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Field Guide to Fresh Hot Chiles

How to identify the varieties at your supermarket, even when they're mislabeled.

Fine Cooking Issue 84
Photos: Scott Phillips
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In our experience, most supermarkets do a decent job of stocking a variety of fresh hot chiles, but identifying them is another thing. They’re often mislabeled, and sometimes they’re just in an anonymous jumble. On this page are some of the varieties that commonly appear in markets. Fresh chiles should be smooth, firm, and glossy. Some jalapeños may have “scar cracks” at their stem ends, but other varieties should be blemish-free.

Jalapeño Medium hot. Usually sold green, but occasionally sweeter, ripe red jalapeños appear in markets. Vegetal flavor. An all-purpose hot chile often used raw in salsas and guacamole.
Thai bird Very hot. Either red (most common), green, orange, or yellow. Peppery, nutty flavor. Use in Southeast Asian stir-fries, curries, soups, and salads.

Habanero Very, very hot. Either orange (most common), red, yellow, or green. Incendiary, fruity flavor. Use in fruit salsas, hot sauces, and marinades.
Serrano Very hot. Sold green (unripe) or red (ripe). Tangy, herbal, vegetal flavor. Use raw in hot salsa or cooked in curries and chili.

Banana wax Mild. Yellow-green, long, and tapered. Sweet, slightly fruity flavor. Add raw to mild salsas or roast and use in tacos or as a pizza topping.
Fresno Mild to medium hot. Almost always sold red; often mistaken for a red jalapeño. Spicy, sweet flavor, like that of a red bell pepper but hot. Try raw in slaws and dips or cooked in soups.

Anaheim Mild. Usually sold green. Sweet, crisp, vegetal flavor. Typically roasted and peeled before using in sauces and salsas. Also used for chiles rellenos.
Poblano Mild to medium hot. Dark green and large. Sweet vegetal flavor, reminiscent of green bell pepper but hot. Usually roasted for use in sauces and enchiladas, or stuffed, batter-dipped, and fried to make chiles rellenos.


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