What are habanero peppers?
At one point, the habanero (100,000 to 350,000 Scoville heat units or SHU) held the crown as the world’s hottest chili pepper, but don’t let the fact that certain chilies have passed it by fool you into underestimating it. This is a seriously hot pepper. And unlike many of the hotter chilies, there’s quite a bit of flavor to go along with the extra-hot kick. it has a unique, citrus-like taste with a subtle hint of smoke that makes it very popular in hot sauces, powders, and rubs. If you can handle the heat, this is a fun culinary chili to play with in the kitchen.
Table of Contents
- What are habanero peppers?
- Habanero pepper fast facts
- Where did the habanero originate?
- How hot is the habanero pepper?
- What do habaneros taste like?
- What do they look like?
- What is a good habanero substitute?
- Growing habaneros
- Cooking with habaneros
- Some of our favorite habanero recipes
- Where can you buy habanero peppers?
- Must read related posts
Habanero pepper fast facts
|Scoville heat units (SHU)||100,000 – 350,000|
|Median heat (SHU)||225,000|
|Jalapeño reference point||12 to 140 times hotter|
|Size||1 to 3 inches long, pod-like and smooth|
|Flavor||Sweet, fruity, tropical, smoky|
Where did the habanero originate?
The habanero is a South American pepper. It hails from the Amazonas region of Peru, but it’s really thought of as a Mexican pepper. The Yucatán Peninsula is the biggest producer of habaneros, but it’s grown in many South American and Central American countries, as well as the southwestern United States.
This is a chili that’s been around for a while. In fact, a Mexican archeological dig discovered a domesticated habanero that’s over 8,500 years old. You’ll also find it in many different varieties and colors, from red and orange to dark brown and nearly black. Some of those red (the Red Savina habanero) and black habaneros (the chocolate habanero) actually are much hotter than the normal varieties, tipping the Scoville scale above 400,000 SHU. It also has a popular relative with both a similar heat and flavor profile – the Jamaican scotch bonnet.
How hot is the habanero pepper?
Let’s go back to our Scoville scale reference point, the jalapeño, and compare. The habanero pepper ranges from 100,000 to 350,000 Scoville heat units, pairing it with its very close relative, the scotch bonnet pepper. In terms of eating heat, that’s around 76 times hotter than an average jalapeño. At the extremes (the mildest jalapeño vs. the hottest habanero) it’s a whopping 140 times hotter.
That’s very spicy, but where does it truly fall on the pepper scale? The habanero sits firmly in the extra-hot zone of the scale. It dwarfs mild chilies like the much less spicy poblano (1,000 to 1,500 SHU), but it still falls well short of the super-hot chili pepper range. Compared to a ghost pepper (which can hit one million SHU), the habanero is three to ten times milder. And compared to some of the current hottest peppers in the world like the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion (1.2 million to 2 million Scoville heat units) and Carolina Reaper (1.4 million to 2.2 million SHU), the habanero is really very tame.
For many, the habanero chili sits at the top point of culinary relevance on the Scoville scale. It’s very hot, but the nuances of its flavor still shine through. Plus, it’s often the hottest pepper you’ll find fresh on grocery store shelves. Though, use caution – use gloves when handling habaneros to protect from the severe burning sensation of chili burn. The capsaicin level (the compound behind the spiciness) is much higher than what you find in jalapeños.
To see the habanero pepper compared in depth with other popular chilies, take a look at some of our PepperScale Showdowns:
What do habaneros taste like?
The common orange habanero pepper has a tropical, fruity flavor that make these peppers very popular among chefs, both amateur and professional. And underneath the sweetness, there’s a subtle smokiness as well. There’s a lot to love in the flavor, and it pairs well with many fruits. Tropical fruits like pineapple and mango are obvious good pairings, but apple and orange work equally as well. Because of its flavor, the habanero often stars as the primary heat source for fruit-based hot sauces.
Other habanero pepper types (like the Caribbean red habanero, Peruvian white, or Roatan pumpkin) have similar flavor profiles, but the chocolate hab (like other chocolate-hued chilies) has a smokier, earthier flavor to go along with its extra spiciness.
What do they look like?
The habanero pepper is pod-like in shape, ranging 1 to 3 inches in length. It’s skin tends to be smooth, unlike many chilies hotter than it that have pockmarked skins. It’s a good looking pod that shows well in kitchens.
What is a good habanero substitute?
The scotch bonnet is the most likely candidate here. It shares the same heat profile and it has a similar flavor. Though, the scotch bonnet can be a bit sweeter than the hab. For other potential alternatives, take a look at our in depth post on the best habanero pepper substitutes.
If you have a green thumb, you can grow habaneros with relative ease. They work in a regular garden or, if you’re in a small space, they produce very well in containers. Review our habanero planting guide for more information on how to grow these hot peppers.
Cooking with habaneros
Because of its relative easiness to source fresh (compared to other extra-hot peppers and super-hots), you’ll find lots of recipes featuring the habanero. This chili pepper is popular fresh in salsas and homemade hot sauces in particular. It’s also an excellent chili to use in Mexican food and to spice up beverages and cocktails.
Though remember: A little goes a long way. This is an extra-hot chili, and while it’s nowhere near as hot as ghost peppers, Carolina Reapers, and other super-hots, there’s still plenty of spiciness to heat up a dish with very little added. If you’re using it to spice up a dish, start with a little and work up. It’s easier to do that than to make your food milder after the fact.
As well, chili burn from a habanero pepper is nothing you want. It’s best to wear kitchen gloves while handling. If you want extra-protection, kitchen eye goggles are an excellent way to protect your eyes. Habaneros can be handled whole without too much of a worry (though, it’s still best to use gloves and wash your hands after handling.) But the minute you start chopping, the capsaicin oils can be very painful if you handle them improperly. Read our article on alleviating chili burn, as well as our post on relieving burn from the very sensitive eye area.
- If you want to temper the heat of your habanero, remove the white membrane (that holds the seeds) prior to cooking. Much of the capsaicin is in this membrane, and removing it lessens the spiciness quite a bit.
- Habaneros have a delicious tropical sweetness to them, so consider how you can use that natural flavor to enhance your recipes. Many consider habaneros the maximum heat-limit for true culinary chilies. The peppers above it are mainly super-hots with extreme spiciness where their natural flavors (while often there) are muted by the fiery pain. With habs, you can still use those natural flavors in dishes to accentuate the dish, so don’t think of them as only a heat source.
- Don’t only look to food dishes, habs play well with beverages too. Again, it’s that delicious sweetness and it pairs very well with both fruity and tropical beverages and cocktails.
Some of our favorite habanero recipes
- Carrot habanero sauce: Sweet and a little earthy, carrot is an excellent pairing with the hab.
- Habanero lemonade: This is an excellent spicy summertime thirst quencher.
- Chocolate chip habanero cookies: This sweet and spicy snack turns things up a notch.
- Peach habanero salsa: We pair peaches and mangoes here which are excellent sweet pairings with the hab’s natural flavor.
- Pineapple habanero salsa: Deliciously tropical – great with tortilla chips or as a topper with pork.
- Habanero simple syrup: The simplest way to add an extra-hot kick to any beverage or cocktail.
Where can you buy habanero peppers?
As mentioned, the habanero is more mainstream than most extra-hot chilies. You can find them fresh at grocery stores, often right next to the zero heat bell pepper. You can also find habanero hot sauces and spices both in stores and online (including our Spicery). Both fresh and in powdered form, the habanero is an excellent chili pepper to use in fruity barbecue sauces and marinades during grilling season. You can also buy habanero seeds online or via most well-stocked gardening centers.
- Dried Habanero Peppers (4 Ounces)
- Burpee Red Habanero Seeds
- Habanero Powder (from our Spicery)
If you're looking to cook with habaneros, but fresh habs aren't in the cards, dried are an excellent alternative. Angie's Gourmet Kitchen also gets high marks on their products.
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Burpee seeds typically have excellent germination rates. Note, these are red habaneros, not the common orange variety (if the color matters to you.) The flavor and heat are similar. 75 seeds come in one package.
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Citrusy and sweet, habanero powder is plenty spicy as well -- 100,000 to 350,000 Scoville heat units. Buy directly from our Spicery, supporting PepperScale.
Must read related posts
- Eight Habanero Varieties That You Should Know: Hab varieties often riff on the flavor nuances, and some even border on super-hot levels of heat.
- Secret Aardvark Habanero Hot Sauce Review: Looking for a good hab-based hot sauce to explore? This one scores high marks.
- Does Cooking Peppers Make Them Hotter? If you’re using habs, you’re likely a true fan of heat. Does cooking lessen that spiciness? Find out.
Wear gloves!!! I cleaned jalapeños without gloves once, not nearly as hot as habanero, and then washed my hair. The oils went from my hands into the shampoo running down my face, and onto my eyelids. My eyelids felt like fire for soooo long, even though I kept them tightly shut to avoid any actually touching my eyes.
I haven’t eaten a ton of really hot peppers, but the hottest habaneros I have eaten have been just as hot as the hottest ghost peppers I have eaten … I think there is quite a variety of heat in both (and almost all) peppers.
At the same time I have had habaneros that had very little heat by comparison. I’m not exactly sure what the reasoning is for this variation, but my rule is don’t judge a pepper for its heat until you try it. 😉
I can only concur about wearing gloves. Earlier this year, having decided on a whim to make my own chilli paste, I scoured the foreign groceries in town, only vaguely aware of all the varieties, especially habanero and its cousins. There weren’t too many fresh peppers around due to the global lockdown – the ones I got were a bunch “regular” red peppers, cayenne style, and some friendly-looking pod-shaped ones (obviously, in hindsight, habaneros or a close cousin). Anyway, I set to chopping the blighters, by hand of course because I’m quite used to chillies thank you very much. Halfway… Read more »