Cayenne Pepper vs. Jalapeno: Two Spicy Peppers Worthy of Notice

Written by Rita Pike
Published: November 14, 2022
Image Credit Chris Bradshaw/Shutterstock.com
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There are many spicy peppers out there that we love for many reasons. But because there are so many, it can be a little confusing deciding which ones are the ones you really want to plant and enjoy at home. Cayenne pepper vs. jalapeno pepper, for example, is one of the most confusing choices to make. They’re both hot and spicy, but one is much, much hotter. And do they need the same care? Are they used in the same ways? How should you use them?

If you’re curious which plant is the better one for your garden, check out the uses, origins, growing preferences, and more below. You’ll quickly figure out which plant will serve you best. One is much hotter than the other, though, so pay attention to those Scoville Heat Units (SHU).

sliced up jalapeno peppers
sliced up jalapeno peppers

Svetlana Foote/Shutterstock.com

Cayenne PepperJalapeno Pepper
ClassificationCapsicum annuum (frutescens); There are more than 50 varieties of cayenne peppersCapsicum annuum ‘jalapeno’; There are more than 15 varieties of jalapeno peppers
DescriptionCayenne pepper plants grow to about 1 foot in height, with elliptic leaves about 1 inch long. The plants have white flowers that become the red peppers. The peppers are ranked at 15,000 to 20,000 Scoville Heat Units.Jalapeno plants are usually between 2 and 3 feet tall, often loaded with 30 to 40 peppers. The peppers grow about 2 to 3 inches in length and are tanked at 2,500 to 8,000 Scoville Heat Units.
UsesCayenne peppers are used in many cuisines from around the world, and particularly in Latin cooking. They are packed with nutrients thought to help improve overall health and specific conditions, such a high blood sugar levels and inflammation.Jalapeno peppers are associated with Mexican and Tex-Mex cuisine in particular and are packed with nutrients like folate and Vitamin A. The spicy pepper is thought to help fight cell damage and improve health overall.
Origin and growing preferencesCayenne peppers are notably first mentioned in French Guiana, South America, with a likely much longer history. They do best in sunny locations with warm temperatures and well-drained soil.First cultivated in Jalapa Mexico, jalapenos are known primarily as a Mexican plant. The spicy peppers do best when planted in sunny locales with well-drained soil.
Special features and fun factsCayenne peppers have often been used in pepper spray, many folks think they help with weight loss, and they are a part of the chili pepper family.Jalapeno peppers are the only chili pepper to have been launched into space and they’re primarily grown in Texas, New Mexico, and California within the United States. They also naturally tell their spiciness through visible “scars” on their skin.

Key Differences Between Cayenne and Jalapeno Peppers

These two spicy peppers are amazing in so many ways. But the differences might help you pick which one is best for your garden and home cooking.

Cayenne Pepper vs. Jalapeno: Classification

Cayenne peppers, or capsicum annuum (frutescens), are a shrub in the chili pepper plant family. They’re annuals and considered flowering seed plants. They are part of the Solanaceae family, or the Nightshade family, which also contains tomatoes, eggplants, potatoes, tamarillos, and naranjillas.

Jalapeno peppers, or capsicum annuum ‘jalapeno’, is also a part of the chili pepper plant family. They are nightshades as well, as are most peppers.

Cayenne Pepper vs. Jalapeno: Description

Bowl of whole green jalapeno peppers
Bowl of whole green jalapeno peppers

Antonina Vlasova/Shutterstock.com

Cayenne peppers are technically considered an annual herb plant. The plant has green, smooth leaves that grow in elliptic shapes and are typically 1 inch in length and about 0.6 inches wide. The plants grow up to a foot tall. The plants have white, star-shaped flowers with 5 stamens per each. The peppers themselves are narrow, twisted, glossy, red peppers that taper down to a thin, curled tip. There are some cayenne cultivars that have fruit (peppers) that come in other colors, though, typically in yellowish color form. Cayenne peppers are rated as 15,000 to 20,000 units on the Scoville Heat Scale.

Jalapeno plants may grow up to 3 feet tall, producing about 30 to 40 peppers at once. The pepper is fairly small at just 2 to 3 inches in length when mature. The peppers should be picked regularly to keep the plant producing more throughout the season. Jalapeno peppers are less spicy than cayenne peppers, as well, ranking at between 2,500 and 8,000 Scoville Heat Units.

If you’re not quite sure what to think about the Scoville Heat Units (SHU), consider this. Anything up to 1,000 SHU is considered mild/negative. Between 1,000 and 8,000 is mild to medium. 8,000 to 22,000 units is medium. 15,000 to 100,000 units is hot. Anything higher is significantly hotter than most people can tolerate and ranked as fire. Ghost peppers fall within this range.

Cayenne Pepper vs. Jalapeno: Uses

Spicy peppers the world over have many uses in both nutrition and medicine. Whether you’re crushing up the seeds of red peppers or working with paprika, you’re bound to find some amazing flavors and uses for them. And when you’re working with cayenne and jalapeno, you’ll find tons of ideas with some overlap between the two.

Cayenne pepper is a concentrated source of many nutrients, for example. They’re low calorie, but packed with Vitamin C, Provitamin A, Vitamin B6, and Vitamin K, plus potassium and capsaicin. They even have some protein and fiber, even if a small amount. With these many vitamins, cayenne peppers are thought to help protection vision health, reproductive health, help improve immune system function, cellular production, and bone health. Capsaicin is believed to help reduce inflammation, reduce pain, improve athletic performance and increase energy levels, as well as lower blood sugar levels. Some folks also believe it can help people maintain a healthier weight. Cayenne pepper is often dried and ground up for use as herbs for cooking or supplementation.

Another benefit of cayenne pepper is that it can spice up your meals naturally in a way that reduce your felt need for consuming unnaturally added sodium (salt). Some studies have shown this to be an effective method for this purpose, so if you’re looking to cut sodium, up the cayenne!

cayenne peppers in a bowl, with ground cayenne in spoon nearby
Dried cayenne pepper is often ground up for spicing and supplementation.

Thanatip S./Shutterstock.com

Jalapenos are like cayenne peppers in many ways, including being rich in Vitamin A, Vitamin C, and potassium. They are also packed with carotene, folate, Vitamin K, and B vitamins. They are thought to help fight cell damage, improve overall life span, and all the similar benefits of other foods containing capsaicin.

Jalapenos are particularly associated with use in Mexican and Tex-Mex cuisine, as well, largely thanks to the pepper’s origins in Mexico. You’ll often find them topping nachos, tacos, enchiladas, and other meals we typically associate with Mexico.

Cayenne Pepper vs. Jalapeno: Origins and Growing Preferences

There’s speculation that the Cayenne pepper was named for the Cayenne River in French Guiana. The word, though, is translated as a corruption of the word kyynha, which means “capsicum” which is the hot and spicy ingredient that makes peppers so zingy. The word comes from the Old Tupi language which used to be spoken in Brazil. There’s also speculation that the pepper is actually named for the town of Cayenne in French Guiana or that the town and river were named for this spicy pepper. In 1653, the phrase “cayenne pepper” was used by Nicholas Culpeper in his “Complete Herbal” and the city was renamed in 1777, so it’s quite possible. The name for the plant at the time was more commonly thought of as guinea pepper, but that no longer stuck after some time with the term cayenne. Now, a bird’s eye chili (or piri-piri) is a completely different type of pepper. It wasn’t until the 1800s that the current day cayenne pepper we have was classified as a C. longum and later synomized with C. frutescens. So, it’s easy to say this pepper has had some interesting history, even if we aren’t entirely sure of all the details.

A pile of jalapeno peppers with other hot peppers tossed in
Jalapenos and other hot peppers can sometimes be hard to tell apart from each other.

Chris Bradshaw/Shutterstock.com

If you’re ready to plant your own cayenne peppers, you’ll want to do so in spring after all threat of frost has passed and it’s consistently at least 65 degrees Fahrenheit out. Or, if you can’t wait, start the seeds indoors and transfer them when the temperatures hit. Choose a sunny spot with well-drained soil, away from plants and trees that have large leaves and avoid spots in the garden where other nightshades have grown in recent years.

Jalapenos have a little clearer history. We know they date back for thousands of years in South America, Central, and North America (Mexico). The specific plant we call jalapeno today was most notably cultivated in Xalapa or Jalapa in Mexico, which is what gives the pepper its name. Mexico remains the nation most prolific in the growing and exporting of jalapeno peppers, with something like 109 square miles dedicated specifically to growing these spicy little plants.

If you’re going to grow your own jalapenos, you’ll want to start them indoors in containers or trays with seed-starting mix specifically intended for growing chili peppers. If you can’t find any, make your own with a 50/50 mis of all purpose peat-free potting mix and half coir or coco fiber. Toss in some vermiculite for best results. Then, plant the seedlings shallowly about 2 feet apart when you transfer them outdoors. Make sure they are in well-draining soil and receive plenty of sunlight.

Cayenne pepper plant with ripe peppers
Bright red cayenne peppers grow best in bright sun and warm climates.

Peter Acker/Shutterstock.com

Cayenne Pepper vs. Jalapeno: Special Features and Fun Facts

Zingy and zesty, enough to set your mouth on fire, the cayenne pepper is part of the chili pepper family. And the longer they grow on the plant, the hotter they get. The spicy pepper is high in capsaicin, which is what they use for pepper spray. So, if you’ve ever carried some around, you’ve likely had some super concentrated cayenne power in your pocket. The pepper is also believed by many to have some great health benefits but be sure you take it with some milk to cool that throat down and avoid heartburn after. Some folks even think it will help with weight loss because of the heat that folks think will speed up the metabolism. There’s mixed evidence supporting and denying this, so you can always try it and see for yourself.

Jalapeno peppers on the other hand are known more for their smoky flavor and lean more into spicy flavorings rather than the medical benefit side of things. In the USA, commercial jalapenos are almost exclusively grown in California, New Mexico, and Texas. Jalapenos are out of this world, a lot of folks say, for nachos and other spicy Tex-Mex and Mexican cuisine, but they really have been literally! They were on board the Columbia space shuttle in the 80s and are the only chili pepper that’s ever left the planet Earth. And if you’ve ever noticed those small lines that look like scars on the peppers, that’s actually called corking and is a response to the heat levels of the jalapeno pepper.

Next Up:

A pile of jalapeno peppers with other hot peppers tossed in
A pile of jalapeno peppers with other hot peppers tossed in
Chris Bradshaw/Shutterstock.com
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About the Author

Rita Mock-Pike (she/her) is the granddaughter of aviation pioneer Jerrie Mock, the first woman to pilot an airplane solo around the world. Rita has found inspiration from her grandmother’s life and flight and pursued many of her own dreams in theatre, podcasting, novel writing, and cooking up delicious food from across the planet. She is a freelance journalist and content writer with many bylines (CNN, Al-Jazeera, Tor.com, Wandering Educators, Paradise Magazine, Travel Awaits, others). She is an author with Simon & Schuster’s imprint Ulysses Press, with “The Unofficial Hogwarts for the Holidays” and “I Love Trader Joe’s Air Fryer” cookbooks. Rita is the co-founding Editor-in-Chief of the MockingOwl Roost, a literary and art magazine, and director/producer of the performing arts branch of the MockingOwl Creatives, and the head of forthcoming MockingOwl Publishing. Rita gives lectures and speeches on Jerrie Mock, is an acting coach, wellness/fitness coach, personal fitness trainer, writing mentor, voice actor, performance artist, and stage and film director. She uses these many skills and life experiences to assist in her writing work and studies as a seminarian at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago, Illinois. She’s happily married to Matt and faithfully serves the very fluffy kitten queen, Lady Stardust.

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