With chile peppers, size and heat go hand in hand. Larger varieties lean toward the milder side, while the small, pointy peppers usually deliver more burn.
But don't let the little ones' potency scare you off: Their ability to make you sweat also confers the most health benefits.
All chiles contain the fiery capsaicin, up to 80 percent of which is in the peppers' seeds and veins. This phytochemical may help lower cholesterol, boost metabolism, and clear sinus congestion. So bring on the heat!
What: Not as hot as habaneros, serranos still pack quite a punch. Look for these small peppers in either red or green.
Why: In addition to lots of capsaicin, serrano chiles offer immunity-boosting vitamin C; vitamin B6, which helps maintain normal nerve function and plays a role in red-blood-cell formation; and vitamin K, a key nutrient for blood clotting and bone health.
How: Add chopped, raw serranos to guacamole or saute them with a mix of bell peppers and onions for fajitas.
What: Named for Anaheim, California, and sometimes called a California chile, this long, narrow variety is milder than many of its Mexican relatives, though it does have more heat than a bell pepper.
Why: These peppers, which offer fiber, folate, and vitamin C, make for a good introduction to chiles.
How: Combine them with tomatoes, cucumbers, and fresh herbs for a summer salad, or bake them into cornbread.
What: Fiery hot, the small yellow, orange, or red habanero contains more capsaicin than most chile peppers.
Why: A 2006 study found that capsaicin helped kill prostate cancer cells and shrink tumors in mice.
How: Add some heat to tomato soup with chopped habaneros, or use them in a jerk chicken recipe.
What: Small, red, and a little sweeter than most chiles, the aptly named cherry pepper ranks mild to medium in heat.
Why: This chile makes a good source of beta-carotene, an antioxidant that helps to protect the body from free radicals.
How: Add to your favorite gazpacho recipe, or use it to spice up a grilled cheese or roasted vegetable sandwich.
What: About 2 inches long and 1 inch in diameter, jalapenos come fresh, canned, or smoked (in which case they're called chipotles). They fall toward the spicier end of the chile pepper spectrum, but readily removable seeds and veins make for an easy-to-control heat level.
Why: These crisp little peppers give a hefty dose of vitamin C as well as folate, which helps the body develop and maintain new cells.
How: Combine diced jalapenos with peaches or mangoes for a fruit salsa, or saute them with fresh corn, salt, and pepper for a spicy side dish.
What: The dark green-to-red, bell-shaped poblano has rich flavor but mild heat. Its large size (4 to 5 inches long and 2 1/2 inches in diameter) makes it a prime candidate for stuffed dishes such as chiles rellenos.
Why: Also known as ancho peppers when dried, poblanos contain fiber, folate, and kidney-supporting potassium.
How: Because of their thick, waxy skin, poblanos are rarely eaten raw; roast them with oil, salt, and pepper, or saute them and pair with scrambled eggs.
Avoid rubbing your eyes after handling chiles, and wash hands well. The capsaicin is a known skin and eye irritant.
© 2014 Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia. All rights reserved.