Mexico is renowned worldwide for its cuisine, which is known for its bold flavors and liberal use of chillies. Chillies are integral to Mexican cooking, adding heat and depth to salsas, moles, stews and more. There are many varieties of Mexican chillies ranging from mild to blisteringly hot. The spiciest Mexican chillies can truly bring the heat.
What are chillies?
Chillies are the pepper pods of certain plants from the genus Capsicum. What gives chillies their heat and spiciness is a chemical called capsaicin, which is concentrated in the ribs and seeds of the chilli. Capsaicin triggers our pain receptors, so when we eat chillies, our body thinks it is literally burning, even though no real damage occurs. This “burn” is what we interpret as spiciness when eating chillies.
How is spiciness measured?
The spiciness or heat level of chillies is commonly measured using the Scoville scale. This scale was developed in the early 1900s by an American chemist named Wilbur Scoville. To measure a chilli’s heat, he would extract the capsaicin oil and then dilute it until tasters could no longer detect any spiciness or heat. The higher the dilution required, the hotter the chilli would be on the Scoville scale.
Today, high performance liquid chromatography is used to get a more accurate measurement, but the Scoville scale is still the standard for rating a chilli’s heat. The ratings are expressed in Scoville Heat Units (SHU), which represent the amount of dilution needed for the heat to be undetectable.
What are some of the hottest chillies in the world?
While Mexico is home to many fiery hot chillies, the world’s hottest chillies are not necessarily Mexican in origin. Some of the world’s spiciest chillies include:
– Carolina Reaper – 1,641,183 SHU
– Trinidad Moruga Scorpion – 1,200,000 to 2,000,000 SHU
– Ghost Pepper – 855,000 to 1,041,427 SHU
– 7 Pot Douglah – 923,889 SHU
– Chocolate Habanero – 425,000 to 577,000 SHU
So while blisteringly hot, even the spiciest Mexican chillies don’t quite reach the extremes of heat of some other super hots. That being said, Mexican cuisine has more than enough heat to satisfy the bravest chilli-heads!
Hottest Mexican Chillies
While maybe not record breakers on the worldwide stage, here are some of Mexico’s hottest chilli varieties:
The iconic habanero is probably the hottest chilli most people associate with Mexican cuisine. Ranging from 200,000 to 350,000 SHU, it delivers a powerful punch of heat. It has a fruity, floral flavor that balances the heat. Habaneros are most commonly found in salsas, marinades, and hot sauces.
Chile de Árbol
Small but mighty, these little chillies can reach up to 100,000 SHU. They have a slightly sweet and smoky flavor and are extremely versatile in Mexican cooking. Chile de árbol can be found dried, pickled, roasted, or blended into sauces. Their heat makes them a favorite for spicy salsas and braises.
With a SHU of 10,000 to 23,000, serrano peppers are significantly hotter than jalapenos but still milder than habaneros. They have a fresh, green flavor and are used both fresh and dried in salsas, sauces, and stews.
Also called bird’s beak chilli for its distinctive shape, the pequín pepper is a tiny but extremely hot Mexican chilli with a rating of 40,000 to 60,000 SHU. They have a bright, citrusy heat. Pequíns are popular in salsas and sauces and also make a mean hot sauce.
Very similar in appearance and heat to the pequín, the piquín pepper is another small-but-mighty Mexican chilli. It rates around 30,000 to 60,000 SHU and has a distinctive sweet, fruity heat and bright acidity. Piquíns are popular in table salsas, roasted and pickled, or dried and crushed into powder form.
With a SHU of 10,000 to 15,000, guajillo chillies bring a moderate level of heat along with a tangy, berry-like flavor. When dried, they have a deep reddish brown color and slightly wrinkled texture. Guajillo chillies are very versatile and can be used in salsas, marinades, sauces, soups and stews.
Probably the most familiar Mexican chilli to people worldwide is the jalapeño. Ranging from 2,500 to 8,000 SHU, jalapeños have a fresh green pepper flavor and moderately spicy heat. They’re eaten fresh, dried, smoked, pickled and in a wide variety of Mexican dishes.
Chipotle chillies are smoked-dried jalapeños with a SHU of 10,000. The smoking gives them an intensely rich, smoky-sweet flavor with less herbaceous notes than a jalapeño. They are used dried, or blended into adobo sauce. Chipotles add wonderful smokiness and spicy depth to Mexican stews, salsas, tacos and more.
Also called chile tepín, this wild Mexican chilli has a SHU of 15,000 to 30,000. Tiny but fiery, chiltepíns have a fresh, herbal flavor similar to a habanero. They grow wild in Mexico and are difficult to cultivate. Chiltepíns are popular in Mexican salsas for their extreme spiciness.
Using Hot Mexican Chillies
Mexican chillies can transform a dish from bland to boldly spicy. Here are some tips for working with hot Mexican chillies:
Start with moderation
When cooking with hot chillies, it’s best to start with a small amount and add more heat to taste. A little chilli goes a long way.
Always wear gloves when handling hot chillies to avoid skin irritation. Avoid touching your eyes and face after handling chillies until you wash your hands well.
Remove ribs and seeds
The majority of a chilli’s heat is concentrated in its ribs and seeds. For a milder heat, remove these before chopping or blending.
Toast or roast
Dry toasting or roasting brings out more complex flavors in chillies. Whole dried chillies can be toasted in a dry pan until fragrant before blending into powder. Fresh chillies can be charred over an open flame or broiled until skin is blackened.
Infuse oil or vinegar
Steeping hot chillies in oil or vinegar extracts their flavorful heat into the liquid, which can then be used for cooking.
Try different varieties
Experiment with different Mexican chillies until you find your desired level of heat. Jalapeños and guajillo bring mild to medium heat, while habaneros, pequeños and chiltepíns are incendiary.
Popular Uses for Mexican Chillies
Here are some classic ways that Mexican chillies spice up food:
Chopped chillies are integral to iconic table salsas like pico de gallo, salsa verde, and salsa roja. Their heat and flavor cut through rich taco fillings.
Complex chilli-based moles sauce get their depth from dried chillies like ancho, pasilla, mulato, and chile de árbol. They can contain over 20 ingredients!
Meats are often marinated in a paste of dried chilies, herbs and vinegar called adobo. Common chillies used include guajillo, ancho, and chipotle.
Corn tortillas are bathed in chili sauce before being stuffed and baked. Filling vary, but enchiladas are always unified by their chili heat.
Chili con carne
This Texas-style beef stew gets loaded with chili powder and other hot peppers for a tongue-tingling bite. Traditional carne con chile uses guajillo and New Mexican chilies.
Fresh hot peppers like serranos and jalapeños are chopped into salsas or served fried as a starter, their heat popping in your mouth.
Mexican hot sauces spotlight chillies like habanero, pequín and chiltepín. A few drops add instant spice to tacos, meats, soups and eggs.
Jams and jellies
Chilies paired with sweet fruit make for a fiery-sweet jam. Try habanero-mango or jalapeño-pineapple for a unique Mexican twist.
Pickling jalapeños, habaneros and other chilies in vinegar preserves their crunch and concentrates their flavor. They make delicious taco toppings.
If you love big, bold flavor and searing heat, try cooking with iconic Mexican chillies. From relatively mild ancho and jalapeño to the blistering habanero and tiny chiltepín, Mexican chillies run the gamut from warm to wild. Their unique flavor and heat add real zing to classic Mexican dishes like moles, salsas, and chili con carne. Whether you’re a longtime chilli-head or just starting to brave more heat, explore the spicy world of Mexico’s fieriest peppers. ¡Que arda! (Let it burn!)