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How to Use Habanero Peppers in Your Cooking

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Nov 8, 2020 • 4 min read

Eating a habanero sets your taste buds on fire. Once ranked as one of the hottest peppers, this chile pepper is a staple in Mexican cuisine. From hot sauces to sweet salsas, fresh habaneros add color and flavor to any recipe.



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What Are Habanero Peppers?

Habaneros are inch-long peppers of the Capsicum chinense species, which produces some of the hottest varieties of peppers. Small, round, and orange or red upon maturity, habaneros pack a serious punch in terms of heat, so use them wisely and take precautions (i.e., wear plastic gloves) when preparing them. While habaneros originated in the Amazon, Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula is the modern world’s largest producer of habaneros. The spicy pepper is most commonly used in salsas and sauces.

What Do Habanero Peppers Taste Like?

The first thing you’ll notice when you bite into a habanero chile is the heat. But the spiciness is slightly tempered by a sweet, fruity flavor. Habaneros have a subtle smoky taste, too. These chile peppers pair well with sweet-tasting foods. For example, they are often used to make flavorful salsas with fruits like mango or pineapple. There are different varieties of habaneros, like the Caribbean red habanero and Red Savina habanero, all with similar flavor profiles. If you ever need a substitute for habaneros, try Jamaican Scotch bonnet peppers, a close relative with similar spiciness.

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How Spicy Are Habanero Peppers?

The heat level of a chile pepper is measured in Scoville heat units or SHU. Pepper heat ranges from zero to 1,400,000 Scoville units. Capsaicin is the element found in peppers that creates their heat. It’s mostly condensed in the pepper seeds and the white flesh inside, but the skin also has a good amount of capsaicin.

Habaneros have 100,000 to 300,000 SHU, so they really pack a punch when it comes to heat. While they’re 10 to 30 times hotter than a jalapeño, they are not nearly as mouth-burning as the Carolina Reaper, the hottest chile pepper on the planet.

For comparison, here are the Scoville ratings for other varieties, from mild to hot peppers:

  • Bell pepper: 0 SHU
  • Jalapeño pepper: 4,000–10,000 SHU
  • Serrano pepper: 10,000–20,000 SHU
  • Cayenne: 30,000–50,000 SHU
  • Habanero: 100,000–300,000 SHU
  • Ghost pepper: 1,000,000 SHU
  • Trinidad Moruga Scorpion: 1,200,000 SHU
  • Carolina Reaper: 1,400,000 SHU

5 Tips for Cooking With Habanero Peppers

Habanero chile peppers are mostly grown in the Yucatán region of Mexico but are also prevalent in crops and cuisine throughout Central America and the southwestern United States. Habanero peppers are easily found in almost any grocery store. Habaneros are a great addition to a dish that needs a spicy yet sweet crunch. But before you cut into this festive-looking pepper, consider these six cooking tips:

  1. Wear gloves. When handling super hot peppers like habaneros that rank high on the Scoville scale, it’s wise to wear gloves. Not only can the burning sensation irritate your skin, but the peppers can also leave a residue on your fingers, and you might forget and rub an itchy eye.
  2. Realize that little habanero goes a long way. Just a little bit of this hot chile pepper is needed to get fiery results. Start by adding a tiny bit of habanero, even a few slivers. Taste your dish as you go to make sure you don’t overdo it. The hottest parts of the pepper are the habanero seeds and the veins, so remove all of those to reduce the heat before adding to your recipe.
  3. Know the remedy for pepper burn. When you cook with hot peppers, chances are you’ll consume too much at some point. If that happens, drink milk, which has just enough acidity to quell the burning in your mouth. Other options include sugar, milk chocolate, and alcohol like tequila. For topical pepper burns that irritate your skin, apply either cold milk or lemon juice. A glass of cold water might be tempting, but avoid it at all costs—it will only spread the burning sensation.
  4. Remove the pepper’s skin first. The skin of a habanero is thin, but it can be tough to break down with your teeth. To remove the skin, roast the peppers over a gas or coal grill for ten minutes or roast them in the oven for the same amount of time. This will loosen the skin of the pepper and make it easier to peel off.
  5. Include habaneros with different types of meals. Saute peppers up in oil or butter and toss them into a pot of chile. Add them to a mango salsa and put a few spoonfuls over crispy tacos with avocado and fresh lime juice. Whip up some habanero hot sauce or pepper sauce marinade to drizzle atop BBQ pork chops.


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