Urfa Biber (Isot Pepper) Guide: Heat, Flavor, Uses

What is urfa biber?

Urfa Biber (a.k.a. isot pepper, isot biber, or simply urfa pepper) is a medium-heat Turkish chili (30,000 to 50,000 Scoville heat units) that’s almost always sold in ground flaked form (like its close cousin Aleppo pepper.) But, also like Aleppo pepper, don’t let the ground standard make you think urfa biber is tasteless apart from its heat. No, it’s full of flavor depth, with notes of coffee, tobacco, raisin, and chocolate, providing a complex earthy and smoky eating experience. Urfa biber is a perfect spice for red meats, bold desserts, and other rich foods. Once you’ve tasted it, it may be hard to return to common crushed red pepper again.

Urfa Biber or Isot Pepper
Urfa biber, also known as isot pepper, is typically sold as dried red pepper flakes

Table of Contents

Urfa biber fast facts

Scoville heat units (SHU)30,000 – 50,000
Median heat (SHU)40,000
Jalapeño reference point4 to 20 times hotter
Capsicum speciesAnnuum
OriginTurkey
UseCulinary
SizeBell pepper like fresh (but typically sold as flakes)
FlavorEarthy, Smoky, Sweet, Tangy, Salty

How hot is urfa biber?

There’s a wide reported Scoville heat range for urfa biber. Some online sources place it at 7,500 Scoville heat units, others at 30,000 to 50,000, and some even hotter than that. Our experience with this chili has it near or at cayenne pepper heat, so we’ll stand with 30,000 to 50,000 SHU as its range. Just know, that your experience may vary.

Let’s compare that to our jalapeño reference point. Urfa biber, with a range of 30,000 to 50,000 SHU, make it 4 to 20 times hotter than a jalapeño. That may seem like a lot, but remember that it’s the same spread as that cayenne pepper powder sitting on your spice rack. This is a spiciness that is very usable in the kitchen.

Let’s also compare the urfa biber to some other common dried chilies that you may have in your kitchen.

  • Chipotle: Compared to a chipotle (2,500 to 8,000 SHU since it’s a dried, smoked jalapeño), the urfa pepper is also 4 to 20 times hotter.
  • Ancho: Ancho chilies are dried poblano peppers, and as such range from 1,000 to 1,500 Scoville heat units, a mild level of spiciness. That makes the urfa biber 20 to 50 times hotter than an ancho.
  • Aleppo pepper: Aleppo’s have the same overall reported inconsistencies in heat. We tagged it at approximately 10,000 SHU, so that would make the urfa 3 to 5 times hotter.
  • Tien Tsin: You may have these Chinese dried chilies at hand the pair with Asian dishes, and they are surprisingly spicy, 50,000 to 75,000 SHU. The urfa comes in near equal heat to up to 3 times milder.

Where do these chilies originate?

Urfa biber are Turkish chilies, grown in the Urfa region of Turkey. It’s a close cousin to the Syrian Aleppo pepper, which is grown only 100 to 150 miles away, across the border (so they share similar soil and mountainous terrain.) It’s a prized Middle Eastern ingredient, which takes a lot of hands-on work to deliver.

Urfa peppers are grown to their mature red color, then picked for drying. The chilies are dried during the daytime hours, then “sweated” at night (covered with a tent or cloth, or placed in a bag) to keep the chilies oils from drying out completely. Once dried, the chili is crushed into chili pepper flakes and sold. Nearly all urfa chilies (or otherwise commonly known as isot peppers) are sold in this form. You rarely see whole versions of this chili, whether fresh or dried.

What does it look like?

Fresh urfa peppers have a shape quite similar to a large bell pepper or a poblano. They age from green to range and red, and that’s when they are picked for their drying process.

Dried and crushed urfa biber takes on a beautiful dark maroon color, with a moist oily consistency even when dried. This is due to the drying/sweating process keeping the oils front and center during the entire process. Otherwise, they have a similar flaked shape, similar to common crushed red pepper.

What does urfa biber taste like?

This is what makes the urfa pepper special. While common red pepper flakes are typically all heat with little flavor, urfa biber has flavor in spades. It’s one of the more complex tasting chilies you’ll experience. It’s earthy and smoky, with flavors of chocolate, tobacco, raisin, and coffee all intertwined. And there’s a light undertone of saltiness and tanginess here, too. Your taste buds won’t know where to start, but they’ll sure enjoy the journey.

Flavor-wise, urfa biber is, no surprise, most comparable to Aleppo pepper. Aleppos have a similar raison-y sweetness with a cumin-like earthiness. And there’s that light saltiness throughout. That commonality is, for sure, due to the similar soils from which these chilies grow and their similar drying processes.

And while chipotle pepper is a good comparison in some ways, given the smoky and earthiness of each, that would undersell the flavor complexity of the urfa biber. Yes, their uses cases can be similar, but chipotle (even with all of it delicious smoky, earthy flavor) is nowhere near the flavor depth of what you get from urfa biber.

Cooking with urfa biber

You can use this chili similarly to how you’d use common crushed red pepper. The shape is consistent, but the texture is not. Urfa biber has a moist oily texture, so keep that in mind when considering its use in the kitchen. Some dishes may take to that moist texture quite well (many Turkish and Middle Eastern dishes do), but other use cases (like as a pizza topping) may be better served with common red pepper flakes.

The color of urfa biber is also something to note when cooking with it. It’s a beautiful hue, but it doesn’t always pair well with lighter-colored foods. It can look odd on plating. Still, the flavor is where it’s at, and if that makes up for the aesthetics, then enjoy!

On the flavor: Urfa biber is quite rich tasting compared to what most people are used to. It’s a taste that is built to enhance other rich foods, like red meats, complex Middle Eastern dishes, and even barbecue. But in less-rich meals, the urfa pepper may overpower your dish’s expected flavor. Proceed with caution when matching this chili with delicate flavors. It’s often way too much.

What are some good uses for this chili?

Middle Eastern dishes are the obvious first use case. They tend to have flavors that stand up well to bold spices, and here the urfa biber shines.

Pairing urfa biber with breakfast eggs is also an excellent choice. Eggs hold up well to the flavor and, when cooked with oil, the moistness of the urfa pepper fits perfectly.

This ground chili is also exceptional with rich desserts. Use it as a pie seasoning or simply sprinkled atop ice cream. You’ll find a whole world of culinary experimentation here.

Barbecue was mentioned above, but it deserves a second mention here. It’s remarkable what urfa biber can bring to barbecue or simple grilled meats. Use it as a substitute for chipotle pepper (in flaked or powdered form), and you can bring grilled meats to life. You can use it as a dry rub (and here its moist texture helps keep the rub in place.) You get that smokiness, but there’s an earthy depth that noticeably enhances the flavor of red meats.

Where can you buy urfa biber?

Look to Middle Eastern stores and other spice specialty shops if you’re looking to pick up urfa biber near you. Some well-stocked gourmet supermarkets may also carry it. You can also buy urfa biber online, and there the selection tends to be wider than you’d typically find in stores.

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05/20/2022 12:07 am GMT

UPDATE NOTICE: This post was updated on March 22, 2022 to include new content.
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