Even people who love cooking with hot chilies might not have used Fresno peppers before. Fresno chilies are fantastic vegetables and have delicious flavor, but they aren't stocked in regular grocery stores very often. You might have to order them specially or go to Mexican specialty grocery stores to get them fresh.
The bright red color of Fresno chilies is incredibly photogenic, but they still haven’t been widely adopted in cooking. Unless, of course, you live in California. Since Fresno chilies are named after Fresno County California, it maybe shouldn't be a surprise that they are a lot easier to find when you live in California.
Here's what you need to know about Fresno chilies and the substitutions you can make if your recipe calls for Fresno chilis and you can't get them fresh.
What Are Fresno Chilies?
Fresno chilies, like a lot of other chili peppers in the world, are a hybridized pepper plant.
If you didn’t already know, chilies are some of the easiest vegetables in the world to hybridize, but the results from hybridizing two different plants, or even selectively breeding the same cultivar for specific traits, can be a little unpredictable.
It shouldn’t be surprising then, that Fresno chilies are often mistaken for under ripe jalapenos. But there are some key differences. Fresno chilies are bright red, usually about the same size as a small jalapeno, and they range from about the same heat level to a little milder than a standard jalapeno. They also have thinner walls.
But, the surprising thing is that they pack a lot of flavor into those thin walls, and the flavor is a wide combination of a lot of the best flavors in chilies.
Fresno chilies are sweet, slightly smokey even before they are dried, and can create a buzzy feeling on your tongue like shishito and Szechuan peppers, and have a nice tang. Best of all, none of those flavors are too intense or unpleasant. In fact, it tends to be a bit milder than other peppers that give you the same kinds of flavor.
How Are Fresno Chilies Used In Cooking?
Fresno chilis can be used in just about anything that you would use another pepper in. You can use them on pizzas, in pickles and relishes, in jams and preserves, in stir fry, stews, soups, casseroles, and more.
The nice thing is that they are versatile enough to use anytime you want a little more heat.
Looking for substitutes for your favorite spicy ingredients? Take a look at our enchilada sauce substitutes!
Why Are Fresno Chilies So Hard To Find?
There are a couple of problems that make it harder for Fresno chilies to be found in grocery stores. For one thing, a lot of grocery stores (and their customers) mistake Fresno chilies for jalapenos or other peppers.
There also just isn’t enough awareness of this pepper to drive demand. People aren’t looking for Fresno peppers often enough for it to be worth it to grocery stores to stock them.
The good news is, the more people see recipes that call for Fresno chilies, and the more people who try this chili pepper for themselves, the more demand there will be. Who knows, maybe in a few years it will be easy to get Fresno chilies in your local grocery store.
The Best Fresno Chili Substitutes and When to Use Them:
Choosing the right pepper to replace Fresno peppers in your recipes is a bit of an art form. It’s important to remember that you need to find a good flavor match, but also keep your heat tolerance in mind.
Some replacements give you great flavor, but not as much capsaicin, or significantly more capsaicin as the Fresno peppers would. It’s also important to make sure you’re adjusting the amount you add to match the heat and different flavors of the pepper.
Aleppo peppers are a good replacement because they are similarly fruity, have a hint of smoke flavor, and pair well with a lot of the same ingredients as Fresno peppers. However, they aren’t as spicy as Fresno peppers, and they can be just as hard to find depending on where you are.
So, while this is a good replacement, you might need to add more of them to get the heat you want, and you might have the same trouble getting them from your grocery stores.
Cayenne peppers are often more common to find in spices and dried than finding them fresh, but either option works pretty well. Cayenne tends to be relatively smoky flavored, but they can have very variable spice ranges, like most peppers.
That means that you might want to stick to the powdered kind or cayenne flakes instead of using the fresh peppers unless you don't mind a variable spice level.
It’s also important to remember that cayenne peppers are significantly spicier than a Fresno chili, so if you’re using them, you’re going to want far less.
Cayenne pairs particularly well with seafood, where the bite of the pepper helps provide contrast to the softer creamier flavors in a lot of seafood.
Chipotle peppers aren’t actually a pepper variety, they’re a preparation of Jalapeno peppers. Chipotle peppers are smoked jalapenos and are made from ripe jalapenos. The smokiness of the peppers comes in part from the smoking process and loses some of the sweetness of jalapenos.
They are around the same heat level as jalapenos as well as Fresno peppers, which means you can use about the same amount. However, they don’t have the same sweetness or fruity flavor as Fresno peppers.
Chipotle and Chorizo are a match made in heaven. If you aren’t sure how to use these ingredients, our Chorizo Recipes for home cooking can help.
Jalapeno peppers are another great substitute and tend to be less smokey, but a little sweeter than chipotle peppers.
If you want the peppers for the heat, choose chipotle, if you want the fresh pepper flavor, go with Jalapenos.
Kashmiri red chilies are a great option for substituting Fresno peppers if you want a similar flavor and even a similar color but don't necessarily want the same heat. They are a bit milder but are noted for having delicious and complex flavors.
Often used in Indian, Kashmiri, and Nepalese cooking, Kashmiri peppers offer balanced flavors like Fresno peppers, though not quite as sweet or smokey.
If you love the taste of peppers, but not the heat, poblano peppers are a good option. They are larger, bright green, and have a mild flavor similar to a smoked bell pepper. They are slightly spicier than bell peppers, but not by very much.
Pasilla peppers, like a lot of dried chilies, have a rich savory and smoky flavor that they can add to any cooking. These peppers are a particularly good Fresno Chili substitute in part because they also have a fruity flavor, making them a bit more complex than some of the other substitute options.
These peppers are mild though, so they aren’t going to give you the same heat as the Fresno pepper.
Serrano peppers are narrow thin, and about as long as a small jalapeno. Serrano peppers have a deep smoky flavor with a slightly fruity undertone. However, the fruity undertones of the pepper are often lost in the heat, because this is one of the spicier peppers you can use.
Not as hot as habanero, you’re still going to want to use much less serrano peppers than you would use Fresno peppers.
Red Chili Peppers
Red dried chili peppers are a great default pepper if you’re looking for something with moderate heat and fruity pepper flavor. They tend to work better blended up in sauces and marinades, but you can add them whole to broths and bakes – just plan to remove them later so that the texture doesn’t damage the rest of your dish.
Chili Pepper Flake Blends
If you can’t get fresh peppers or don’t want to try to mimic the flavor of Fresno chilies you can use a chili pepper flake blend to get a similar effect.
You want to get a blend if you can, not just cayenne pepper flakes. For one thing, cayenne pepper flakes are significantly spicier than Fresno chilies. But it’s also because they tend to be more one note once a chili is turned into flakes. Using a blend of different chilies can give you more varied and complex flavors.
You should also be careful to match the heat of the blend to your tolerance. It’s easy to add too much and accidentally go overboard with pepper flake blends.
Red Bell Peppers
Not a fan of spice but want the pepper flavor? Red bell peppers are a great option. They are sweet and fruity tasting, but they don’t have any heat. They don't have the same smokiness, but you'll still get a well-balanced meal if you add them in place of a spicier flavor.
Last, but certainly not least, if you can’t find fresh peppers, or don’t like the flavor of fresh hot peppers, you can always use your favorite hot sauce instead of Fresno peppers. Blends that use mangoes or peaches to add some sweetness are often a better flavor match than hot sauces that are strictly spicy or savory.