What’s A Good Thai Chili Pepper Substitute?

Because Thai peppers are a must for many traditional Asian recipes, they are readily available dried and jarred in many supermarkets. But what if they’re out? Or what if you want something fresh? Where can you turn? What other chilies work as a Thai chili pepper substitute, both in flavor and in heat, so that your eating experience is as close to the recipe as possible? Let’s review your best alternatives.

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Thai Peppers
Fresh Thai peppers – cayenne chilies can work as a substitute

Your best bet: Cayenne pepper

No, the cayenne pepper is not as hot. It ranges from 30,000 to 50,000 on the Scoville scale, which makes it at least half the heat of a Thai pepper, but still a punchy medium heat. But what the cayenne offers is a similar enough taste (neutral, peppery in flavor) and a lot of versatility. 

Beyond the heat, the cayenne (like the Thai chili) doesn’t compete with the other flavors in a dish. And it’s widely available in so many forms, from cayenne pepper powder and red pepper flakes to dried chilies, and sometimes even fresh in local markets. That flexibility gives you a lot of control and a near 100% chance of finding cayenne in some variety when you need it. In fact, your spice rack might already have a bottle of cayenne powder or red pepper flakes in it.

Just note: the various pepper grinds do impact usage. Cayenne powder will permeate a dish with its fine grind, while flakes typically sit atop food, providing less overall spiciness.

A lesser-heat fresh alternative: Serrano pepper

We are dipping a lot farther down the Scoville scale to get to your best fresh option. Serrano peppers also provide a medium-kick, but they are typically half the heat of even the cayenne (10,000 to 23,000 Scoville heat units). At their hottest, they’d still be four times milder than the hottest Thai chili you’d experience.

But the serrano pepper is one of the hottest chilies with a milder flavor that you’ll find fresh in many mainstream supermarkets. Yes, some grocers now carry the very hot habanero pepper, but habaneros are fruitier and more tropical in taste, making them much harder to pair with your standard Asian cuisine.

The serrano, on the other hand, has a jalapeño-like brightness with a lot more bite. It’s crisp and slightly grassy, so it makes a good everyday pepper across many cuisine styles. If your recipe calls for fresh Thai chilies, reaching for the serrano is likely the best alternative available to you.

If you have a choice, opt for red serranos instead of green. The red color closely matches Thai chilies, so your dish will look as you expect. When red, serranos take on some sweetness as well, but the chili is still quite versatile across regional cuisines.

In a pinch (spice rack grab): Crushed red pepper

This ties into cayenne recommendation above, but it deserves its own call-out. Crushed red pepper (or red pepper flakes) is (typically) made with cayenne pepper cut with other milder chilies, so the heat is not quite to the level of Thai peppers. It’s not quite the spiciness of pure cayenne either, with a typical median heat at roughly 22,500 Scoville heat units (close to the top heat of a serrano.)

But it’s likely sitting right on your spice rack or maybe even next to your salt and pepper. If your recipe can work with CRP, it’s a viable alternative when in a pinch.

Must-read related posts

  • The Hot Pepper List: We profile over 150 different chilies. Explore our list that links to each and allows you to filer by name, heat, flavor, origin, and more.
  • Our Hot Sauce Rankings: We’ve reviewed and ranked over 100 hot sauces to help you discover your next new favorite. See how they rank and even search by peppers used.
  • Daltjie Chili Bites Recipe: We use peri-peri pepers, but Thai chilies work just as well!

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UPDATE NOTICE: This post was updated on June 21, 2024 to include new content.
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Tim

Any insight into which Thai pepper is the best substitute for the jalapeno – given that we cannot get jalapenos to grow in Thailand? Thx!