The jalapeño vs. the serrano: What exactly is the difference between the two most popular fresh chiles in the U.S. and Mexico?
Both are vibrant emerald green, with the larger jalapeño looking like a serrano on steroids. Jalapeños tend to be beefier, while serranos are more slender. Both have a torpedo shape that tapers to a point and curved green stems and smooth skins with no soft spots or wrinkles.
Bigger not always better when it comes to chiles
And as with almost all chiles, the rule of thumb applies: the larger the chile, the milder it is. In this case, the larger jalapeño is milder than the spicier serrano. But bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better. Sometimes bigger is just, well, bigger.
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Jalapeños and serranos belong to the common Capsicum annuum family of peppers and can easily be found year round in most supermarket produce sections thanks to domestic and imported crops. Jalapeños (named after the city of Jalapa, Veracruz, Mexico, sometimes spelled Xalapeños after the local spelling of Xalapa) measure about 4 inches long and an inch wide at the stem end. Serranos (translates to “from the mountains” because they were first grown in the high-elevation mountains of Puebla, east of Mexico City) measure about 3 inches long and a half-inch wide at the stem end.
Their flavors are similar, and I find an excellent way to appreciate any subtle differences is to taste them when they turn bright red. That’s when they are at their peak of ripeness and when their spice intensity drops and they become slightly mellow, almost sweet. I always look for red-ripe chiles in late summer at farmers markets.
Make salsas to compare jalapeños and serranos
A favorite way to understand their differences is to make two simple table salsas (see recipes below). Choose either green or red for both chiles, and remove the seeds from both to control the unadorned (no onion, cilantro, etc.) heat.
When choosing between the two for a recipe, decide whether you’re looking for a lot of green flavor or more spice with less vegetable taste. For example, when I whirl up fresh fruit table salsas I choose serrano because I want the specific fruit flavor to be front and center but with plenty of backup chile heat. I choose green jalapeños for tomatillo salsas where a spicy chile with plenty of green bean vegetable flavor adds to the green sauce. Of course, they can be used interchangeably; add less serrano or more jalapeño and you’re all set.
After jalapeños and serranos ripen and turn red, they are dried and sometimes smoked. For size comparison, there are about 8 dried jalapeños per ounce or 11 dried serranos per ounce. A good rule of thumb is 10 pounds of fresh chiles weigh 1 pound when dried. The dried form of each chile has a different name: a dried, red jalapeño is a jalapeño seco and a dried, red serrano is simply called a chile seco.
Fiery hot, the small, 1½-inch chile seco has a slight citrus flavor and is usually found ground (sometimes called tipico and balin) and added to cooked sauces for heat.
A dried and smoked red jalapeño is a chile chipotle. Other dried and smoked chipotles are called morita and meco. The morita is a dark red, almost black, shiny, smoky, leathery chile that can vary in length from an inch to 4 inches. Many smaller moritas are canned in adobo (a chile-tomato sauce) and called chiles chipotles en adobo. The easy-to-use chiles are readily available in 7- to 8-ounce cans. After removing a few for a recipe, you can freeze the rest. The usually larger meco is smoked at least twice as long and turns medium brown with the look of an old, fuzzy brown tobacco leaf. Aficionados relish its spicy, super-smoky qualities.
The prized red-ripe, fresh jalapeño called huachinango (the same name as the famous Gulf red snapper fish because its stripes simulate the fish scale pattern) comes from central Mexico, mostly around Puebla and Veracruz. Usually found during the hottest summer months, it is easy to identify the coveted, 4- to 5-inch beauty, which has thin white lines running vertically on its skin. When dried and smoked, the thick-skinned delicacy becomes an extra-large, expensive chipotle meco grande with a subtle chocolate aroma.
Melissas.com: Melissa’s sells fresh and dried chiles. 5325 Soto St., Vernon, CA 90058. (800) 588-0151. Hours: 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays to Fridays
Spices.com: Spices Inc. is a mail-order company that sells dried chiles. (888) 762-8642
Simple Green Chile Table Salsa Taste Test
If you have sensitive skin, wear gloves while preparing these salsas. Choose either all green or all red chiles for both jalapeños and serranos.
Prep time: 10 minutes
Total time: 10 minutes
Yield: Makes 1/3 cup of each salsa.
2 ounces (1 or 2) fresh jalapeño chiles, stemmed, seeded and finely chopped
2 ounces (3 or 4) fresh serrano chiles, stemmed, seeded and finely chopped
Corn chips or warmed corn tortillas
1. Put the jalapeño chiles in a blender jar. Measure in 2 tablespoons water. Purée on high 20 seconds until foamy. Pour into a serving bowl.
2. Rinse the blender jar.
3. Put the serrano chiles in the blender. Measure in 2 tablespoons water. Purée on high 20 seconds until foamy. Pour into another serving bowl.
4. Taste with corn chips or warm corn tortillas.
Bright Salmon-Pink Mexican Papaya Table Salsa
If you have sensitive skin, wear gloves while preparing this salsa.
Prep time: 20 minutes
Total time: 20 minutes
Yield: Makes about 2 cups.
1 very ripe Mexican papaya, about 12 inches long and 6 inches in diameter
2 Mexican (aka Key) limes, juiced (about 3 tablespoons)
1 medium (3 inches) white onion, coarsely chopped
2 teaspoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon sea or kosher salt
2 serrano chiles
1/2 cup chopped cilantro leaves
1. Cut the papaya in half vertically. Scoop out the black seeds from one of the halves. Peel it and chop it, measuring out 3 cups chopped fruit. Put it into a blender or processor. (Wrap the remaining fruit in plastic and save for another use, such as smoothies or slices with a squirt of lime.)
2. Pour the lime juice on the papaya. Blend 5 seconds.
3. Add the onion, sugar and salt and whirl again 5 seconds. Pour the slightly chunky mixture into a serving bowl.
4. Stem and mince one of the 2 chiles and stir it (with seeds) into the papaya along with the cilantro. Taste. If you want a spicier salsa, stir in more of the remaining minced chile. Adjust salt or lime juice if necessary.
Notes: Don’t process the salmon-colored papaya, green chiles and cilantro together all at once or they will turn into an off-putting brownish mash (although the taste will still be great).
Save the papaya’s black seeds. Rinse and then dry them on a baking sheet in a low oven (200 F) for about an hour. Cool completely. The spicy seeds can be ground like peppercorns.
Main photo: Bright Salmon-Pink Mexican Papaya Table Salsa. Credit: Copyright Nancy Zaslavsky