Chiltepin Pepper Guide: Heat, Flavor, Pairings, And More

Chiltepin peppers, also known as tepin peppers, are small, round, and fiery chili peppers native to North America. They are considered the mother of all chili peppers, as they are among the oldest known pepper varieties. Chiltepin peppers are often red or orange-red in color, measuring less than 1/2 inch in diameter, but they pack a powerful punch in terms of heat, rating between 50,000 to 100,000 on the Scoville scale. That equals Thai peppers in terms of heat and reaches (at their height) habanero level heat.

Chiltepin peppers are used in a variety of cuisines, particularly in Mexican and Southwestern American dishes, to add a burst of heat and a unique, smoky flavor. They’re often used in salsas, sauces, soups, and stews.

Chiltepin pepper
Chiltepin peppers, tiny chilies with big heat

Chiltepin fast facts

Scoville heat units (SHU)50,000 – 100,000
Median heat (SHU)75,000
Jalapeño reference point6 to 40 times hotter
Capsicum speciesAnnuum
OriginUnited States
UseCulinary
SizeRound, approximately 1/4 to 1/2-inch long
FlavorSmoky, Earthy

How hot are chiltepin peppers?

Be careful if you ever get the chance to pop a few of these peppers in your mouth. For such a small size, they pack a large punch. Chiltepin range from 50,000 to 100,000 Scoville heat units (or SHU.) This makes it equal with Thai peppers in terms of overall heat and roughly six to forty times spicier than your standard jalapeño. Compared to that cayenne pepper in your cupboard (30,000 to 50,000 SHU), the chiltepin begins in heat (50,000 SHU) where the hottest cayenne stops.

Let’s also compare the chiltepin to another tiny chili that’s often referenced alongside it: the pequin. Pequin chilies are quite milder: 40,000 to 60,000 SHU. Their floor is near equal, but chiltepin can be, at their hottest, nearly double the heat of pequin peppers.

–> Learn More: Chiltepin Vs. Pequin—How Do They Compare?

But the heat of a chiltepin differs greatly from most other peppers. They zing you with hotness before calming down quickly. Compare that to a ghost pepper where the heat starts seemingly mild and boils over in intensity over time. It’s definitely a different eating experience.

Where do chiltepin chilies grow?

This is the one wild chili native to the United States. It’s found natively in the Southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico. For a long time, chiltepin plants only grew wildly, a treasure of the land. Native Americans adored this chili, and they still do. It’s a food staple and a medicine (due to the capsaicin in the plant).

Rituals were built around the wild harvesting of the chiltepin pepper—it’s something that brought communities and families together. It’s this sort of indigenous North American history and folklore that’s bringing the chiltepin back to the forefront among chilies in America.

Today, chiltepins still grow wildly, though the regions of wild growth in the United States are few, totaling 15 locations. But many are within protected national parks and forests, like Coronado National Forest. There are domesticated crops as well, but many packages of dried chiltepins are still picked from wild harvests in these regions.

What do they look like and taste like?

These are tiny chilies. In fact, chiltepin are sometimes called bird’s eye peppers because of their tininess (not to be confused with Thai peppers, which are also sometimes called bird’s eye chilies.) The chili goes by many other names, too, including bird pepper, chile tepin, chiltepe, and simply tepin.

Chiltepin are not more than 1/4 to 1/2 inch wide, so multiple chilies can fit on a United States quarter, and they have a round or ovally shape. They follow the common color maturation pattern of most chilies, from green to a beautiful red hue. Overall, they look quite unassuming for the amount of spiciness they hold.

There’s a smoky, earthy flavor surrounding the peppery flavor of the chiltepin. Some also taste a level of nuttiness too. These flavors become even more complex when they are sun-dried (often how they are found on wild plants.) And as the primary heat is intense but quick, the flavors linger with a simmering warmth long after the first bite.

Dried chiltepin chili and poblano peppers
Dried chiltepin next to poblano peppers, note the size difference

Cooking with chiltepin

Enjoying this chili sun-dried is a favorite for many people. In fact, some simply enjoy sun-dried chiltepin straight off the vine. Just pop a pepper in your mouth for an intense experience. 

And even though these peppers are small, people still cook with them. Chiltepins, in both their dried and fresh forms, are often mixed in with sauces and salsas. They are also ground into powders for spices for general use heating dishes of all types. They even make their way into spicy desserts.

A favorite for many is pickled chiltepins. When pickled, the chili is mixed with other spices to create one of the more unique condiments you’ll find. And, of course, chiltepin are a favorite for Tex-Mex and authentic Mexican foods of all types. It’s an excellent chili for burritos, enchiladas, quesadillas, and more.

More tips:

  • When cutting into chiltepin, handle with care. The heat level of these chilies is still low enough that you can typically handle them whole without concern for chili burn. But cutting into any chiltepin, like with any chili, releases the capsaicin (the compound that creates the spiciness.) Wear gloves when cutting them to keep the potential for pretty significant chili burn at bay.
  • Use sparingly, then add as you like. The small size of chiltepin can really fool you into overusing them. That’s especially true if you’re swapping chiltepin into a recipe that called for larger chilies. Don’t think that you need to match size-for-size (like five chiltepin for one jalapeño.) You’ll be in for a surprising amount of spiciness.
  • Chiltepin are also an excellent chili for red meats and barbecue. It’s that earthy, smoky flavor. It maps very well to the bolder tastes you get from grilled steaks, marinated meats, and bolder barbecue sides.

Common chiltepin ingredient pairings

Many of the most common ingredient pairings are also among the most common ingredients you’ll find in Mexican and Tex-Mex cooking.

  • Garlic: Garlic’s strong, pungent flavor complements the fiery heat of the chiltepin pepper. It can help balance the spiciness and add depth to a variety of dishes, from stir-fries to sauces.
  • Cilantro: This herb has a fresh, citrusy flavor that pairs well with the intense heat of the chiltepin. It’s often used in Mexican cuisine, where chiltepin peppers are also a common ingredient.
  • Lime: The acidity and brightness of lime can cut through the heat of the chiltepin pepper, making it a popular pairing in salsas, marinades, and beverages.
  • Cumin: Cumin’s earthy, warm flavor complements the heat of the chiltepin pepper. It’s a staple in many Mexican and Southwestern dishes that commonly feature this pepper.
  • Oregano: This herb adds a robust, savory flavor that can stand up to the spiciness of the chiltepin. It’s commonly used in Mexican dishes.
  • Tomatoes: The sweetness and acidity of tomatoes can help balance the intense heat of chiltepin peppers. They’re often used together in salsas, sauces, and stews.
  • Onions: The sweetness of cooked onions or the sharpness of raw ones can provide a nice contrast to the heat of the chiltepin. This pairing is often used in salsas, stir-fries, and other savory dishes.
  • Mint: Though less common, mint can be an interesting pairing with chiltepin peppers. Its cool, refreshing flavor can help balance the pepper’s heat, especially in more experimental or fusion dishes.
  • Chocolate: In some traditional Mexican dishes, chocolate is used to counterbalance the heat of peppers like the chiltepin. The sweetness and richness of chocolate can temper the pepper’s heat and the sweet-earthiness is a perfect flavor pairing with this chili’s natural smokiness.

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UPDATE NOTICE: This post was updated on May 25, 2024 to include new content.
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Paying attention

IF YOU WANT TO GROW THE CHILTEPIN, /TEPIN CHILE, TEPIN ETC. They are a great tasty dried red pepper to crush and sprinkle on your food or cock with. They can very drastically in heat from “yep that is a hot chili” to “Oh Cr-p that is a dang hot chili!” It depends on when, where, and what growing condition that batch of chilis was grown under. Definitely worth eating! If you are stuck buying a mild salsa crush some and stir them in to add some Good Warmth and flavor or add more for Flavor and Heat.  IF YOU… Read more »

Richard Lando

Chiltepins are my favorite pepper for chili. Using sun dried peppers, I grind half and leave half whole so that they are little heat bombs in the chili. I have a friend that swore he went blind for a few seconds when he bit into one of those the tiny atomic bombs. These peppers have an insanely hot start but the finish is faster than any other chili I’ve tried and I have tried nearly every pepper you have listed. Chiltepins rule! They’re hard to sprout but once you have a plant going they’re hard to kill.

Trey

I grew up about an hour outside San Antonio, Tx. Most years we would have a wild plant growing behind our barn. My grandfather used to dry hundreds of peppers, grind them and use it in a pepper shaker. He put it on everything! …great times.

Bob G

I bought an envelope of 50 seeds for $8 online. Put 24 seeds in peat pots about March. Only two plants sprouted. It is now the middle of September and the two plants are four foot high containing hundreds of peppers. My God, what would I have done with 24 plants? I am patiently waiting for them to ripen.

Glen

I live in Panama. I have found chiltepins growing wild in Panama. There are many wild peppers that grow in Panama. I have not found all of them I am sure. I have found at least 4 variety’s. I am growing all these peppers in the back yard. I just call them wild peppers.