The Scotch Bonnet pepper's bright, colorful exterior gives it the innocuous appearance of a toothsome piece of fresh fruit. The reality of its intense chili heat comes as a shock to unwary novices enjoying their first taste of authentic Caribbean food, but its fruit-like appearance isn't entirely deceptive. Beneath the pepper's blistering heat, asbestos-tongued aficionados find an apricot-like fruitiness that lends a distinctive note to regional foods. However, if you find you don't have access to Scotch Bonnets, you can substitute a variety of peppers with satisfying results.
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Go for the Gusto
The closest equivalent to Scotch Bonnets is habanero peppers. The two are close kin, similar in size, shape and impact. An alternative is India's fearsome bhut jolokia or ghost pepper, not unlike the Scotch Bonnet but even hotter. Tiny conical Thai or "bird" chilies don't pack quite the punch of these others, but they're more than hot enough for most purposes. As a substitute for Scotch Bonnets, use them generously.
A Few Tips
If all you have on hand is medium-heat peppers such as serranos, don't despair. Even those can ramp up the heat acceptably if you use them lavishly enough. To emulate the Scotch Bonnets' distinctive fruitiness in dishes that don't already contain fruit, add a splash of fruit juice or a piece of finely chopped yellow or red sweet pepper. Finally -- and this is important -- always wear disposable gloves when handling chilies. Their fiery heat can cause intense pain if you absentmindedly touch an eye or your nasal membranes with a chili-laden finger.