Cayenne Vs. Jalapeño – How Do They Compare?

Cayennes and jalapeños are two of the most popular chilies in the world. They are both very common in the kitchen, but their looks, heat, and use cases typically differ quite a bit. Let’s compare these two chilies – their heat, flavor, use cases, and more.

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Which is hotter, the cayenne or the jalapeño?

While both jalapeños and cayennes are considered medium heat chilies, cayennes are much hotter by a wide stretch. In fact, these two chilies both sit at the borders – one close to mild, the other close to extra-hot.

Jalapeño peppers range from 2,500 to 8,000 Scoville heat units (or SHU.) That range is on the low end of medium heat, only slightly hotter than poblano peppers (1,000 to 1,500 SHU) and below serrano chilies (10,000 to 23,000 SHU.)

Cayenne peppers, whether fresh or dried into a powder (how many experience cayenne in the kitchen), range from 30,000 to 50,000 SHU, which puts them at the upper end of medium heat on the Scoville scale. Their range puts them closer to Thai peppers (50,000 to 100,000 SHU) than to milder chilies like the poblano.

Let’s compare these chilies by how often they are searched online. “Jalapeño” and variants are search 600,000+ times monthly globally. “Cayenne” and variants are searched roughly 500,000 times monthly, though there are more unrelated products named “cayenne” (like the famous Porsche Cayenne) that muddies those waters. All in, these are both extremely popular chilies, but the jalapeño is searched for more often than the cayenne.

How does each pepper taste?

Cayenne peppers have little flavor aside from their heat, and that neutral taste is their main appeal. You can use them — usually dried and powdered for easy measuring — to add heat to a dish without affecting its other flavors.

Green jalapeños have the same kind of bright, grassy flavor that you would get from green bell peppers. If the jalapeños are ripened to red, they gain in sweetness. They aren’t as sweet as tropical chilies, like habaneros or scotch bonnets, but it’s still adds a delicious depth to the ripe version of the chili.

—> Learn More: Green Vs. Red Jalapeño – How Do They Compare?

How do they differ in shape and colors?

Cayenne peppers are narrow, long, and curved. The typical size range is four to six inches, but some can get even longer. They are also only about half an inch across at their widest point and taper down to a point. There are several different colors of cayenne peppers but most ripen to bright red, and they are usually used in their ripe state.

Jalapeños are shorter, fatter and more bullet-shaped than cayennes; they are also relatively straight with a smooth and glossy exterior. Jalapeño peppers measure between two and a half and three inches long but are usually about an inch in diameter. There are many jalapeño colors including yellow and purple. Jalapeños are typically eaten while still green, but many foodies have discovered the delicious sweetness of a ripened red jalapeños and they are becoming more prevalent in dishes.

–> Learn More: Purple Jalapeño Guide – Heat, Flavor, Uses

Where did each pepper originate?

Cayenne peppers are named for a region in French Guiana, which got its name from Tupi Indians. Jalapeños have been cultivated in Central America for millennia. The jalapeño name indicates that they come from Jalapa — which is the same place as Xalapa — a city in Veracruz. Before they were called jalapeños, they were called cuaresmeños. The cuaresmeños name is related to the Roman Catholic season of Lent, which was originally the time of year that these peppers were available.

Modern farming techniques now allow farmers to produce them all year. According to one story, the jalapeño name was given after a business in Xalapa began pickling them and shipping them to other parts of Mexico and the world.

Can one be substituted for the other?

While they are both chilies, and as such can provide spiciness to a dish, cayennes and jalapeños are just different enough that substituting needs to be considered carefully.

Fresh jalapeños subbing for dried cayenne powder (and vice versa) can be a complicated substitute. Recipes that call for a fresh chili typically want the crunch of the pepper (and the chili’s natural flavor) in the eating experience. And even if it’s just heat that’s called for, you’ll want to take great care in how much cayenne you add.

It’s an easier substitute when comparing jalapeño powder and cayenne powder. Both are dried chilies, and they can be used in 1:1 ratios. Just know that jalapeño powder will be quite a bit milder and have a bright, grassy flavor compared to the more neutral cayenne.

–> Learn More: What’s A Good Cayenne Pepper Substitute?

Which is easier to find fresh?

You won’t find fresh cayennes in many chain grocery stores. You may see them in some produce markets or Latin stores. Cayennes are one of those peppers that it is probably best to grow yourself if you want them fresh. Jalapeños are arguably the most widely available hot pepper in the United States and can be found in most grocery stores that sell produce.

Which is used most often in commercial products?

Cayenne peppers appear in many commercial products. There are hundreds of cayenne powders, hot sauces, and even nutritional supplements. Similarly, there are hundreds of jalapeño products, but nowhere near as many as those containing cayenne. Jalapeños are pickled and used to flavor nuts, sausages, and mustard, among many other products.

UPDATE NOTICE: This post was updated on May 9, 2023 to include new content.
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