Chile De Arbol Guide: Heat, Flavor, Pairings, And More

Chile de Arbol, also known as bird’s beak chile or rat’s tail chile, is a small, yet potent Mexican chili pepper of the species Capsicum annuum. With a heat level of 15,000 to 30,000 Scoville heat units, it is considered medium hot. Chile de Arbol are hotter than jalapeños, but not quite as hot as cayenne peppers. Their distinctive flavor, particularly when dried (how they are most often used), is slightly nutty and smoky, which adds depth to a variety of dishes. It is commonly used in a variety of Mexican dishes, including sauces, stews, and soups.

The Chile de Arbol is also popular for its decorative value. When dried, the peppers turn a bright, glossy red and are often used in wreaths, flavored oils, and other decorations. They can add definite wow factor to your kitchen decor.

Dried chile de arbol
Dried Chile de Arbol, note the beautiful glossy red color

Chile de Arbol fast facts

Scoville heat units (SHU)15,000 – 30,000
Median heat (SHU)22,500
Jalapeño reference point2 to 15 times hotter
Capsicum speciesAnnuum
SizeApproximately 2 to 3 inches long, curved
FlavorNutty, Smoky

How hot are Chile de Arbol peppers?

These chilies contain a good medium heat pop, ranging from 15,000 to 30,000 Scoville heat units (SHU) on the Scoville scale. That’s two to fifteen times hotter than our reference point, the jalapeño pepper, but it’s not quite the heat of the cayenne pepper (30,000 – 50,000 SHU), to which it is closely related. Among popular culinary chilies, its heat is comparable to a serrano pepper (10,000 – 23,000 SHU), just with a higher floor and ceiling. The heat itself has a bite, a bit acidic and quick.

There are reports of some Chile de Arbol peppers reaching spiciness in the cayenne range, but that’s not the norm. Yes, at its ceiling, it can be as hot as the mildest cayenne, but its median heat is 22,500 SHU, well below the median of cayenne (40,000 SHU.)

What does it look like and taste like?

The name Chile de Arbol covers both the fresh and the dried form of this hot pepper. It literally means “tree chili.” These hot peppers come from a bush, not a tree, but it’s the pepper stems themselves that make the name so fitting. They have woody stems that feel like branches.

A Chile de Arbol matures from green to a bright, glossy red, and in shape it’s like a mini cayenne pepper. They are slim and curved, but short, only growing to two to three inches in length. It’s a shape that has brought on some other names for this pepper too. In Mexico, you may hear these hot peppers referred to as Bird’s Beak or Rat’s Tail chilies.

But what’s most unique about the Chili de Arbol: Unlike many other commonly dried chilies, it maintains much of its beautiful red hue on drying. Other peppers tend to darken to shades of rust brown or even black. Not the Arbol. Its beautiful red shade makes it popular in ornamental kitchen decor, including chili ristras, wreaths, and decorative bowls.

Fresh chile de arbol
Fresh Chile de Arbol, a similar appearance to a cayenne, just shorter

Beyond the spiciness, there’s a lot of flavor here: earthy with a hint of nuttiness and smokiness (much more pronounced when dried), along with a light grassy undertone. For many, these chilies are tastier than the cayenne pepper (which are more neutral in taste.) And since the heat level is lower too, Chile de Arbol can be enjoyed by many more people in many more ways.

Cooking with Chile de Arbol

Fresh Chili de Arbol can be used similarly to fresh cayenne pepper, just with more flavor and less spiciness. Keep that in mind. While its heat level will appeal to more people, the unique smoky, nutty flavor is far from the neutral peppery taste you get with cayenne. It can drastically change the flavors of your dish.

As to the dried version, it is the most common form of Chile de Arbol that you’ll find. Feel free to grind it into flakes or into a fine powder. From there, you have many options in the kitchen, like any ground spice. Flakes tend to sit atop food more, while powders permeate the dish. Consider that when deciding how much of your ground Chile de Arbol to use.

You can also rehydrate your dried Arbols for use in Mexican rices, scrambled eggs, salsas, and more. Follow our steps on how best to rehydrate peppers.

More tips:

  • If you’re looking to maximize flavor, consider toasting the dried chilies lightly in a dry pan before use, which helps to release their aromatic oils. However, be careful not to burn them as it can result in a bitter taste.
  • Its size, actually, gives the dried variety access to the world of infusions and garnishes. For instance, Chile de Arbol is commonly used to infuse olive oil by placing the whole pods directly in the oil bottle (they are skinny and short enough) with garlic and other spices. You can do the same with iced teas, alcohol (try making a Chile de Arbol infused vodka), and other beverages. These chilies are so slim and tiny that they make unique spicy cocktail and drink garnishes too.
  • Always wear gloves when handling Chile de Arbol, as the capsaicin can cause skin irritation. Don’t underestimate the spiciness here. Chile de Arbol, whether fresh or dried, can near cayenne pepper level heat. Just because the chili is dried doesn’t mean it’s less potent. Take the precautions that you should.
  • Know how to treat chili burn before handling any hot pepper. Milk is the best solution here, but there are others. See our post on treating chili burn to learn your best options.

Common Chili de Arbol ingredient pairings

Many ingredients pair well with the Arbol’s smoky, nutty flavor and eatable heat. Below are some of the most common, but explore your cupboard and spice rack. This chili is ripe for culinary experimentation.

  • Garlic: Garlic is a common pairing for this chili due to its pungent, spicy flavor that complements the smoky, nutty flavor of the chili. This pairing is often found in Mexican and Asian cuisines.
  • Onions: Onions add a sweet and tangy flavor that balances the heat of hot peppers, making it a popular pairing in many dishes, especially salsas and stews.
  • Olive Oil: This is a common pairing due to the Chile de Arbol’s use to infuse cooking oils. The smooth, lightly fruity taste is a good fit to complement the Arbol’s nuttiness.
  • Tomatoes: The acidity and sweetness of tomatoes help to balance out the heat. This pairing is common in Mexican sauces and stews.
  • Cilantro: Cilantro adds a fresh, citrusy flavor that pairs well with the smoky taste of Chile de Arbol. This pairing is often found in Mexican and Thai dishes.
  • Lime: The sourness of lime provides a nice contrast to the smoky, nutty flavor of the Arbol. It’s a common pairing in Mexican cuisine, especially in salsa and taco recipes.
  • Cumin: Cumin’s earthy, warm flavor complements the smoky taste of the chili. This pairing is often found in Mexican and Indian cuisines.
  • Oregano: Oregano adds a bittersweet and slightly peppery flavor that pairs well with chili pepper spiciness. This is a common pairing in Mexican and Italian dishes.
  • Pork: The rich, savory flavor of pork is a great match for the smoky, spicy heat of Chile de Arbol. This pairing is common in Mexican cuisine, especially in dishes like tamales and stews.
  • Beans: The mild, creamy flavor of beans provides a nice contrast to the smoky, nutty flavor of the Arbol. This is a common pairing in Mexican cuisine, especially in dishes like chili and bean soups.
  • Chocolate: The sweet, rich flavor of chocolate can be a surprising but delicious pairing with the smoky, spicy Chile de Arbol. This pairing is often found in Mexican mole sauces.

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UPDATE NOTICE: This post was updated on May 11, 2024 to include new content.
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