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Pepper Substitutions

Safely Substituting Peppers

Man with hat in field holding peppers
Sometimes a canning recipe calls for a specific type of chile* pepper. Since peppers vary in heat intensity and flavor, recipes are designed to provide a specific flavor and heat level. Some recipes rely on dried chiles for heat, but others use fresh chile peppers.

Some common fresh peppers used in canning recipes include, in ascending order of heat: bell peppers, jalapeño, serrano, chileno, and habanero.



Why Substitute Peppers?

There are two main reasons why you might consider changing the type of peppers called for in a recipe:

  1. You desire more or less spiciness than the original recipe. Selecting a hotter or cooler chile pepper can alter the overall intensity of the final product.
  2. You do not have access to the peppers called for in a recipe, or have an abundance from the garden that need to be used. This is a common situation in rural areas. 

You may also wish to alter the heat and use different peppers.

How to Safely Substitute Peppers

It is important that for recipes using fresh peppers that you do not change the total volume or weight of peppers called for. Changing the overall amount of peppers can make a recipe unsafe.

For recipes using whole peppers, unless the recipe specifically says otherwise, you should substitute with a pepper of similar size and follow the same process. 

It's worth noting that some peppers have thick skins that you may want to remove before using in a recipe. Here is some guidance on peeling peppers. Most recipes with peppers at the NCHFP have explicit instructions on using different peppers and whether they should be peeled.

As a rule, substituting peppers works best in products like salsas, sauces, pepper jellies, or as source of spice in pickles.

Dried Chile Peppers

You can make any reasonable change to dried seasonings in a recipe. This is an easy way to increase the spiciness of a recipe without making other changes to fresh ingredients. Dried chiles (also crushed and powdered) come in various levels of heat. 

Keep in mind some products are made from smoked chiles, like chipotle powder. The smokiness will come through in the final product. This may not be what you want.

Fresh Chile Peppers

It's worth repeating: Do not change total amounts of fresh chile peppers in a recipe. You can only change the type of peppers used.

Too Much Heat

For recipes that are too hot for your personal taste, you may substitute another pepper that is less spicy. Replacing serranos with an equal amount of jalapeños is a good place to start to retain some heat, but less intensity.

Do not simply reduce the amount of peppers called for. The ratios of ingredients are important for food safety.

Not Hot Enough

Some people like spicy food. If this describes you, then you are probably disappointed with the heat level in many tested recipes. An easy option that works in salsas is to add some dried hot pepper flakes to increase the heat. Placing one (or 2) whole, dried Japones pepper — easily found in the Mexican section of a grocery store — adds a pleasant amount of zing to a pickle recipe without masking other flavors. (Keep in mind the author is from California.)

If you wish roughly double the heat, replacing jalapeños with an equal amount of serranos and/or Sierra Nevada chilenos work well. To quadruple the heat, a good substitute is to use fresh cayenne peppers.

When You Have Different Peppers

For those trying to use produce from a garden or CSA box, or live in an area with few choices in peppers, sometimes it is necessary to replace peppers to match what you have access to.

As long as the total amount of peppers added is the same, it is safe to substitute in sauces and salsas.

A good recommendation to start with would be to use equal amounts of peppers you have that are similar in heat, for example using Anaheims instead of bell peppers. Some experimentation may be in order.

Many gardeners pride themselves on raising extremely hot peppers like Bhut Jolokia. These are too hot to add recipes in any useful amount. You will still be reliant on other peppers. Be very careful about making products using these, especially if you plan to share the product with friends or soon to-be former friends. 

*Chile or Chili?

Is it is a chile or chili? 

This is a good way to start a fight! The L.A. Times had a story on this about 20 years ago.

The author of this page uses chile, the Spanish spelling. Many Americans use chili instead. Both are acceptable.

For the pepper itself I prefer chile but for the meaty, soup-like dish I use chili. The powder used to make chili is chili powder. It usually includes garlic, salt and other spices. If I am wanting to add just powdered chiles to a recipe I use chile powder. You may use powdered chilies instead.

Let's just agree to disagree!