What’s A Good Serrano Pepper Substitute?

Serrano peppers are growing in popularity, but they can still be surprisingly hard to track down. So what’s a smart serrano pepper substitute that’ll still work with most recipes in case your local grocer doesn’t carry this chili? Here we break down two of your best fresh options to keep your spicy cooking moving along, and one is available nearly everywhere. 

The best substitute for serrano pepper: Jalapeño pepper

That’s right. The most popular chili in the world is a terrific substitute for the serrano. It’s easy to find (nearly every grocer carries them these days), but more importantly they share a similar fresh, bright taste. The flavor integrity of your recipe will be overall intact, with one big exception – the heat.

Jalapeño peppers – while still a medium heat pepper (2,500 to 8,000 Scoville heat units) – can be near equal heat to up to nine times milder than a serrano (10,000 to 23,000 SHU). If heat is important to you, you may need to increase the chili amount required in the recipe to make up the difference. The walls of jalapeño peppers are meatier than the serrano as well, so consider how this may affect usage in your recipe. You may want to dice to lessen the texture difference.

A step up in heat, but harder to find fresh: Cayenne pepper

You won’t find fresh cayenne in every grocery store, but if you can it makes for a suitable serrano substitution. Cayenne peppers don’t share the same bright flavor, but it’s taste is neutral enough that it won’t surprisingly affect your dish.

Careful, though: This is a significant heat upgrade. Cayenne peppers sit near the upper end of medium-heat chilies – 30,000 – 50,000 SHU. That can be up to five times spicier than the serrano – it’s a level of heat that may be too much for those with sensitive palates. If you opt for cayenne, consider lessening the chili used in the recipe. Spice it up to taste.

Note, too, that there will most likely be a color difference in your dish. Serrano chilies are typically sold while green (they age to red), while cayenne peppers are typically sold in their mature red color. If the color matters to your plate presentation, keep this in mind.

UPDATE NOTICE: This post was updated on September 5, 2019 to include new content. It was originally published on March 7, 2015.