If you are reading a recipe and it asks specifically for a red chili pepper you have a few options. Depending on what you are making will depend on what is the best red chili pepper substitute for you. If you are making pickles or brine then you want to use dried chilis. Blending your own spice mix? Then you want to use powdered red chili peppers. Here is my list of the best red chili pepper substitutes.
What Exactly is a Red Chili Pepper?
The most common fresh red chili peppers are red Fresno and red jalapeno. The way you can tell the difference is that the red Fresno will have a pointed tip while the red jalapeno will have a rounded blunt tip. Red Fresno peppers have a tropical heat flavor to them. They are a great option if you are making a dish that needs both flavor and some spice. The heat level of a red Fresno chile pepper is equivalent to a red jalapeno although they can sometimes be a little hotter. On the Scoville scale a red Fresno rates from 2,500 – 10,000 while the jalapeno is 2,500 – 8,000. Fresh red chili peppers add a fantastic bright red color to your dish while also giving it a little bit of heat and flavor.
What is the Scoville Scale?
Scoville heat units are a measurement of spiciness, or heat, of chili peppers. It measures the concentration of capsaicin in the pepper. The more concentrated, the hotter the pepper. The scale runs from 0 to 1,500,000. Bell peppers start the scale at 0 and ghost chiles and pepper spray top the scale with over 1.5 million units.
Is it a Chili or a Chile?
These names have come to be interchangeable. Traditionally Chili is, well, Chili. A blend of ground beef with chili powder blended in. It is called chili powder as it is a blend of different chile powders and was created specifically for making chili. Chile, not the country, is the pepper itself and is the common spelling in South America and Spain. Is one right or wrong? Not really but some people do get pretty worked up over it and for reasons only they know about. Regardless, the names are pretty much interchangeable.
Anatomy of a Chile Pepper
Capsaicin is found in the flesh, the ribs, and the seeds. Removing the seeds and ribs is a great way to bring down the level of heat from the hot chili pepper.
While there are no perfect substitutes for fresh red chili peppers, here is my list of options that can be found in most grocery stores.
Pro Tip: Use great care when handling fresh peppers. Do not touch your eyes, or anything else for that matter, until you have thoroughly washed your hands.
These small peppers have more heat than a Jalapeno pepper but they have more flavor and lack the bitterness that some jalapenos can have. Trimming out the ribs and seeds can get this pepper into the heat range of most red chile peppers. If you need a fresh pepper for your recipe this is the best substitute.
Medium in size, these green chile peppers are probably the most commonly available chili pepper found in grocery stores. They can have a milder flavor than the serrano pepper.
Pequin Chili Pepper
Chili Pequins are tiny peppers. These work great for pickling or for throwing into a stir fry when you want small pockets of heat.
Also called Birds Eye Chilis, these are small and thin. But don’t let their size fool you. They are HOT, scoring just under a habanero on the Scoville scale. You will see these hot peppers near the jalapenos and serranos at your local market. They will be in various stages of ripeness ranging from green to orange to red. A small amount of Thai peppers go a long way.
Poblanos are very mild but can be a little spicy on rare occasions. This is my alternative to green peppers as it has so much more flavor than the peppery bitterness of green bells.
Small but fierce, habanero chili peppers pack a lot of heat. An excellent substitute if you want intense heat. I like to mince these up and put them into pickled red onions.
Scotch Bonnet Peppers
This Caribbean chili pepper is one of my favorites. It can be hard to find at times but it is a good substitute for a habanero when you want both flavor and heat. It has a lot of tropical fruit flavors to it and is much more balanced flavor-wise than the spicy flavor of habanero pepper.
Fresh Cayenne Peppers
Not as common to find fresh but depending on where you live it’s possible. You can identify them as they are about the size of your finger and long with a pointy end.
Dried Chili Peppers
Pro tip: Do not buy more than you will use in 6 months. Dried spices and chili peppers do have a shelf life, especially when ground. Don’t believe me? Take a look at the cayenne in your pantry right now, I’m willing to bet it is a lighter color on one side than the other. Buy more frequently and keep your spice rack fresh for the best flavors.
Chinese Red Peppers
Also called Tien Tsin Chili Pepper, this dried red chili from northern China. These dried chiles do not have a flavor worth noting and are used primarily as a heat source. A great example would be Chinese dishes such as kung pao chicken and mao pao tofu.
Cayenne Pepper Powder
This powerful powder which is found in every local grocery store can quickly overpower your dish. Add it to your recipe in small quantities until you have your desired flavor. When used in very small amounts it works great as a flavor enhancer. Similar to using salt or acid. You want to use so little that you don’t instill any heat.
Not as common and a little on the pricey side as dried chile powders. Espellete is a dried french chili pepper and has a wonderful flavor to it. Sprinkle a little on top of your finished seafood dish for a nice finishing touch.
When you dry jalapenos, the result is a chipotle. You can find it as dry chile pods, powder, and cans packed with adobo sauce. Smokey and spicy are the best way to describe this dried pepper. Chipotle peppers are commonly used in Mexican cuisine as well as tex-mex. I also use chipotle powder in my rib rubs. They help add a little extra smoke and flavor without adding too much heat.
Chile de Arbol
I use these when I’m pickling. Similar to Chinese red peppers they have no real flavor of their own and are used just for the heat.
Red Chili Flakes
Crushed red pepper flakes are a great substitute for fresh red peppers if you have the chance to let them bloom lightly in warm oil before adding the remainder of the ingredients. Oil-based pasta sauces are great examples of the use of red chili flakes.
The basic paprika you find from McCormick is not going to cut it. You need to find the hot paprika. This Hungarian chile pepper is found in 3 varieties. Smoked, sweet, and hot. The smoked is a great way to impart a little smoky flavor without adding too much heat to a dish while the hot will impart a little smokiness and some heat. Cheap paprika is used more for coloring than flavor while quality paprika powders are worth the extra money.
This is a blend of many types of dried peppers and some other spices. Usually ancho, pasilla, guajillo, paprika, garlic powder, and cumin. It has a very specific use and I would not recommend it as a substitute for other dried peppers or even for fresh peppers. I am only listing it as this would be the worst substitute and I feel it necessary to let you know.
A Korean fermented red chile paste. You will need to blend this with another item to thin it as the paste is quite thick. It is an ideal substitute if the recipe you are using wants you to puree the red chili pepper.
A chili sauce made from a blend of chili peppers, garlic, ginger, sugar, and lime juice. It can sometimes have shrimp paste added as well. Sambal would be another replacement for your red chile pepper if your recipe is calling for it to be crushed up or thrown into a food processor.