Chile De Arbol: Origin, Flavor, Uses In Cooking, Alternatives

Chile de Arbol, which literarily means “tree chili’ in Spanish, is a small Mexican pepper. People love it for the smoky nutty characteristics with an acidic heat which is 5-6 times hotter than the common jalapeno pepper.

This article digs into the basic must-know facts about chile de Arbol including its origin, heat, flavor, uses, and substitutes.

What Are Chiles de Arbol?

Chile de Arbol peppers are small and thin in size 2-3 inches long and less than ½ inch wide. The word “Arbol” in Spanish means “tree” which refers to the woody stems of the peppers.

It’s botanically classified as Capsicum annuum and is an heirloom pepper that belongs to the Solanaceae or nightshade family.  Also, they are known in other names as pico de Pajaro, rat’s tail chile, or bird’s beak chile—not to be confused with the Thai bird’s eye chile.

This hot pepper is popularly used in several Mexican dishes, as well as in Thai cooking. The vibrant red color of this pepper stays firm even after drying and cooking. They give a colorful spicy texture to the condiments or seasoning blends. The distinctive nutty and smoky tang makes this pepper the choicest ingredient in hot sauces and salsas.


The De Arbol Chile is said to have originated in the Oaxaca and Jalisco states of Mexico. Today, more than anything, it’s an icon of Mexican culture and foods.

Currently, this pepper offers a livelihood to hundreds of families in the western state of Jalisco where the commercial cultivation of this pepper spreads over 250 hectares of farmland.

Notably, dried de Arbol chile is an iconic symbol of Mexican culture and festive decorations.  They are often depicted in local artwork as ornamental kitchen decorations and hung in dried bunches known as ristras.

Appearance And Flavor

Fresh Chile de Arbol peppers are slender and small; averaging 1 to 2 centimeters in diameter and 5 to 8 centimeters in length with an elongated narrow shape. Dried peppers have a flat wrinkled appearance and retain the bright red color. The pepper has brittle, delicate, and dry flesh with a crumbling texture with numerous round and flat yellow seeds encased within the central cavity. Similar to other chiles in the Capsicum annum species, this pepper grows on a bush, where they ripen from green to red.

Generally, the pepper is utilized in dried form and drying enhances its earthy, smoky, and sweet flavor with subtle bitterness.  De Arbol chile has a complex flavor and fiery heat that ranges between 15,000 to 30,000 SHU on the Scoville Scale. However, the heat of the chile can sometimes reach up to 65,000 SHU depending on growing conditions and environmental factors.

Cooking With Chiles De Arbol

Chile de Arbol peppers are exceptionally great for adding heat and spiciness, especially to salsa and hot sauces. In Mexican cooking, Chile de Arbol Salsa is one of the popular condiments that can be made with either fresh or dried chiles.

Dry chiles are often toasted and fried before rehydrating to intensify their heat, smokiness, and nuttiness. Fried chiles are also used for making chile powder which is a common ingredient in various seasoning blends. Toasted de Arbol chiles are also used for making adobo or marinade.

Chile De Arbol Substitutes

If you can’t find them or you’ve run out of them, then just refer to Scoville scale units of various peppers to find the best chile de àrbol substitute for your recipe. Here are some of the best alternatives to consider:

1. Japones pepper

Japones Chile is a small, pointed chile that has a similar appearance to the De Arbol; though the walls of the Japones are thicker. They both have exactly the same heat level – 15,000 to 30,000 Scoville heat units. Jopones don’t have a nutty, smoky flavor but render a nice punch like the chiles.

2. Crushed red pepper

Another good alternative to Chile de Arbol is crushed red pepper for they both have the same levels of spiciness and heat. Crushed peppers usually made with cayenne pepper and a few other lesser heat peppers is a worthy alternative though it lacks the flavor of dried chile pepper.

3. Dried cayenne peppers

Dried cayenne pepper is an easily available replacement for Chile de Arbol despite its double-strong heat profile. Cayenne also lacks the nuttiness of Arbol Chile but its slender size and red color make them look alike. While substituting, use cayenne pepper in half the amount of chile required in your recipe.

4. Cascabel pepper

When it comes to heat level cascabel chili (1,000 to 3,000 SHU) is a poor counterpart of Chile de Arbol, but they both have a similar flavor that is equally nutty and earthy. If you prefer flavors over heat levels, then cascabel is a great substitute for Chile de Arbol.

5. Other Alternatives

In a pinch, you can use guajillo peppers, cayenne powder, Gochugaru, or paprika in place of Chile de Arbol. Their suitability will depend on the recipe that is at hand. You can also try slightly hotter pequin chile peppers (40,000–60,000 SHU) as a swap for Arbol Chile.