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

Jalapeno peppers are a type of chili pepper that originated in Mexico and are named after the city of Xalapa, Veracruz where they were traditionally cultivated. They are medium-sized peppers, typically around 2 to 3.5 inches in length, and are known for their bright green color, although they turn red as they mature. Jalapenos are widely used in a variety of cuisines and are a staple in Mexican and Southwestern American dishes.

In terms of heat, jalapeno peppers are considered moderately spicy. They rank between 2,500 and 8,000 on the Scoville scale. Jalapenos are used in a variety of ways, including fresh, smoked, dried, or pickled, and are often stuffed with cheese or other fillings for appetizers. Despite their heat, they are also known for their distinct, bright and grassy flavor (when green) that adds depth to many dishes.

jalapeno pepper
Fresh green jalapeño peppers

Jalapeño pepper fast facts

Scoville heat units (SHU)2,500 – 8,000
Median heat (SHU)5,250
Jalapeño reference pointN/A
Capsicum speciesAnnuum
OriginMexico
UseCulinary
Size2.5 to 3 inches long, pod-like
FlavorBright, Grassy, Bitter

How hot are jalapeño peppers?

The jalapeño is pretty much the perfect amount of heat for those that like a little kick, but don’t want to challenge their taste buds to a duel. Jalapeños range from 2,500 to 8,000 Scoville heat units (or SHU for short.) That’s a moderate, low-medium level of heat, so most people can enjoy this chili. It’s one of the great culinary peppers in the world, finding its way into Tex-Mex dishes, Thai recipes, Spanish foods, and much more. This is truly a pepper that has fans all over the world.

But let’s put this into perspective with actual numbers. When comparing the jalapeño to some other popular peppers, you can see how far away jalapeños are from being considered “super-hot”. Poblanos are extremely mild (1,000 to 1,500 Scoville heat units) and jalapeños, while a minimum of three times hotter than a poblano, are dwarfed even by the likes of that cayenne powder in your spice rack (30,000 to 50,000 SHU). When comparing to the habanero (100,000 to 350,000 SHU) or ghost pepper (one of the milder super-hot peppers at 855,000 to 1,041,427 SHU), it’s not even close. Against the whole breadth of the Scoville scale, the jalapeño is just not that spicy.

For more on the differences, take a look at some of our showdowns which compare the jalapeño head-to-head with another chili:

What do jalapeño peppers look like and taste like?

At 2 to 3.5 inches in total length, this is as pod-like a pepper as you’ll ever see. Compared to other hot peppers, it’s moderate in total size. Some jalapeños are stouter and some are longer. But in most all cases, there’s a large enough cavity in this chili for stuffing. Common jalapeño peppers age from green to red, and change in flavor (gaining in sweetness) as they mature.

Jalapeños are typically picked (and eaten) while they are still green in color and not totally ripe. In their green form, jalapeños tend to have a bright, grassy flavor. They can even have a slight bitterness to their taste.

There are those, though, that prefer a totally ripened red jalapeño pepper. When red they lose the bright, bitter flavor and gain in sweetness (and often overall median heat). The heat comes from the capsaicin found in the pepper, so the red version—with more time on the vine—tends to be hotter than green. But it’s still within the same 2,500 to 8,000 SHU range on the Scoville scale.

Types of jalapeño peppers

There are dozens fresh jalapeño varieties, some hybridized to grow larger, others to develop totally different colors, and some are bred to be more or less spicy than the common version. You also have the extremely popular dried version of the chili which adds whole new dimensions to its flavor. Three of the more popular jalapeño types are below, but to see more read our jalapeño varieties guide that covers fifteen common type (and groups them by heat level.)

  • Mammoth Jalapeño: This variety is as you’d expect, much larger than your normal jalapeño chili, ranging up to 5 inches long and 2 inches wide. But, the trade-off comes in their heat as they tend sit on the lower end of the jalapeño heat range.
  • Purple Jalapeño: For those looking for a culinary chili that can double as edible landscaping, the purple jalapeño works incredibly well.
  • Chipotle Peppers: Chipotles are dried, smoked red jalapeños that are very popular for Tex-Mex and BBQ due to their earthy, smoky flavor and very eatable spiciness.

What is a good jalapeño substitute?

The best is a serrano pepper. It’s similar in taste – bright and grassy – without the same level of bitterness. Though, it is a step up in heat: 10,000 to 23,000 SHU. They can run from near equal in heat to nearly ten times hotter.

For more alternatives, take a look at our post on the best jalapeño substitutes.

Cooking with jalapeños

This is one of the easiest chilies to cook with, both because they are easy to find in supermarkets and because their relatively easily handled. You can work with jalapeños using your bare hands, but when you start cutting, it’s best to put on kitchen gloves. The capsaicin in this chili can still provide an uncomfortable level of chili burn, especially if you touch your eyes. Jalapeño in eye is a common enough occurrence that we’ve written a whole post on how to remedy it. Also learning how to treat chili burn in general is a very smart first step before handling any chilies.

More smart tips:

  • To get an idea of how hot a jalapeño may be, look at its exterior skin. If there are cracks/stretch marks, those could be a sign that the chili will be hotter than others. Those stretch marks are called “corking” and are common with more mature peppers. Read all about pepper corking here.
  • Leaving the membrane in while cooking jalapeños will provide more heat than taking it off. The membrane contains much of the capsaicin in a chili. So if you want a hotter dish, it’s best to leave it intact.
  • Taste a small piece of the raw jalapeño before cooking or using. Yes, it may not be pleasant, but jalapeños sit at an interesting position on the Scoville scale. At their lowest heat, they border on being mild, while at the highest, they rival a solid medium-heat serrano. Getting an idea of how hot yours is before cooking will help you judge the amount to use.
  • Serrano peppers make the best jalapeño substitute. It’s similar in taste – bright and grassy – without the same level of bitterness. Though, it is a step up in heat: 10,000 to 23,000 SHU. They can run from near equal in heat to nearly ten times hotter. For more alternatives, take a look at our post on the best jalapeño substitutes.

–> Learn More: Cooking with Jalapeños—Important Dos And Don’ts

Jalapeños sliced, and note the stretch marks called “corking”. See our tips above for more.

Green and red jalapeños do have slightly different flavor profiles (green being bright/grassy while red is sweeter.) But they tend to work well across many of the same ingredient pairings. Try these when experimenting with jalapeños in the kitchen.

  • Tomatoes: Jalapeños and tomatoes are often paired together in salsas and sauces. The sweetness of tomatoes helps balance the heat of the jalapeños. Plus that tomato sweetness can hide any bitterness that can sometimes come with green chilies.
  • Garlic: Garlic’s robust flavor complements the spicy kick of jalapeños. This pairing is common in many Mexican and Asian dishes. Don’t overlook pairing red jalapeño with garlic as the sweetness plays quite well with the pungency.
  • Cheese: The creamy, rich flavors of cheese help to offset the spiciness of jalapeños. This is why jalapeños are often found in dishes like nachos or jalapeño poppers.
  • Onions: Onions and jalapeños are a classic pairing, often used in salsas, stews, and stir-fries. The sweetness of the onions balances the heat of the jalapeños and works quite well with the jalapeño’s grassy undertones.
  • Lime: The acidity of lime juice can help to balance the heat of jalapeños. This pairing is common in guacamole and other Mexican dishes.
  • Cilantro: Cilantro’s fresh, citrusy flavor pairs well with jalapeños, double-downing on garden-fresh flavors. These two ingredients often appear together in salsas and other Mexican dishes.
  • Avocado: The creaminess of avocados can help to balance the spiciness of jalapeños. They are often paired together in dishes like guacamole or avocado toast.
  • Mango: The sweet, tropical flavor of mangoes offers a nice contrast to the heat of the chili. It works particularly well with the natural sweetness found in red jalapeños. This pairing is often used in salsas and salads.
  • Pineapple: Pineapple’s sweetness and acidity can help to balance the heat of jalapeños, too. And, like with mango, it works very well with the red version of the chili pepper. This combination is commonly used in salsas and on pizzas.
  • Meats: Jalapeños add a very eatable spicy kick to various meats, making them a popular ingredient in marinades and rubs. The heat of the peppers can enhance the savory flavors of the meat. Chipotle peppers, in particular, star here.
  • Beans: In dishes like chili or bean salads, jalapeños provide a spicy contrast to the mild flavor of beans. This pairing adds complexity and depth to the dish.
  • Corn: The sweetness of corn and the spiciness of jalapeños make for a delightful contrast. This combination is often found in salsas, salads, and cornbread.

Some of our favorite jalapeño recipes

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

In my perception, the US jalapeño is heater than Mexican jalapeño. That’s the reason why people from US are aware of eating jalapeño in México, but is not the same. I had tried in México and in US and I prefer US, because I love spicy food.

WMB

When I lived in New Mexico my co-workers used to grow some great Jalapeño’s, Birds Eyes, and Anaheim type Peppers on there ranches. There is nothing like fresh picked then oven roasted chiles with egg’s, hand made flat bread and home fries for breakfast. 😉