Serrano Vs. Habanero: PepperScale Showdown

Bold meet bolder (times two)…

Serrano and habanero chilies are growing in popularity among mainstream grocers. But beyond the obvious size and color differences, what do you need to know? How different are these two chilies really? Does one trump the other in heat? Are the flavors similar enough that you can simply substitute one for the other? We reveal all this and more in another PepperScale Showdown.

The heat: Is the serrano or the habanero spicier?

There’s a big step up from the serrano to the habanero in terms of heat. One pushes the envelope of “family friendly”, the other enters the world of “extreme eater”.

The serrano, with a heat range of 10,000 to 23,000 Scoville heat units, typically doubles the spiciness of a jalapeño. That’s a range firmly entrenched in the medium-heat zone of the Scoville scale. It’s a step up from jalapeño and for those that enjoy spicy foods from time to time, still very eatable.

The habanero jumps way up the pepper scale, equaling, at minimum, four times the heat of a serrano with the chance of 35 times hotter if you compare the mildest serrano to the hottest possible habanero. That’s extra hot on the pepper scale – 100,000 to 350,000 SHU – and not a heat many people can handle, unless it’s diluted in a dish.

Habanero hot sauce doesn’t taste much hotter than a serrano, so what gives?

That’s the dilution in practice. Habanero hot sauces are diluted with water, vinegar and many other ingredients to temper the overall heat. So you can’t judge habanero spiciness by a habanero hot sauce alone. Fresh habaneros are much, much hotter. You can taste this difference more in action through a serrano salsa vs. a habanero salsa where fresh chilies are used in each. One’s got certain kick; the other will floor you if you aren’t prepared for the heat.

The look: How different do they look?

These chilies really look nothing alike. Serranos appear like elongated jalapeño peppers – smooth and slim – that follow the same pattern of coloration, from green to red as they mature. Habaneros are shorter in length, more wrinkly and rounded. They also come in a wide variety of colors, including yellows, oranges, and reds. Some of the red varieties (like the Red Savina habanero) pack an extra punch, eclipsing a normal habanero in potential heat.

The taste: How does the serrano’s flavor differ from a habanero?

The difference is very similar to the difference between a jalapeño and habanero. Serrano chilies have a crisp, bright flavor to them. They have that fresh garden taste. Habaneros, on the other hand, taste like the tropics: sweet, almost fruit-like. These taste differences obviously impact their usage. Both chilies are favorites for hot sauces and salsas, but the ingredients will tend to be more tropical when habaneros are used (like a mango habanero hot sauce). The flavor and heat of a serrano allows it to be more of a daily driver chili in the kitchen. It’s profile can work in more dishes without the need for major dilution, while the habanero is a necessary staple for Caribbean and South American cuisine that utilize its sweetness and potent kick.

Can you find them fresh in grocery stores?

You’re likely to find fresh serrano before habanero peppers in many supermarkets, but habaneros are becoming more available as a grocery store option. If habaneros aren’t available nearby for you, you can opt for dried habaneros and rehydrate them for sauces and salsas. These are widely available online.

Can you substitute the serrano for habanero, or vice versa?

It’s not recommended. The heat and flavor differences are just too different between these two chilies. You’d need a massive amount of dilution to get the habanero tempered down to serrano level in terms of heat, and in the process you are killing off the delicious fruity flavor that helps make the habanero so special. And serranos simply don’t have that tropical flair that really brings certain dishes and sauces to life.

So, while these two chilies may share aisle space in grocery stores, be prepared for two very different experiences. One is an excellent spicier alternative to a jalapeño while the other is sweet with big-time heat. Yet both, no doubt, are staples for the spicy food fan’s journey across the pepper scale.

UPDATE NOTICE: This post was updated on August 17, 2019 to include new content. It was originally published on February 4, 2016.
  • By fresh do you guys mean raw? I just had a general curiosity as of why people thought habaneros were spicier then serranos. Personally I make my salsa because homemade is always better and spicer. Everytime I’ve made it with habaneros it just came out sweet and not spicy, the Serranos had more of a kick. . . 90% of the ingredients being just the chili. Is this scale measured by cooked, dried out, both, or just raw? I’m asking because those factors make a huge difference, and were not stated, although raw is typically more spicy. I saw another article comparing jalapeños with the same heat as sriracha which was laughable because raw jalapeños are way more hotter than regular sriracha, grilled or pickled jalapeños on the other hand are extremely mild like sriracha.

    • Hi there – yes by fresh we mean raw. In terms of the spiciness, habaneros are significantly hotter than serranos across the board. The hottest possible serrano is can only reach about 1/4 of the heat of the mildest possible habanero. Your experience makes me wonder if where you were purchasing habaneros actually sold you something else. There are chilies that look like habs that are super-mild. If it’s a major supermarket chain, it could be this as we’ve often found chilies in chain stores to be milder than expected (likely to appeal more to the masses). Happens a lot with giant-looking jalapeños that taste barely hotter than a bell pepper. It’s like they’ve been bred to remove the heat and make them big (better for poppers).

      The scale is measured by the chili – they’ll contain the same amount of capsaicin either way, fresh or dried. Capsaicin is oil-based (not water soluble), so it doesn’t evaporate during the drying process. That said there’s a range for each chili because there are a ton of factors into how hot any one individual pepper will be. See this post on growing hotter peppers.

      Dried chilies are often technically spicier than their fresh counterparts since the capsaicin is more concentrated into less pepper. Though the fresh versions often taste overall hotter because the water content in the pepper spreads the heat more evenly around the mouth. Check out this article on it (Are Dried Peppers Hotter Than Fresh?). Really pretty fascinating.

      Hope this helps!

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