Here is a list of chili peppers used in Mexican cuisine, including fresh peppers, dried peppers and smoked peppers.
Chili peppers are an essential ingredient to many global cuisines, and this is absolutely clear when it comes to Mexican cooking. Mexican cuisine incorporates a large number of different chili peppers, both fresh and dried, though only about a dozen or so are more commonly used. Anyone who has ever tried Mexican food would have to agree that it ranks among the world’s most flavorful.
Chili peppers offer up both heat and flavor, though the best Mexican recipes focus on a balance of the two, without a specific emphasis on Scoville heat, though there are plenty of pepper options that offer a wonderful heat level for the spicy food lover.
Below is a list of the most commonly used chili peppers in Mexican cooking. It is not an exhaustive list. You’ll notice that many fresh peppers have different names when they are dried. This is because dried peppers offer a completely unique flavor compared to the fresh version.
Many peppers are dried and smoked to add another flavor dimension, and also have different names. For example, a smoked jalapeno pepper is called the chipotle.
Mexico is filled with diversity, and certain regions favor certain chili peppers over others, though these are the most popular.
The Anaheim pepper is a mild, medium-sized chili pepper that grows to 6-10 inches in length. It is often used for cooking in recipes when green, though it can be used when red. It is a versatile pepper named for its city of origin, Anaheim, California, though you’ll find it used in Mexican cuisine.
The chilaca pepper is a mildly hot pepper that is an important part of Mexican cuisine. The fresh pods are rarely used. When dried, the dark green skins darken to a richer brown-black color. It is then called the chile negro or pasilla pepper, which is hugely popular for many sauces and dishes.
The poblano is an extremely popular Mexican chili pepper. They are mostly picked when green for general cooking. They are mild peppers, perfect for stuffing. They are often roasted and peeled when cooking with them, or dried. When dried, they are called ancho chilies.
The habanero pepper is named after the Cuban city of La Habana. They are smaller pods and quite hot. You’ll most likely encounter them as bright orange or red peppers, though there are many varieties.
America’s favorite chile pepper is by far the jalapeño, a bright green little guy that can be lovingly incorporated into just about anything, from soups to Lemonade, so widely used in the United States. The majority of our jalapeño peppers come from Mexico, where the natives eat them as snack foods, plucking them in droves from sidewalk carts and fields. The red variety of the jalapeño is a bit fruitier than the green variety, and sweeter as well.
The mirasol pepper is a popular chili pepper in the Mexican culture widely known for making traditional Mexican mole sauces. The name translates to “looking at the sun” in Spanish, taken from how the peppers grow upright on the plant, literally “looking” at the sun as they grow on the plant with their bright red color. You may know mirasol peppers by their dried variety, the guajillo pepper, which is much more common and hugely popular in Mexican cuisine.
The serrano pepper originated in the Mexican states of Puebla and Hidalgo, in the mountainous regions. The name of the pepper, serrano, actually is a reference to the mountains (sierras) of those areas. Serrano peppers are quite spicy, perfect for salsas, sauces, relishes, garnishes, making hot sauce and more. They are usually best when roasted.
The Chilhuacle Amarillo is a Mexican chili pepper variety, part of a trio that also includes the Chilhuacle Negro (Brown) and the Chilhuacle Rojo (Red). Together they are an important part of Oaxacan cuisine, particularly mole sauces.
Pequin peppers are very small chili peppers that pack a punch of heat. The pods ripen to a vibrant red, and offer a spicy, nutty, smoky flavor.
The Ancho Pepper is the dried version of the poblano pepper, and one of the most popular peppers in Mexican cuisine as well as Tex Mex cooking and of the southwest U.S. It is so important, in fact, that the peppers get their own name after being dried. Instead of simply calling them “dried poblanos”, they are called “ancho peppers”.
The name “cascabel” means “little bell” or “sleigh bell” or “rattle” in Spanish, because of the dried pods distinctive rattling sounds from the seeds within, which come lose from shaking them.
Chiles de Árbol are small and thin Mexican peppers, growing to 2-3 inches long and less than a ½ inch wide. They mature to a bright, vibrant red, and are harvested and used at this stage. Chile de Árbol means “tree chili” in Spanish, a name which refers to the woody stem of the pepper.
Chipotle Peppers are smoked, dried jalapeno peppers. Most jalapenos are sold green. However, as jalapeno peppers age, they turn red on the vine as they fully ripen and eventually begin to dry. These red jalapeño peppers are plucked and smoked for days with soaked wood until dried, turning them into chipotle peppers. There are actually 2 types of chipotle pepper.
The guajillo pepper is a beloved pepper used in Mexican cuisine. It is the dried form of the mirasol chili pepper, second in popularity only to the ancho, offering sweet flavor and mild-medium heat. They are great in moles, sauces, salsas and soups and chili, especially in salsa for tamales.
Morita peppers are a type of chipotle pepper made from smoked, red-ripe jalapeno peppers. The main difference is that Moritas are smoked for less time, which leaves them softer and retains their slightly fruity flavor.
The Mulato pepper is a mild to medium dried poblano, similar to the ancho pepper, but with a slightly different flavor. The ancho is a poblano that ripens to a deep red, while the mulato is a poblano that ripens to brown, then is dried.
Pasilla (chile pasilla) or “little raisin” refers to the dried chilaca pepper, a popular Mexican chili pepper. Pasilla peppers are very popular in Mexican cuisine and cooking, particularly for making sauces like moles, table sauces and salsas.
The puya chile is a Mexican pepper similar to the popular guajillo pepper, but smaller and hotter known for its fruity flavor and aroma.
There are, of course, other peppers that are used in Mexican cooking. As mentioned, this is not an exhaustive list, but meant to introduce you to the more commonly used peppers.
If you have any suggestions for peppers that might be added, please feel free to contact me and I will be very happy to review. — Mike H.
A Note about Spelling and Nomenclature
The spelling of “chili” is a somewhat contentious one in the United States, primarily depending on region. In Mexico, it is spelled “chile”, which is native to the language. In the U.S., it is variably spelled either “chili” or “chile”. “Chile” is used mostly in the American Southwest and New Mexico.
“Chili”, on the other hand, is used more often, and is the Americanized spelling. In England and Europe, “chilli” is more commonly used. See my post on How to Spell Chili Pepper? Is it Chili, Chile or Chilli?
Mike is the author of “The Spicy Food Lovers’ Cookbook” and “The Spicy Dehydrator Cookbook“. He is a chili pepper enthusiast who has run Chili Pepper Madness for many years.