What’s A Good Serrano Pepper Substitute?

Serrano peppers are growing in popularity, but they can still be surprisingly hard to track down. So what’s a smart serrano pepper substitute that’ll still work with most recipes in case your local grocer doesn’t carry this chili? Here we break down three of your best options to keep your spicy cooking moving along.

Jalapeños and green cayennes both make good serrano substitutes

The best substitute for serrano pepper: Jalapeño pepper

That’s right. The most popular chili in the world is a terrific substitute for the serrano. It’s easy to find (nearly every supermarket carries them), but more importantly they share a similar fresh bright and grassy taste. The flavor integrity of your recipe will be overall intact, with one big exception – the heat.

Jalapeño peppers – while still a medium heat pepper (2,500 to 8,000 Scoville heat units) – can be up to nine times milder than a serrano (10,000 to 23,000 SHU). If heat is important to you, you may need to increase the chili amount required in the recipe to make up the difference. The walls of jalapeño peppers are meatier than the serrano as well, so consider how this may affect usage in your recipe. You may want to dice to lessen the texture difference.

A step up in heat, but harder to find fresh: Cayenne pepper

You won’t find fresh green cayenne in every grocery store, but if you can it makes for a suitable serrano substitution. Green cayenne peppers don’t share the same bright flavor, but it’s taste is neutral enough that it won’t surprisingly affect your dish. The same is true for red cayennes.

Careful, though: This is a significant heat upgrade. Cayenne peppers sit near the upper end of medium-heat chilies – 30,000 – 50,000 SHU. That can be up to five times spicier than the serrano – it’s a level of heat that may be too much for those with sensitive palates. If you opt for cayenne, consider lessening the chili used in the recipe. Spice it up to taste.

Note, too, if you opt for a fresh red cayenne, there will be a color difference in your dish. Serrano chilies are typically sold while green (they age to red), while cayenne peppers are easier to find in their mature red color. If the color matters to your plate presentation, keep this in mind.

From your spice rack: Crushed red pepper

While this may seem like a “no other choice” solution, most crushed red pepper flakes are made from red cayenne peppers. So we’re talking the same overall heat as fresh cayenne, and, frankly, the same over neutral impact on your dish (other than additional spiciness.)

Of course, if the recipe calls for a fresh chili substantially within the recipe, this substitution will not be as viable. This is more of a solution when the serrano pepper called for was primarily there to supply spiciness. There will also be a “peppered” chili flake look noticeable in the dish. If that impact on presentation is of concern, opt for a fresh chili option above.

A fresh/dried combo: Green bell pepper and crushed red pepper

This is a bit of a culinary hack, but it works. Green bell peppers have a grassy, bright flavor, but of course zero heat. You can add in some spiciness with some crushed red pepper flakes, adding until the heat is to the desired level you prefer. This allows you to have a fresh pepper flavor while still getting the spiciness. And you’re more likely to have a bell around than some of the other options above.

It’s a good hack, but there’s one thing to consider. The walls of bell peppers are much thicker than the walls within a serrano. They have more of a bulk to them, and that can impact the overall mouthfeel of your dish. A solution would be to dice the bell down into smaller pieces, so the thicker walls were less noticeable.

Other options

You may have either jalapeño powder (more likely) or serrano powder (less likely), available to you. Either of these powders, of course, work, each providing the expected heat and a level of expected flavor. The tricky part with using either is how much powders permeate a dish where they are used. You can easily overuse a powder, and as such, over-heat your dish. Use moderation and, if it’s possible, taste-test with a bit of powder at a time to get the right level of spiciness.

You may also have dried serranos available, but that’s likely an uncommon scenario. This chili isn’t commonly dried for sale. When it is, they are red serranos, so the flavor will be sweeter and more earthy (even smoky) than expected.

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UPDATE NOTICE: This post was updated on March 20, 2022 to include new content.
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