What Is a Habanero Pepper?

Buying, Cooking, and Recipes

Fresh habanero chiles at Mexico's Tepoztlán market
Greg Elms / Getty Images

Habanero pepper is a very hot chile pepper that is 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 habanero incorporated into sauces and salsas, though the whole or sliced pepper is also used in some recipes. Use caution when cooking with habanero because it is a fiery little thing.

What Is a Habanero Pepper?

A habanero (pronounced ha-ba-NAIR-o) pepper is a small, hot, chile pepper. It's grown in Mexico and other parts of Latin America as well as in the United States. The habanero pepper is short and squat with thin skin and is usually an orange or red color.

Since it's extremely hot, a habanero pepper is usually not eaten whole. Instead, it's widely used in making salsas, sauces, and salad dressings, and it's used as an ingredient in bottled hot sauce. It's sometimes mistaken for the Scotch bonnet pepper that it resembles and which is equally hot.

How to Cook With Habanero Pepper

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

Due to its 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 habanero 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 matched with habanero. Habanero pepper 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 chile peppers
Rafael Ben-Ari / Getty Images
Assortment of habanero peppers on wood
Steve Terrill / Getty Images 
Red tomato spicy salsa with chips
Elena Veselova / Getty Images 
A bowl of Mexican cochinita pibil made with pork, habanero peppers, and red onion
LUNAMARINA / Getty Images
Serving of gordita, a Mexican-style pastry filled with pastor meat
LUNAMARINA / Getty Images 

What Does It Taste Like?

The Habanero pepper has a slightly fruity flavor. It registers 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 it one of the hottest chiles you'll find.

There's more to a habanero than just the magnitude of the heat. It has its 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 habanero stuffed with cream cheese is a fiery and delicious alternative to a jalapeño popper.

Where to Buy Habanero Pepper

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

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

Storage

Store habanero in a cool, dry place. A paper bag in the refrigerator is a good choice and the pepper will keep for about one week. It's common practice to dry habanero grown in the garden. It can be rehydrated somewhat by soaking it in water for an hour before use. Dried pepper can also be ground into a powder. Fresh habanero 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 known 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 Pepper

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

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.