Serrano peppers are fairly common in grocery stores in North America. They (usually) offer higher heat than a jalapeño, and a smaller size. If a recipe calls for them, you may need a serrano pepper substitute.
In this article, I’ll share some of our favorite alternatives for serrano peppers that will work in a pinch. Depending on the recipe, you may have the perfect replacement already in the kitchen!
Jalapeños are closely related to serrano peppers, making them an excellent alternative. If you need an alternate pepper that is similar to the serrano, reach for jalapeño peppers!
It is no wonder these two pepper varieties are so similar, they both come from the same species, Capsicum annuum. The flavor is similar, and both have a satisfying crunch when eaten fresh.
Jalapeños have thicker skin, a larger size, and less heat than serrano peppers. However, they are still an excellent serrano pepper substitute ingredient. They are also incredibly popular and easy to find at grocery stores.
See our article on serrano vs jalapeno peppers here for a full comparison of the two varieties.
Cayenne Pepper Powder
If you are just looking to add a quick pinch of heat, reach for the cayenne pepper powder. This spice is very common and can add plenty of heat without disrupting a meal’s flavor.
What cayenne lacks is texture. If your meals rely on the physical peppers for substance, this spice may not work for your needs. However, for adding heat, cayenne is the king of the spice rack!
Tip: Learn how to make your own cayenne powder from fresh peppers here.
Another alternative for serrano peppers is to use some spare hot sauce. Serrano peppers are sometimes used in hot sauces, especially when they are allowed to ripen fully to red.
Be careful which hot sauce you choose, as some are highly flavorful and can impact the taste of your meal. Don’t add anything that will out-compete your meal’s flavor.
Here are some recommended hot sauces that don’t compete too much for flavor:
These simple ingredient hot sauces add a bite of spice and acidic vinegar. Use a few dashes as a replacement for serrano peppers.
Again, hot sauce lacks texture, so this substitute won’t work for all applications. However, if you need both, you can combine hot sauce or cayenne powder with fresh bell peppers for a similar texture and heat level of serrano peppers.
Bell Peppers (Green or Red)
If you don’t mind missing out on heat, bell or other sweet peppers can serve as an alternative to serrano peppers. Though they lack heat, bell peppers are otherwise very similar to serranos.
Bell peppers and serranos are both from the same pepper species. They both have a mild vegetal flavor with sweet and smoky undertones. If you have an aversion to spicy food, sweet peppers make the perfect replacement for serrano peppers.
Tip: If you like spicy food, add back the heat with a pinch of cayenne or pepper flakes along with the fresh bell peppers. You’ll barely notice the difference from using fresh serranos!
If you are looking to make stuffed peppers, there are some small sweet peppers that are becoming common at supermarkets. These long peppers are closer to a jalapeno in shape and size, and would make a great stuffed appetizer.
Red Pepper Flakes
Similar to cayenne pepper, red pepper flakes can work as a stand in for serrano peppers. Again, flakes are not the same as a fresh pepper, and will not offer the same texture or crunch you get from serranos.
However, as mentioned before, you can always combine multiple substitutes to achieve a similar effect in your cooking. Try chopped sweet bell peppers and a few pinches of red pepper flakes to get a similar crunch and heat of serrano peppers.
One other alternative I recommend is smoked paprika. This flavorful spice is essentially smoked, dehydrated, and finely ground red bell peppers. It does not have any heat, but it adds a tremendous smoky flavor.
Since serrano peppers have a naturally smokiness to them, smoked paprika can fill in nicely. If you want to add back some heat, throw in a pinch of cayenne along with the paprika.
If you are in the supermarket right now, and you can’t find fresh peppers, check the canned produce aisle. You can often find pickled jalapenos or banana peppers. These vinegar-preserved peppers add a nice spicy bite to food, similar to that of serrano peppers.
Check the ingredient list to make sure that the pickled peppers aren’t packed with incompatible herbs and spices. They are usually fairly simple, with some garlic, salt, and vinegar. I always keep a can of pickled peppers on hand, homemade or store bought, just in case!
Another alternative for serranos are fresno peppers. These bright red peppers are more similar in shape to a jalapeno, but have a higher heat level, just like serranos.
However, fresno peppers may be more difficult to find, so this alternative may not be available to you. If you can find them, they’ll substitute perfectly.
Tip: If you are planning to stuff peppers, fresnos are a great option for poppers!
Poblanos are big, beautiful dark green peppers with a mild heat level. While they do not offer the same pungency as a serrano, they are crunchy and have a great flavor.
Poblanos are fairly easy to come by (and to grow at home), as they are commonly used for adding a touch of heat. They make a great alternative for bell peppers if you are the type to enjoy some heat.
Serrano Pepper Uses
If you have a few extra serrano peppers from a recipe, you may wonder what they can be used for. There are many great uses for fresh serrano chilis in cooking. They can also be frozen or dehydrated for long-term storage.
- Fresh Salsa. Fresh salsa usually includes jalapeno peppers for a kick of heat. Serranos are even better (in my opinion) for making homemade salsa. The peppers are skinny enough that they only need to be sliced into saucers to be the perfect size. They also add more heat, which we love.
- Stir Fry. For homemade stir fry, serranos are one of our go-to peppers. Red chilis and jalapenos are great too, but serranos just offer a unique flavor and texture that works so well. Dice up a few serranos and toss them into Chinese stir fry, especially rice dishes – yum!
- Preserved. If you aren’t sure how to use the serrano peppers, why not preserve them for later? Check out these several storage methods for peppers. You can freeze, dehydrate, or even pickle your serranos to keep them good for longer.
- Save seeds and grow plants. Saving pepper seeds is super easy. We have grown serrano plants from seeds saved from store bought peppers. The varieties are usually resistant to disease, fast to ripen and delicious! Learn how to save pepper seeds here. Here is a picture of our latest serrano plant in the garden:
I hope you found the perfect serrano pepper substitute. There are many great alternative options, and they can all be combined to suit whatever needs you have. Serranos are excellent peppers, so next time, try to find the real thing – you won’t regret it!