many people can enjoy. In fact, cayenne is the hottest spice commonly found on kitchen spice racks. 

Habaneros are much hotter. The common orange habanero sits in the extra-hot range of chili peppers, ranging from 100,000 to 350,000 Scoville heat units. Many think of the common habanero (and its cousin, the scotch bonnet pepper) as the hottest chili used for everyday cooking. It’s an intense heat, at least two times hotter than a cayenne, ranging up to twelve times hotter.  

Things can get hotter when looking at varieties of these chilies. There are some cayenne varieties that range up to 90,000 SHU, and the habanero has many well-known upgrades. The Red Savina habanero, for instance, starts where the common habanero ends and reaches super-hot heights (350,000 to 577,000 SHU.) No, it’s nowhere near as hot as a Carolina Reaper or Pepper X (two of the hottest peppers in the world), but still well beyond the comfort level for all but extreme eaters.

–> Learn More: Capsaicin – The Compound Behind A Pepper’s Spiciness

How does each pepper taste?

It’s possible to detect a light sweetness or grassiness in the flavor profile of fresh cayennes, but its flavor profile is more often considered neutral. Think peppery flavor with the potential for some sweetness. Cayenne (particularly ground cayenne) is among the best chilies to simply provide heat with no additional flavor to compete in your recipe. If all you want to do is add some spiciness to a dish, cayenne is perfect.

Habaneros are different. They are well known for their tropical flavor: sweet, fruity, and a touch smoky. They are also highly aromatic, so their fruity qualities enhance dishes in which they are used, providing bold heat in the process.

How do their shapes and colors differ?

Cayenne peppers are long and narrow, tapering to a point. Cayennes ripen to bright red but can be consumed when green and unripe. The typical length of a cayenne chili is between 4 and 6 inches and they are about a 1/2 inch across.

Habaneros peppers can be slightly elongated or they can have a more spherical or flattened shape with lobes like a scotch bonnet. The habaneros that show up most often in grocery stores are orange, but red habaneros are not rare with the Red Savina being the most famous example. Habaneros typically range from 1 to 3 inches long and their diameters can be between 1 and 1.5 inches.

Where did each pepper originate?

The cayenne name comes from the region in the South American country of French Guiana. The name comes from the Tupi people who inhabited the region before the arrival of European colonists. Cayennes are among the world’s most popular hot peppers and are cultivated in many places including the Middle East and Africa.

Habaneros are named for the city of Havana but they come from the Amazon Basin and were taken elsewhere in the Americas by Europeans and possibly by the Native Americans as well. Habaneros are mostly produced in Mexico and are popular there. The Yucatan Peninsula has an especially strong connection with the habanero chili.

 Which is easier to find fresh?

Fresh cayennes are not a common item in most grocery stores, though you may find some at a farmer’s market or produce stand. The scarcity may be related to the fact that these peppers have a short shelf life, even by the standards of thin-walled hot peppers. Cayenne plants may be available in local nurseries if you live in North America and these may be easier to find than the fresh peppers. But, of course, ground cayenne is widely available in the spice section of all grocery stores. 

Habaneros are getting easier and easier to find in grocery stores in larger cities and communities with large West Indian and Latin American migrant communities. Overall, habs are easier to find fresh typically than cayenne. They are also a favorite at farmer’s markets and chili farms. 

Which is the most popular?

Looking at how often each is searched online globally, it’s a close race between these two popular peppers. “Cayenne” and variants related to the chili pepper equal 500,000+ searches monthly. Andd the habanero is not far behind, with 380,000 global searches monthly. These are among the most searched chili peppers in the world, with only the likes of the jalapeño being higher (600,000+ searches.)

Which is used most often in commercial products?

Cayennes are used in more commercial products in the sense that cayenne powder is available from more producers than habaneros. Cayenne peppers are also the source of heat in various milder hot sauces and snacks that need a low level of heat.

Habaneros show up in medium-heat hot sauces and a few other commercial products like nuts and salsas. It’s growing in popularity with commercial products, but it’s nowhere near the use that cayenne sees.

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UPDATE NOTICE: This post was updated on December 27, 2023 to include new content.
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