What Are Habanero Peppers?

The Spiciest Among the Most Common Chile Peppers

Habanero chillies at Tepoztlan market.
Greg Elms / Getty Images

Habanero peppers are very hot chile peppers that are a favorite among people who enjoy spicy food. Among the most common chile peppers, it's the spiciest and one that adds a brilliant heat to food (and drinks) without burning your taste buds. You'll often find habaneros incorporated into sauces and salsas, though the whole or sliced pepper is also used in some recipes. Use caution when cooking with habaneros because they are fiery little things!

What Is a Habanero Pepper?

Habanero (pronounced ha-ba-NAIR-o) peppers are small, hot, chile peppers. They're grown in Mexico and other parts of Latin America as well as in the United States. Habanero peppers are short and squat with thin skin and are usually an orange or red color.

Since they are extremely hot, habanero peppers are usually not eaten whole. Instead, they are widely used in making salsas, sauces, salad dressings and as an ingredient in bottled hot sauce. They're sometimes mistaken for Scotch bonnet peppers, which they resemble and which are equally hot.

How to Cook With Habanero Peppers

When handling habaneros, wear gloves and be careful about squirting pepper juice while cutting. Habaneros can be grilled, sautèed, or roasted. Roasting brings out more of their fruity flavors and mellows the heat somewhat, making it a favorite cooking method.

Due to their heat, habaneros are generally added sparingly to recipes. The stems, seeds, and white pith are often removed to reduce the heat. Recipes typically call for finely diced habaneros and just a single pepper (or less) will spice up an entire dish. Never use more than the recommended amount of habanero or you'll throw the flavor of the dish out of balance. When cooking for others, make sure they enjoy habaneros because even a little is too hot for many people.

Surprisingly, mango is one of the best flavor pairings for habanero, so you will see the duo in a number of recipes. Apricots and peaches are also common fruits found with habaneros. Habaneros can spice up drinks, too. Primarily used in tequila cocktails, the whole pepper can also be used in a quick infusion to create spicy vodkas.

Fresh Habanero Chilli Peppers Background
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Assortment of Habanero Peppers on Wood
Steve Terrill / Getty Images 
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What Does It Taste Like?

Habaneros have a slightly fruity flavor. They register between 100,000 and 350,000 Scoville heat units on the Scoville Scale. That's milder than a ghost pepper but hotter than cayenne, serrano, and jalapeño peppers, making them one of the hottest chiles you'll find.

There's more to a habanero than just the magnitude of the heat. Habaneros have their own unique heat profile as well; it comes on more slowly than other peppers and lingers longer. If the heat becomes too much, drink a glass of milk (it can soothe skin burn as well); water will only make it worse.

Habanero Pepper Recipes

Habanero recipes are not as plentiful as those with other chile peppers because the pepper is significantly hotter. However, there are a few and, if you're a fan of hot and spicy food, you can (carefully and wisely) use a habanero as a substitute for other chiles. For instance, deep-fried habaneros stuffed with cream cheese are a fiery and delicious alternative to jalapeño poppers.

Where to Buy Habanero Peppers

Habaneros are a fairly popular pepper and the most common among the extremely hot chiles, so they are stocked in many grocery stores. They're generally priced by the pound and may cost a little more than the milder peppers, but are not unreasonable. Habaneros are as easy as any other chile pepper to grow in a garden and you might also find them at farmers markets.

When selecting habaneros, don't touch the peppers with your bare hands. Instead, use the produce bag to pick up the peppers and examine them. The peppers should look fresh and feel firm. The skin should be smooth and shiny, with a sunny, deep orange color; red means they're perfectly ripe, though either is fine.

Storage

Store habaneros in a cool, dry place. A paper bag in the refrigerator is a good choice and the peppers will keep for about one week. It's common practice to dry habaneros grown in the garden. These can be rehydrated somewhat by soaking them in water for an hour before use. Dried pepper can also be ground into a powder. Fresh habaneros can also be pickled, preserved in olive oil, or frozen.

Nutrition and Benefits

It's likely that you will not eat enough habanero to get any significant nutrition from it. However, it is a low-calorie, low-sodium, and fat-free pepper. It does also have a good amount of vitamin C and potassium. The capsaicin that produces the heat is a phytonutrient know to be a natural anti-inflammatory. However, the spiciness can also cause or irritate digestive problems such as heartburn, acid reflux, and irritable bowel syndrome.

Habanero vs. Jalapeño Peppers

Compared to habaneros, jalapeño peppers are fairly middle-of-the-road heat-wise, checking in between 2,500 and 8,000 heat units. This means that habanero peppers can be up to 100 times hotter than jalapeños. You won't have any problems mistaking the two for one another, either. Jalapeños are long, slender, green chile peppers that may turn red if left too long on the plant, which is almost the exact opposite of the stout, round, orange habaneros.

Myths

It's a common misconception that the seeds of habanero (and all chile peppers) hold all of the heat. However, most of a pepper's capsaicin is actually found in the white pith that holds the seeds. If you want to reduce the spiciness, remove as much of the white part inside the pepper as you can. That will not make a pepper as hot as the habanero mild, but it will reduce the heat.