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

Serrano peppers are a type of chili pepper that originated in the mountainous regions of the Mexican states of Puebla and Hidalgo. The name ‘serrano’ is a reference to the mountains (sierras) of these regions. They are small but pack a punch in terms of heat, ranking between 10,000 and 23,000 on the Scoville scale. This places them solidly in the medium-heat range for chilies, hotter than the jalapeño but not as hot as the habanero.

Serrano peppers are typically green but can mature into a variety of colors including red, brown, orange, and yellow. They are about two to four inches long and have a bright, crisp flavor. Serrano peppers are commonly used in pico de gallo, salsa, and other spicy dishes. They can be eaten raw or cooked, and are often used in sauces, marinades, and chili.

Ground Serrano Pepper, 4 oz.
Ground serrano provides a bright, grassy bite with a heat that’s often double that of a jalapeño. In powder form, it’s a perfect spice for stews, soups, and marinades. It’s also excellent for seasoning meats, poultry, and vegetables, or adding a spicy kick to homemade salsa and hot sauces.

Last update on 2024-07-14. We earn a commission if you make a purchase, at no additional cost to you. 

Serrano Pepper
Fresh green serrano peppers

Serrano pepper fast facts

Scoville heat units (SHU)10,000 – 23,000
Median heat (SHU)16,500
Jalapeño reference pointEqual heat to 9 times hotter
Capsicum speciesAnnuum
SizeApproximately 2 to 4 inches long, curved
FlavorBright, Grassy

How hot are serrano peppers?

Serrano peppers are medium-heat hot peppers, ranging from 10,000 to 23,000 Scoville heat units (or SHU.) Comparing this spice level to our jalapeño reference point (jalapeños range from 2,500 to 8,000 SHU), serranos run from near equal heat to up to nine times hotter. It’s a significant step up in spiciness.

But compared to that cayenne pepper on your spice rack, serrano chili peppers are a notch down in spiciness. Cayenne peppers range from 30,000 to 50,000 SHU, so serranos can be anywhere from two to five times milder. And, of course, they are no match for the upper-end of the Scoville scale. Versus habanero peppers (100,000 to 350,000), for instance, the serrano is anywhere from roughly 5 to 35 times milder.

For more comparison, take a look at our showdowns where we compare this chili to other popular peppers:

What do they look like and taste like?

In terms of coloration, the serrano is much like the jalapeño. They age on the vine from green to red (and provide variations on their flavor dependent on the color during which they are picked.)

The serrano, though, has a much more elongated shape. They run from two to four inches in length, with a curved appearance. The walls of the serrano are also thinner than those of a jalapeño and there’s much less cavity space, which does limit some uses.

The flavor is comparable to that of jalapeño as well. They have a bright, grassy bite to them when green, like jalapeños. But that grassiness tends to be a little more prevalent in the serrano. As they age to red, they lose some of that grassiness and gain a smoky, earthy sweetness to them. You’ll typically find serranos sold green, but their mature red form is gaining in availability because of this sweeter flavor.

Serrano peppers on the vine

Cooking with serrano peppers

This is a very popular pepper in Mexico – truly a staple in Mexican cooking. They can easily be eaten raw as the skin of this chili pepper is really quite thin with a crisp, clean texture. They aren’t waxy and thick, like poblano peppers. And they make excellent salsa peppers because of this, particularly as a step up from the jalapeño in salsa verde. You don’t need to peel them; they can be chopped and added to the salsa immediately. Serranos are also terrific used raw with sandwiches, salads, soups, or stews.

We’re big fans of pickled serranos as well. This chili does quite well with pickling, and its grassy bright flavor pairs perfectly with that vinegar tang. Use these pickled peppers on sandwiches, on salads, or as a side with grilled meats.

Other tips:

  • As a rule of thumb goes, anywhere you could use a jalapeño in cooking, a serrano pepper can work just as well. The jalapeño, in fact, is your best serrano substitute if you need one (see others). But there is an exception, as noted next.
  • Serranos are not good for stuffing. The pepper’s slim cavity and thin walls make this a bad choice as a popper pepper. Jalapeños are much better suited for this use case.
  • When handling serrano chilies, it’s best to use kitchen gloves. You can pick them up without too much concern for chili burn, but the moment you cut into them, the capsaicin oils are released. The amount of capsaicin isn’t like handling super-hot peppers, but it’s quite a bit more than a jalapeño (and that’s plenty to create discomfort.) Read our article on preventing chili burn to know how to combat it if it does happen.
  • If you want to remove some of the spiciness from your serrano before cooking, remove the membrane (the white pith) from the cavity. It holds much of the heat within the chili. Removing it will certainly turn down some of the heat of your spicy food.
  • Keep an eye on stretch marks on the exterior of the chili pod. Stretch marks (looking like white lines) can mean that this particular fruit may be hotter than others. These stretch marks are called corking.

Common serrano pepper ingredient pairings

You’ll find many of the same ingredients that work with jalapeños, work quite well with serrano peppers, too. Here are some of the most common pairings, but go explore. Unique pairing mash-ups are part of the fun of cooking with chili peppers.

  • Garlic: Garlic is a universal spice that pairs well with almost anything, including serrano peppers. The strong, pungent flavor of garlic complements the heat of the pepper, adding depth and complexity to dishes.
  • Cilantro: This herb is often used in Mexican and Asian cuisines, where serrano peppers are also commonly used. Cilantro’s fresh, citrusy flavor helps to balance the heat of the serrano pepper.
  • Lime: The acidity and freshness of lime can help to cut through the heat of the serrano pepper, making it a good pairing. Lime also brings out the pepper’s natural flavors.
  • Onion: Onion’s sweet and savory flavor profile complements the heat of serrano peppers. It can help to mellow out the pepper’s spiciness while adding a depth of flavor to dishes.
  • Cumin: Cumin’s earthy, warm flavor pairs well with the heat of the serrano pepper. It’s commonly used in spicy dishes, particularly in Mexican and Indian cuisines.
  • Tomato: Tomatoes have a sweet and slightly acidic flavor that can balance the heat of serrano peppers. They are often used together in salsas and sauces.
  • Oregano: This herb has a slightly bitter, pungent flavor that can stand up to the heat of serrano peppers. It’s often used in Mexican and Mediterranean cuisines, where these peppers are common.
  • Mango: The sweet, tropical flavor of mango provides a nice contrast to the heat and bright, grassy flavor of the serrano pepper. This pairing is often used in salsas and chutneys for a sweet and spicy flavor combination.
  • Avocado: The creamy, mild flavor of avocado can help to balance the heat of serrano peppers. This pairing is often used in guacamole and other Mexican dishes.
  • Cheese: Many types of cheese, particularly those with a creamy texture like mozzarella or a strong flavor like blue cheese, can help to balance out the heat of serrano peppers, making them a good pairing.

Some of our favorite serrano pepper recipes

  • Spicy beef empanadas: As a Mexican chili, serranos are a perfect fit for spicy empanadas. We use red serranos in the recipe, but green peppers can also work.
  • Bacon, Egg, and Cheese Quiche: Serranos are a perfect chili to pair with eggs and a nice step up from jalapeños.
  • Chicken satay with peanut sauce and spicy cucumber relish: There are actually a few chilies in this recipe. Green serranos are in the peanut sauce, and there are Thai chilies in the cucumber relish.
  • Chili con carbonara: We went red here as well, as the sweetness is an excellent flavor enhancement to the dish.
  • Five-star chili burgers: Green serrano peppers and burgers are such a delicious match. This is the kind of burger you make when you want something really memorable.
  • Spicy Italian tapenade: This is one of our favorite dips for fresh-cut vegetables, but of course, its use cases are much, much more.
  • Pickled jalapeños: Yes, this recipe uses jalapeños, but it also works just as well with serranos. You’ll find many use cases for this ingredient in your cooking.

UPDATE NOTICE: This post was updated on May 8, 2024 to include new content.
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Andrea B

Thank you for the great tips! I have a recipe calling for these and had no idea what I was getting into. Pretty sure you saved me from one or more novice pains. 🙂

David Kapral

What I like about Serrano Peppers is that their heat is concentrated in mouth, not the throat. They seem to provide a nice clean hotness without much lingering effect.