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

Fresno peppers are a type of chili pepper that originated in Fresno, California, first cultivated in 1952 by Clarence Brown Hamlin. They are medium-sized peppers, typically about 2 inches long, and are often mistaken for jalapenos because of their similar size and color. The tell is in their wall thickness, as Fresnos are thinner walled than jalapeños, which affects some use cases (worse for stuffing, better for drying.)

Fresno peppers are known for their moderate heat level, which is comparable to a jalapeno pepper, ranking between 2,500 to 10,000 on the Scoville scale. They start out green and mature to a vibrant red color, becoming slightly sweeter, hotter, and smokier as they ripen. Fresno peppers are versatile and can be used in a variety of dishes, including salsas, sauces, and salads, or they can be pickled or roasted.

Fresno Pepper
Fresno peppers, note the similar shape to the jalapeño

Fresno pepper fast facts

Scoville heat units (SHU)2,500 – 10,000
Median heat (SHU)6,250
Jalapeño reference pointEqual heat (with the chance of slightly hotter)
Capsicum speciesAnnuum
OriginUnited States
UseCulinary
SizeApproximately 2 to 3 inches long, slightly curved
Flavor Sweet, Fruity, Smoky

How hot are Fresno peppers?

On the Scoville scale, the Fresno chili ranges from 2,500 to 10,000 Scoville heat units. That again closely mirrors the jalapeño (2,500 to 8,000 SHU), but it can range closer to a mild serrano pepper (10,000 to 23,000 SHU) in overall heat in its mature red form.

Of course, this is a heat level that comes nowhere close to the level of cayenne (30,000 to 50,000 SHU) and it’s miles away from extra-hot peppers like the habanero (100,000 to 350,000 SHU). Overall: this is a heat level that’s very kitchen-friendly, on the milder side of medium compared to other chilies.

What do they look like and taste like?

Fresno peppers look a lot like jalapeños, so much so that they are often confused for each other. Fresnos are typically two to three inches long, slightly curved and tapering to a point. They have a smooth skin and mature from green to a fiery red, again very similar to a jalapeño. To really tell the difference, you would need to cut open the pepper and look at the thickness of the chili’s walls. Fresno peppers are thinner walled than jalapeños. This makes the Fresno a better drying chili, but the jalapeño a slightly better option for poppers recipes.

–> Learn More: Jalapeño Vs. Fresno Peppers—How Do They Compare?

Taste-wise, these two chilies are also quite similar, though the Fresno tends to be more complexly flavored as they age. While Fresno peppers are green, they have a grassy, bright taste, very similar to a jalapeño. But in their mature red form, Fresnos take on a sweet, fruity flavor with a hint of smokiness, too. Red jalapeños are also sweeter than their green form, but they don’t quite take the same level of fruitiness and smokiness is not typical for their profile.

Fresnos of various colors because of maturation, from green to red

Cooking with Fresno peppers

Many foodies prefer the taste of Fresnos over jalapeños for one reason; there’s more flavor depth with the Fresno. It’s a chili that’s ripe for culinary experimentation, but it’s also very usable day to day.

As a general rule of thumb: Any recipe that calls for a jalapeño or serrano pepper, the Fresno pepper is a perfect alternative. They are terrific in salsas, hot sauces, and ceviche, and they stuff decently well too (even with those thinner walls.) Pickled Fresno chilies are loved by many, and cutting them fresh into rings for sandwiches and burgers (like the jalapeño) is very popular too.

Fresno peppers are also a good choice for drying because of their thin walls. The thin walls mean quicker dehydration, preserving the pepper’s flavor and heat more efficiently. Thinner walls also allows for even drying, reducing the risk of any internal moisture that could potentially lead to mold. Once dried, Fresnos are perfect for use in spice rubs, marinades, and homemade chili flake blends. 

More cooking tips:

  • For the best eating experience, use Fresno chilies when they are red. Yes, green Fresnos are tasty, too, but red is when they truly shine. Leaning into the depth of fruitiness and smokiness here is a great way to bring a meal to life.
  • If you have green Fresno peppers and want to ripen them to red off the vine, you may have options. Since Fresnos really take on their best flavor when red, it’s often the case that people want to age them. Read our post on ripening chilies to see what may be possible.
  • Wear gloves when prepping. Fresnos are medium heat chilies, and they can be handled whole (uncut) with little concern for chili burn. But, just like a jalapeño, it’s easy to assume that all’s ok to chop these chilies without kitchen gloves. That’s guaranteed to lead to very uncomfortable chili burn. Wear kitchen gloves the minute you’re doing more than moving a Fresno from one place to another. And know how to treat chili burn in case it does happen to you.
  • The best Fresno substitute is obvious: the jalapeño pepper. They look alike, have similar heat, and even (when green) have similar enough flavors. Be sure to use a red jalapeño if you’re looking for an alternative to the sweetness that Fresno chilies bring when that color. For more alternatives, read our article on good Fresno pepper substitutes.

Common Fresno pepper ingredient pairings

Fresnos, with their heat, sweetness, and smokiness, are an excellent choice for bolder fare, like grilled meats and BBQ. They provide the heat, but also enhance the flavors that you expect. Many of the ingredient pairings below are ones you’ll find in BBQ sauces and rubs. But again, it’s a very versatile chili pepper, so do experiment.

  • Garlic: Fresno peppers and garlic are a classic pairing. The sharp, pungent flavor of garlic complements the moderate heat of the Fresno pepper, adding depth to dishes like stir-fries, salsas, and sauces.
  • Cilantro: This herb’s fresh, citrusy flavor pairs well with the fruity, slightly smoky taste of Fresno peppers. It’s commonly used in Mexican and Southwestern cuisine, where Fresnos are also popular.
  • Cumin: The warm, earthy flavor of cumin complements the heat of Fresno peppers. This pairing is often seen in chili recipes and other hearty, spicy dishes.
  • Lime: The tangy, acidic flavor of lime balances the heat of Fresno peppers, enhancing their natural fruitiness. This combination is commonly used in salsas, marinades, and grilled dishes.
  • Oregano: Oregano has a robust, slightly bitter flavor that pairs well with the bright, fruity heat of Fresno peppers. It’s a common pairing in Italian and Mexican cuisines.
  • Onion: The sweet, slightly sharp flavor of onions complements the heat and fruitiness of Fresno peppers. This combination is a staple in many dishes, from salsas to stir-fries.
  • Paprika: Paprika, especially the smoked variety, enhances the smoky undertones of Fresno peppers. This pairing is often used in barbecue sauces and rubs.
  • Coriander: The citrusy, slightly nutty flavor of coriander complements the fruity heat of Fresno peppers. This combination is common in many Asian and Latin American dishes.
  • Tomatoes: The sweet, slightly acidic flavor of tomatoes pairs well with the heat and fruitiness of Fresno peppers. This combination is a staple in salsas, sauces, and stews.
  • Mint: The cool, refreshing flavor of mint offers a nice contrast to the heat of Fresno peppers. This combination can be found in certain Asian dishes and salsas.

Recipes that work with Fresno chilies

  • Homemade Sriracha: Red jalapeños are the typical chili of choice, but Fresno chilies add some real depth to the flavor, particularly with that light smokiness.
  • Spicy Coconut Salsa: One of our favorite salsas to pair with red meats. Coconut’s earthy sweetness is a perfect match to the Freso’s sweetness.
  • Louisiana Hot Sauce: Typically the world of the cayenne or tabasco peppers of the world, but red Fresnos make an excellent Louisiana hot sauce, too.
  • Homemade Sambal Oelek: Making this popular chili paste at home is very simple and Fresnos work really well here.

UPDATE NOTICE: This post was updated on May 20, 2024 to include new content.
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Woodwrecker

I don’t understand the confusion – Fresnos are much different in shape from Jalapenos. Fresnos are conical and taper to a pointed tip, Jalapenos always have a blunt tip.

Christopher Hampson

I read somewhere that when fully grown and red, Jalapenos develop brown stretch marks along the length, which I found on my own grown ones.
I over wintered what I thought was an Apache chilli plant which has provided an abundance of chillies but was surprised to find that the heat was nowhere as hot as expected, I suspect that they may be in fact Fresno, which do not have any stretch marks, this may be a way to help Identify them.

Carol W

I planted some ‘garden salsa’ peppers two years ago. They were labeled as hot but I was skeptical s to how hot they would be. We loved the peppers. They definitely had a great kick to them with a nice flavor, and a little bit of sweet, too. They make just awesome pepper jelly! I couldn’t find them anywhere last year but this year ordered seeds and am thrilled that the peppers are producing the great spicy sweet taste! I googled them and see they are a hybrid of the Fresno pepper. I always grow jalapeño peppers but have never… Read more »

Salient

I grow both Fresno and jalapeno peppers and have no trouble identifying them: Fresno are more conical, while Jalapeno are more cylindrical. They’re both delicious, fresh, cooked or pickled.
I personally like to “throw” in some Thai and Ghost peppers with them (when I pickle) for a some extra heat, to prevent me from eating half a jar (or more) in one seating.
In my view, Fresno are somewhat more flavorful.

Tom

I recently discussed the heat intensity of Fresno and Jalapeño with someone who grows them in Novato, CA and she said how much they are watered also does affect their flavor and Scoville units level. So I guess the larger ones might be watered more to attain greater size & plumpness which probably causes the mild flavor effect mentioned in others’ comments. The similarity may also sometimes fool the labels at Safeway because they do look alike to me. How wonderful to blend with the sweet bell peppers to create one’s own “relish-jam-jelly” for dips and glazes!

Kathi Anderson

Finally found some Fresnos for my pepoer jelly. Main difference.. jalepenos 1.29 a lb, fresnos, 12.99 a lb!
I hope they are good * and worth it!@)

Brian of Nazareth

I much prefer the Fresno over the jalapeño. Is it just me or do jalapeños seem less hot than they used to be? To me, they now just taste like a spicy cucumber. I’ve also noticed that they seem to have gotten bigger. Maybe they’re bred that way because of the popularity of using them for making poppers and other recipes where they are stuffed.