Serrano Pepper Guide: Heat, Flavor, Uses

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What are serrano peppers?

If you’ve been a fan of jalapeño peppers and you’re looking for the next jump up the Scoville scale, then a great next landing point is the serrano pepper. They have a bright, grassy flavor and a surprising medium heat level (10,000 to 23,000 Scoville heat units) that’s hotter than a jalapeño, without being scorching hot. The serrano pepper is an excellent culinary chili, with a wide range of uses (just like the jalapeño), from using them raw on sandwiches and salads to roasting them as a spicy side. It’s also an excellent hot pepper for homemade salsas and hot sauces.

Serrano Pepper

Table of Contents

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.

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:

Where does the name come from?

Serrano peppers hail originally from the same region as poblano peppers, the Puebla region of Mexico. The name actually translates to “from the mountains” giving you a really good hint on where serranos love to grow (though they are not at all frost-resistant). Today, it’s widely grown in Mexico and the United States. The main growers of serrano peppers in Mexico actually cultivate about 180,000 tons of these chilies every single year. That’s a lot of pepper.

What do they look 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.

What do serrano peppers taste like?

The flavor is similar to that of jalapeño as well. They have a bright, grassy bite to them when green. 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.

What are some good serrano pepper uses?

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.

Cooking with serrano peppers

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-hots like the Carolina Reaper, but it’s quite a bit more than a jalapeño (and that’s plenty to create discomfort.) Be prepared prior. Read our article on preventing chili burn to know how to combat it if it does happen. We also recommend reading our “jalapeño in eye” article as it holds for serranos as well (and the eye area is particularly painful for chili burn.)

Other tips:

  • As a rule of thumb goes, anywhere you could use a jalapeño in cooking, a serrano pepper can work just as well, with a few exceptions to note:
    • 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.
    • Serranos are not good peppers for drying. The thin skin and narrow shape are not conducive to drying. It’s possible, but they aren’t an ideal choice.
  • 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 stress marks on the exterior of the chili pod. Stress marks like white lines can mean that this particular fruit may be hotter than others.

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.
  • 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.

What are good serrano pepper substitutes?

The most obvious (and easiest to find) is simply using a jalapeño pepper instead. Yes, you lose on overall heat, but the flavors are similar enough to use as a replacement in nearly any recipe scenario.

For more options, take a look at our full list of serrano pepper substitutes.

Growing serranos

These are excellent chilies to grow at home. In fact, the serrano pepper plant does quite well in a container (a 3-gallon pot is recommended), so it’s an excellent chili for small-space gardening. To learn more, read our serrano pepper planting guide, which covers all you need to know.

Where can you buy serrano peppers?

You have many choices when it comes to this chili. Fresh serranos can be found not only in Mexican markets but also more and more often at your local grocery store. They’ll often be available in their fresh green color, but some may sell fully mature red chilies as well. Also, be sure to check out your local farmers market and any chili farms near you.

You can pick up dried serrano chilies as well. Again, this isn’t a common form for them, but you can find these dried chilies online. They are typically dried and sold when red.

And, of course, if you have a green thumb, it’s easy to pick up serrano pepper seeds online or from a local gardening center. This chili is popular enough that many will carry them in stock.

So if you’re looking for that step up the ladder from the jalapeño, landing on serrano peppers is a very good choice. They’ve got the added heat without being scorching hot and offer many options in terms of eating and products. Take the dive and give the serrano some quality time in your kitchen.

  1. Whole Dried Serrano Chiles (1 Pound Box)

    Dried serrano peppers are not commonly found, but these dried reds are excellent to have around to provide heat, plus delicious sweet earthiness to a dish.

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    We earn a commission if you click this link and make a purchase at no additional cost to you.

  2. Green Serrano Powder  (4 ounces)
    $14.50 ($3.62 / Ounce)

    This chili powder gives you that bright, grassy bite that you'd expect. It's a terrific way to have the flavor of green serrano chilies at your fingertips no matter the time of year.

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    We earn a commission if you click this link and make a purchase at no additional cost to you.

    02/18/2024 02:19 pm GMT
  3. Serrano Pepper Seeds

    Serranos are easy to grow and do very well in containers. This packet is from Survival Garden Seeds. Expect germination in 14 to 28 days from planting.

    Buy Now

    We earn a commission if you click this link and make a purchase at no additional cost to you.

    02/18/2024 03:59 pm GMT

UPDATE NOTICE: This post was updated on November 8, 2022 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.