Chiltepin Pepper Guide: Heat, Flavor, Uses


What are chiltepin peppers?

You may be surprised to learn that the chiltepin is actually a pepper native to the United States. In fact, it’s the only one, making it known to many above the border as “the mother of all peppers”. The chiltepin pepper has a rich history in Native American culture. And its tiny size along with its intense (but short-lived) extra-hot spiciness (50,000 to 100,000 Scoville heat units) and smoky, earthy flavor have made it a unique favorite among today’s hot pepper lovers.

Chiltepin pepper

Table of Contents

  • What are chiltepin peppers?
  • Chiltepin fast facts
  • How hot are chiltepin peppers?
  • Where do chiltepin chilies grow?
  • What do they look like?
  • What do chiltepin taste like?
  • Cooking with chiltepin
  • Where can you buy chiltepin peppers?
  • Must-read related posts

Chiltepin fast facts

Scoville heat units (SHU)Median heat (SHU)Jalapeño reference pointCapsicum speciesOriginUseSizeFlavor

How hot are chiltepin peppers?

For such a small size, they pack a pretty big punch. Be careful if you ever get the chance to pop a few of these peppers in your mouth. Chiltepin ranges from 50,000 to 100,000 Scoville heat units (or SHU), with the chance for a bit hotter if a crop had an ideally wet growing season. This makes it equal with Thai peppers in terms of overall heat and roughly six to forty times spicier than your standard jalapeño. Compared to that cayenne pepper in your cupboard (30,000 to 50,000 SHU), the chiltepin begins in heat wear the hottest cayenne stops.

Let’s also compare the chiltepin to another chili that’s often referenced alongside it: the pequin. Pequin chilies are quite a bit milder: 40,000 to 60,000 SHU. Their floor is near equal, but chiltepin can be, at their hottest, nearly double the heat of pequin peppers.

But the heat of a chiltepin is quite different than most other peppers. They zing you with hotness before calming down quickly. Compare that to a ghost pepper where the heat starts seemingly mild and boils over in intensity over time. It’s definitely a different eating experience.

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Where do chiltepin chilies grow?

As mentioned, this is the one wild chili native to the United States. It’s found natively in the southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico. For a long time, chiltepin plants pretty much only grew wildly, a treasure of the land. Native Americans adored this chili, and they still do. It’s a food staple and a medicine (due to the capsaicin in the plant).

Rituals were built around the wild harvesting of the chiltepin pepper – it’s something that brought communities and families together. It’s this sort of indigenous North American history and folklore that’s bringing the chiltepin back to the forefront among chilies in America.

Today, chiltepins still grow wildly. The regions of wild growth in the United States are few – totaling 15 locations. But many are all protected national park sites like Coronado National Forest. There are domesticated crops as well, but you’ll find that many packages of dried chiltepins are picked from wild harvests in these regions.

What do they look like?

These are tiny chilies. In fact, chiltepin are sometimes called bird’s eye peppers because of their tininess (not to be confused with the Thai peppers which are also sometimes called bird’s eye chilies.) The chili goes by many other names, too,, including bird pepper, chile tepin, chiltepe, and simply tepin.

Chiltepin are often only a quarter-inch across, so multiple chilies can fit on a United States quarter, and they have a round shape. They follow the common color maturation pattern of most chilies, from green to a beautiful red hue. Overall, they look quite unassuming for the amount of spiciness they hold.

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What do chiltepin taste like?

There’s a smoky, earthy flavor surrounding the pepperiness of the chiltepin. And that’s only heightened when they are picked sun-dried from the vine. It’s a common way that these chilies are eaten since they are found natively in the Southwest of the United States.

Cooking with chiltepin

As mentioned, using this chili sun-dried is a favorite for many people. Some simply enjoy this wild North American chili, sun-dried, straight off the vine. Just pop a pepper in your mouth for an intense experience.

And even though these peppers are small, people still cook with them. Chiltepins, in both their dried and fresh forms, are often mixed in with sauces and salsas. They are also ground into powders for spices. They even make their way into spicy desserts. A favorite for many is pickled chiltepins. When pickled, the chili is mixed with other spices to create one of the most unique condiments imaginable.

And, of course, chiltepin are a favorite for Tex-Mex and authentic Mexican foods of all types. It’s an excellent chili for burritos, enchiladas, quesadillas, and more.

More cooking tips:

  • When cutting into chiltepin, handle with care. The heat level of these chilies is low enough that you can typically handle them whole without concern for chili burn. But cutting into any chiltepin, like with any chili, releases the capsaicin (the compound that creates the spiciness.) Wear gloves when cutting them to keep the potential for pretty significant chili burn at bay.
  • Use sparingly, then add as you like. The small size of chiltepin can really fool you into overusing them. That’s especially true if you’re swapping chiltepin into a recipe that called for larger chilies. Don’t think that you need to match size for size (like five chiltepin for one jalapeño.) You’ll be in for a surprising amount of spiciness.
  • Chiltepin are also an excellent chili for read meats and barbecue. It’s that earthy, smoky flavor. It maps very well to the bolder tastes you get from grilled steaks and heavily marinated meats and bolder barbecue sides.
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Where can you buy chiltepin peppers?

You won’t often find these peppers in a grocery store outside of the southwestern United States, that’s for sure. And even specialty stores may not carry them. But you’ll definitely find them online, along with chiltepin seeds, whole chilies, and other products.

With its rich North American history and surprising taste, the chiltepin is no longer a forgotten pepper. If you’re a chilihead, exploring what this pepper has to offer is an interesting way to experience both one of the earliest known peppers as well as the rich Native American history of the United States. It may be tiny, but its significance is grand.

Must-read related posts

  • The Hot Pepper List: The chiltepin is only one of over 150 chilies we profile here at PepperScale. Our list lets you filter chilies by spiciness, flavor, origin, use, and more.
  • Small Peppers Guide – Tiny Delivers Big: This chili is among the smallest on the Scoville scale. Which others share that distinction? Take a look.
  • Our Hot Sauce Rankings: We rank over 100 hot sauces, covering overall flavor, heat balance, usability, and collectibility. Explore the rankings and even sort by the chilies used.
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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>