12 Essential Chili Peppers for Mexican Cooking

If there is one vegetable that is a staple of Mexican cuisine it would have to be the Chili Pepper. It’s amazing the range of chili peppers you can use, and the best part is that once you start using them you’ll want to experiment with them in other recipes. Today, we are taking the mystery out of cooking for chili peppers with our 12 Essential Chili Peppers for Mexican Cooking.

Add a little zip to your cooking with one of these 12 Essential Chili Peppers. Pin to your Cooking Board!

We’ve tried to include as much information below to give you a good basic knowledge but don’t be afraid to experiment and substitute where ever you like. Most of the fresh chili peppers in this list can easily be found at most grocery stores. The dried varieties may be more difficult to locate depending on your locale but they store well so once you find them you can purchase a fairly significant amount at one time.

If you are looking for basic recipes for your Mexican cooking, we shared many ranging from Classic Guacamole to Homemade Flour Tortillas, and beyond basics in our Mexican Recipes.

Chiles de Arbol

  • heat index 15,000-30,000 Scoville units
  •  primarily used in powdered form to make sauces, but can also be used in soups and stews.

Chile de Arbol is also known as either bird’s beak chile or rat’s tail chile. They are a very distinctive bright red col0r when mature. These peppers can be found either dried fresh or powdered and are often used to decorate wreaths because they do not lose their red color after they are dried. You can substitute Cayenne pepper with Chile de Arbol in most recipes.


  • heat index 2,500–10,000 Scoville Units
  • most widely used chile pepper

Jalapeno is a medium-sized chili pepper, mature it is 2–3½ inches long and is commonly picked and consumed while still green, occasionally it is allowed to fully ripen and turn a beautiful crimson red. One of the most if not the most common chiles in the United States it is a staple of many tailgates.


  • heat index 1,000-3,000 Scoville units
  • Cascabel is perfect for adding a touch of heat to soups, salsas, stews and sauces

Cascabel chile, also known as the rattle chili, is a Mirasol variety and gets it’s name from the tendency of loose seeds to rattle inside a dried cascabel when shaken. The pigmentation of the fresh chilis blends from green to red and darkens when dried.


  • heat index 100,000–350,000 Scoville units
  • often the main ingredients in bottled hot sauces

Unripe habaneros are green, and they color as they mature. Common colors are orange and red, but white, brown, and pink are also seen. They are the hottest commonly used chile in Mexican cuisine so be careful when preparing them.


  • heat index 1,000-2,000 Scoville units
  • commonly used in mole sauces

The poblano is a mild chili pepper. Dried, it is called a chile ancho. The ripened red poblano is significantly hotter and more flavorful than the less ripe, green poblano. The flavor and heat can be unpredictable, occasionally they can have significant heat.


  • heat index 250-4,000 Scoville units
  • great with fruits, duck, seafood, lamb, mushrooms, garlic, fennel, honey or oregano.

Pasilla or “little raisin” refers to the dried chilaca pepper. Many times grocers miss label these for Ancho chiles. The Pasilla chile is normally 8 -10 inches long and narrower than Ancho.


  • heat index 500-2,500 Scoville units
  •  commonly used in salsas, and can be roasted and stuffed to make rellenos

The mildest variety of chili pepper, also called California chili or Magdalena. Since Anaheim peppers originated from New Mexico, they are also sometimes also known as New Mexico peppers. Varieties of the pepper grown in New Mexico tend to be hotter than those grown in California.


  • heat index 2,500-8,000 Scoville units
  • rich slightly fruity flavor

Morita is a smoke-dried jalapeno, commonly referred to as a chipolte.


  • heat index 2,500-5,000 Scoville units
  • used in pastes, butters or rubs to flavor all kinds of meats, especially chicken

The guajillo chili is characterized by it’s thin, deep red flesh. It has a mild green tea flavor with berry overtones, only a small amount of heat. They are sometimes used to make the salsa for a sweet taste with a surprisingly hot finish.


  • heat index 1,000-2,000 Scoville units
  • Ancho along with Pasilla and Guajillo make up the “holy trinity” widely used in mole sauces

Ancho is the dried form of Poblano chiles and the most widely available dried chiles. Different peppers from the same plant have been reported to vary substantially in heat intensity.


  • heat index 5,000-8,000 Scoville units
  • great pureed, mashed or diced, and then made into a sauce

Very similar to the Guajillo, but smaller and hotter.  It may be soaked in water to pull out the flavor. It is often used more for its fruity flavor, rather than its flesh.


  • heat index 5,000-25,000 Scoville units
  • perfect for salsas, sauces, relishes, garnishes

A smaller version of the jalapeno, it is similar in color and matures from a dark green to reddish orange even yellow in color. It is a very meaty flesh pepper and is not suitable for drying. They are typically eaten raw but are usually best when roasted. Serrano peppers are also commonly used in making pico de gallo.

Check out some of our favorite Mexican Recipes, perfect for Cinco de Mayo!


  1. What a great lesson on peppers! I get confused on which are mild and not hot, so this is fantastic for me! Will print and keep handy for shopping. Thanks for sharing.

  2. And whatever you do, don’t pick your nose after chopping upsome serrano chilies. Whew!

  3. Hi!! Iv’ made chili like many others with powder but would like to try dried chili’s. I know how to make basic chili paste in a blender. I would like to know which chili’s would be best in chili(the kind with beans) and about how many I would need to use to make 2-3gal. of chili?
    Thanks for Your Time!!!

    • Hi Tom, it really depends on how hot you like your chili. Jalapenos are always a good bet, you can leave the seeds in for more heat. If you want a smokey flavor, you can use the poblanos.
      The amount of peppers per gallon of chili would also depend on how hot you like it, the more peppers you add, the hotter it is. I would guess you would need about 6 peppers for 3 gallons of chili, again depend on how hot you like it.
      Happy Cooking!

  4. What’s the best mild pepper for cooking…I’m looking for something that will soften up quickly when I add it to a pot of beans. I’ve tried Anaheim, but they take forever (days) to soften. Jalapenos take a while but have a very good taste when they finally get soft. So far Poblano is the quickest to soften, but still takes a while. Is there a pepper, with a good cooked taste, that meets my need?


    • Hey John – There are two peppers that I would recommend you give a try. The mildest one would be banana peppers, but it may not solve your issue with it cooking down and softening to your taste. So my choice is pepperoncini peppers. They will soften faster than any pepper and shouldn’t overpower the other ingredients in the recipe.

    • Doug, thanks for the ideas. I happen to have a banana pepper growing (no fruit yet) and a languishing pack of pepperoncini seeds which will now get some extra attention.



  1. […] Chilies, but we also found a chile call Chilhuacle, that he was not familiar with. According to Pocket Change Gourmet, Cascabel and Pasilla (Chiaca) Chilies are two of the twelve essential chilies for Mexican cooking. […]

  2. […] Cascabel Dried Chilis and 2-3 Chili De Arbol Dried Chilies. Check them out here. The Cascabels add a touch of fruitiness, while the Arbol adds some mild […]

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