Jalapeño Pepper Guide: Heat, Flavor, Uses

What is a jalapeño pepper?

Even those relatively new to hot peppers know of jalapeño peppers, but what’s interesting is the overall reputation this hot pepper has. Many people think of the jalapeño as a very spicy hot pepper, but in terms of the Scoville scale, the jalapeño is merely mild to moderate. It has a Scoville heat unit range of 2,500 to 8,000 Scoville heat units (SHU). That’s mighty low compared to the hottest peppers in the world, some of which top the 1,000,000 SHU mark on the pepper scale. It’s also much milder than that cayenne pepper you have sitting on your spice rack (30,000 to 50,000 SHU).

But most of those hotter peppers never find their way to normal grocery store shelves. There, the jalapeño is king, and its spiciness is far more than much that you’ll find there. Its bright, grassy flavor, too, makes the jalapeño very versatile in the kitchen – perfect for everything from salads to stuffed peppers.

Jalapeño pepper fast facts

Scoville heat units (SHU)2,500 – 8,000
Median heat (SHU)5,250
Jalapeño reference pointN/A
Capsicum speciesAnnum
Size2.5 to 3 inches long, pod-like
FlavorBright, Grassy, Bitter

Jalapeño history – where do jalapeño peppers come from?

The pepper originated in − you guessed it − Mexico. Over 160 square kilometers of land are still dedicated to the growing of jalapeños in the country. It’s also grown in the United States, particularly the southwestern states of Texas and New Mexico, which of course border Mexico. The cultivation of jalapeño peppers in the United States is definitely not at the same scope as in Mexico though; only about 22 square kilometers are dedicated to growing jalapeño peppers in total in the U.S.

The name comes from a town in Mexico near where it is cultivated most often: Xalapa, Veracruz. Xalapa has a variant spelling jalapa that cues your more in on the origin of the name. In Mexico, this most famous of all peppers actually goes by a few different monikers, including chiles gordos, huachinangos, and cuaresmeños.

How spicy are jalapeño peppers?

The jalapeño is pretty much the perfect amount of heat for those that like a little kick, but don’t want to challenge their taste buds to a duel. Most people can enjoy a jalapeño. It’s one of the great culinary peppers in the world, finding its way into Tex-Mex dishes, Thai recipes, Spanish foods, and much more. This is truly a pepper that’s found its niche, and it has big time fans all over the world.

Jalapeño pepper SHU Heat Comparison

But let’s put this into perspective against actual numbers. When comparing the jalapeño to some other popular peppers, you can see how far away jalapeños are from being considered “super-hot”. Poblanos are extremely mild (1,000 to 1,500 Scoville heat units) and jalapeños – while a minimum of three times hotter than a poblano (2,500 to 8,000 SHU) are dwarfed even by the likes of that cayenne powder in your spice rack. When comparing to the habanero (100,000 to 350,000 SHU) or ghost pepper (one of the milder super-hot peppers at 855,000 to 1,041,427 SHU), it’s not even close. Against the world of the pepper scale, the jalapeño is just not that spicy.

For more on the differences, take a look at some of our PepperScale Showdowns which pair two peppers to compare and contrast:

What do jalapeño peppers taste like?

Jalapeños are typically picked (and eaten) while they are still green in color and not totally ripe. In their green form, jalapeños tend to have a bright, grassy flavor. They can even have a slight bitterness to their taste.

There are those, though, that prefer a totally ripened red jalapeño pepper, and when red they lose the bright, bitter flavor and gain in sweetness (and often overall median heat). The heat comes from the capsaicin found in the pepper, so the red version – with more time on the vine – tends to be hotter than green. For more comparison, see our post: red jalapeño vs. green jalapeño.

Jalapeño size – what do they look like?

At 2 to 3.5 inches in total length, this is as pod-like a pepper as you’ll ever see. Compared to other hot peppers, it’s moderate in total size. Some are stouter and some are longer.

What is a good jalapeño substitute?

The best is a serrano pepper. It’s similar in taste – bright and grassy – without the same level of bitterness. Though, it is a step up in heat: 10,000 to 23,000 SHU. They can run from near equal in heat to nearly ten times hotter.

For more alternatives, take a look at our post on the best jalapeño substitutes.

What are some good jalapeño uses?

This chili pepper is so versatile, not only because of its very eatable heat but also because of its fresh, bright flavor. It works so well with other fresh vegetables, so anywhere where a bell pepper would be used, a jalapeño could be used instead. Try it in salads, fresh salsas, sandwiches, and vegetable medleys to add a little spark to the meal. An area where jalapeños really shine is as a popper pepper. Jalapeños have relatively thick walls and a wide cavity for their size, perfect for stuffing.

Enjoy! Some of our favorite jalapeño recipes

Below are some of our favorite jalapeño recipes. If you like these we highly recommend you check our our spicy recipe index (500+ recipes) for even more spicy goodness!

stuffed jalapenos with bacon

Stuffed jalapeños with bacon: This is a classic spicy appetizer that looks as good as it tastes!

cowboy candy

Cowboy candy (candied jalapeños): Excellent served with fruit. Or try them on your own as a spicy snack.

jalapeno popper grilled cheese sandwich

Jalapeño popper grilled cheese sandwich: Turn your traditional grilled cheese into something bold and exciting.

jalapeno mango salsa

Mango jalapeño salsa: A delicious fruity and spicy salsa – great with tortilla chips or served over pork or chicken.

Jalapeno popper mashed potatoes

Jalapeño popper mashed potatoes: Perhaps the best side for fried chicken ever.

Growing jalapeños

With all of its culinary uses and family friendly heat, this chili is an exceptional option for growing yourself. They work both in the garden and in containers. In fact, container gardening may provide the perfect amount of chilies for use in your kitchen. For more information on planting, take a look at our jalapeño planting guide for all the information you should know.

Where can you buy jalapeño peppers?

Jalapeños can be found nearly everywhere. Whatever you call jalapeño peppers, they are good spicy eating and a global food rock star. Use them raw in dishes, pick up a chipotle rub (chipotle pepper is a smoke-dried jalapeño), or grab one of the many jalapeño hot sauces out there to add some fire to your menu. In fact, Sriracha sauce, one of the most famous hot sauce in the world, is made from red jalapeño peppers. The jalapeño is a great hot pepper to master before moving up to the hotter reaches of the Scoville scale.

Pop quiz!

Test your jalapeño knowledge by taking our jalapeño pepper pop quiz. It’s a great way to learn, too, as we provide the right answers as you take the quiz.

UPDATE NOTICE: This post was updated on April 25, 2021 to include new content. It was originally published on June 28, 2013.
  • In my perception, the US jalapeño is heater than Mexican jalapeño. That’s the reason why people from US are aware of eating jalapeño in México, but is not the same. I had tried in México and in US and I prefer US, because I love spicy food.

  • When I lived in New Mexico my co-workers used to grow some great Jalapeño’s, Birds Eyes, and Anaheim type Peppers on there ranches. There is nothing like fresh picked then oven roasted chiles with egg’s, hand made flat bread and home fries for breakfast. 😉

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