11 Best Hot Peppers to Grow for Spicing Up Your Garden and Plate

Hot peppers are having a moment. They're at the vanguard of a love for hot food that has swept across the country. A recent survey found 80% of U.S. consumers like hot and spicy foods, and 6 in 10 people cook hot and spicy food at home. If you enjoy adding heat to your meals at home, you'll need plenty of fresh hot peppers. And the best way to get access to different types of hot peppers is to grow them yourself. Here's what you need to know to pick out the best types for your palette.

Karla Conrad

Tips for Growing Hot Peppers

Start hot peppers from seed indoors in late winter or buy transplants and plant them directly in the ground after the last frost in the spring. You'll get to pick from a larger variety of peppers if you grow from seed, because there are online sellers offering a slew of pepper varieties in seed packets. But it's simpler and requires less planning to buy transplants locally and plant them in the spring after the last frost date in your area.

Hot peppers need at least eight hours of direct sunlight a day to thrive. Have a shady or small yard? No worries. Peppers grow well in containers and raised beds, so you can grow them in any sunny spot you have. You can grow everything from habanero peppers to cayenne peppers in a couple of pots on a sunny patio.

While a pepper's heat is mostly determined by genetics, the environment in which it's grown can play a role. Peppers like hot weather, plus high temperatures and droughty conditions will produce a higher concentration of capsaicin, the chemical in the pepper that produces the hot taste. That's why the Southwestern U.S. is such a hot bed of pepper growing. Rainier, cloudier climates produce peppers with less punch. Don't live in the pepper paradises of California, Arizona, or New Mexico but still want maximum heat in your hot peppers? Compensate by planting hotter varieties. You can also turn up the heat on your pepper crop by being stingy with water.

Measuring a Pepper's Heat

The heat of peppers is measured in Scoville units. The Scoville scale ranges from 0, the rating for a mild bell pepper, to a mouth-scorching 3,000,000, the rating for a Pepper X, the hottest pepper on the planet. Pro tip: You don't want to eat a pepper that contains millions of Scovilles. That's a stunt pepper, not an edible one. You want to eat and grow hot peppers like a poblano that comes in at 2,500 Scoville Heat Units (SHU) or a cayenne pepper that packs 30,000 SHUs.

A word of caution: Use disposable gloves when handling fresh hot peppers and never, ever touch your eyes. The hottest varieties can literally burn unprotected skin. Removing the seeds doesn't reduce the heat from a pepper, contrary to popular belief. The heat is concentrated in the inner white pith, or rib, of the pepper, not the seeds. To take some of the bite out of a fresh hot pepper, cut out the pith.

Top pepper picks, arranged in order of increasing heat

1. Paprika Peppers

Paprika peppers are a staple of Hungarian and Turkish cooking. They're a relatively mild pepper that have a sweet heat. Paprika fruits ripen in about 80 days to bright red pods that are 4 to 6 inches long, depending on the variety. Paprika plants grow up to 3 feet tall, depending on variety, and will produce continually until the first freeze in the fall. If you want a smaller variety to grow in a container, the Alma Paprika grows on 2-foot tall plants. Paprikas are usually dried and made into powder.

Scoville Rating: 250 to 1,000

2. Poblano

Poblano is a hot pepper originating in Mexico. They're a staple of Mexican and New Mexican cuisine, used to make chile rellenos and chiles en nogada. Poblanos are dark green, relatively mild for a hot pepper, and grow 3 to 6 inches long. They ripen to dark red or brown, but most people pick them green for maximum heat. Poblanos grow on big, multi-stemmed plants that can reach 4 feet tall at maturity, so give them plenty of room in the garden or put them in an extra-large container. They're ready to harvest about 75 days after putting out transplants. Poblanos are usually roasted and peeled and eaten fresh, or frozen for later use. Dried poblanos are called ancho peppers.

Scoville Rating: 1,000 to 2,000

3. Hatch Chile Peppers

Hatch chiles originate in the southern New Mexico town of Hatch, often called the Chile Pepper Capital of the World. They're an important part of New Mexican culture, but you can grow them anywhere. There are a lot of varieties of Hatch chiles with a wide range of heat. Big Jim Chile Peppers pack 2,500 Scovilles, making them as hot as a mild jalapeño, while Barker Extra Hot comes in at a sizzling 10,000 Scovilles. Hatch chiles grow on plants that average around 30 inches tall and are ready to harvest in about 80 days. You can pick them when they're green, roast them, pull the skin off them and eat them fresh, or leave them on the plant till they turn red, dry them out, and use them to make enchilada sauce.

Scoville Rating: 1,000 to 10,000

4. Jalapeño Peppers

Humble jalapeños have Mexican origins but are grown all over the country nowadays. That's because they're easy to grow and have a wide range of heat from mild to hot, depending on the variety. Jalapeños are usually harvested when they're green, but you can let them ripen to red and they'll be milder and sweeter. Jalapeño plants are compact, between 2 and 3 feet high at maturity depending on the variety, so they're a good pick for containers. Dried jalapeños are known as chipotles.

Scoville Rating: 2,500 to 8,000

5. Serrano Peppers

Serranos are jalapeños' spicier cousins, substituted for jalapeños when one wants more heat. Most varieties are green, but they also come in red, orange, and yellow. The long, finger-shaped pods grow 3 to 4 inches long and are ready to harvest about 80 days after planting. Serrano peppers are one of the easiest types to grow because they're disease-resistant and better adapted to humid areas than some of their drought-loving relatives. They grow on medium-sized plants ranging from 24 to 48 inches tall, depending on variety. Serranos are the pepper of choice for pickling, making salsa, or eating fresh in pico de gallo.

Scoville Rating: 10,000 to 25,000

6. Cayenne Peppers

Cayenne peppers are a staple of Creole and Cajun cuisine as well as Mexican sauces and Asian curries. Cayenne pepper also puts the kick in Mexican street corn (aka elote). Cayennes are usually dried and ground into a powder, but they can be substituted in any dish calling for fresh habanero or serrano peppers. Cayenne peppers are skinny and 5 to 6 inches when mature, around 70 days after planting. You can pick them sooner, but they won't be as hot. Cayenne peppers grow on short plants that average 18 inches tall, so they are great for containers.

Scoville Rating: 30,000 to 50,000

7. Thai Hot Peppers

These super hot peppers grow on plants that range from 12 inches to 30 inches tall, depending on the variety. For example, Burpee's Thai Hot Pepper is just a foot tall when fully grown and produces tiny, inch-long peppers, so it's ideal for a patio container. Burpee's Big Thai Hybrid grows 4-inch peppers on 30-inch tall plants, so it can go in the ground or in a container. Thai peppers are ready to pick about 70 days after putting out transplants. Thai hot peppers can be eaten fresh or preserved in oil or vinegar or crushed and used in sauces. They're about 25 times hotter than the average jalapeño, so use them sparingly in cooking.

Scoville Rating: 50,000 to 100,000

8. Scotch Bonnet Pepper

Scotch Bonnet is a super-hot pepper with origins in Jamaica, and puts the bite in Jamaican classics like jerk sauces, curried goat and chicken, and escovitch fish. Scotch Bonnet pepper's name comes from its shape, which resembles a Scottish tam. These peppers come in red or yellow, depending on variety, and they're a late season pepper that's not ready to harvest until around 90 days after transplanting. They grow on compact 24-inch tall plants, so they're a good pick for containers. They're high-yielding plants, so you won't need to plant many to get more than enough peppers to eat and share. Be sure you support the plant's pepper-laden branches with tomato cages to keep the stems from snapping.

Scoville Rating: 100,000 to 350,000

9. Habanero Peppers

Habaneros are adorable little guys that look like tiny bell peppers. But look out, they pack serious heat. Habaneros are 100 times as hot as the average jalapeño. You need an asbestos mouth to eat these babies. Habanero peppers are usually orange, but there are also red varieties that only have a third of the heat. Habaneros grow on short plants that get just 24 inches tall, so they're a good choice for containers, raised beds, or small space gardening. They're ready to harvest about 95 days after planting, so habaneros are a late season pepper. Red habaneros are ready to pick sooner, after just 75 days.

Scoville Rating: 100,000 to 350,000

10. Ghost Pepper

Ghost peppers, also known as Bhut Jolokia,  hail from India and have a rep as being one of the planet's hottest peppers. Ghost pepper fruits are 2 to 3 inches long and ripen from green to bright red. Ghost pepper plants get large, up to 4 feet tall, but they are slow-growing and the peppers won't be ready to pick until 100 to 120 days after planting. You'll need to support the tall plants with cages or stakes late in the season. Ghost peppers are eaten fresh, in small amounts, added to sauces, or dried, powdered, and added to all sorts of dishes. Respect this pepper: It's more than 400 times hotter than a jalapeño. This is the pepper often used in military grade pepper spray by the Indian government.

Scoville Rating: 1,000,000 to 3,000,000

11. Carolina Reaper

Carolina reaper peppers are actually the current record holder for the hottest pepper on the planet. This is food as fire. These notorious peppers are bright red or yellow, depending on the variety, and 2 to 3 inches long. They grow on large, bushy plants that reach 4 to 5 feet tall and 4 feet wide at maturity, so give them room to grow. Carolina reaper peppers are ready to harvest about 75 days after planting. These are nuclear level peppers, so use them sparingly. A small piece of a single pod can flavor a big pot of chili. Or try drying them and grinding into a super-hot pepper powder that you use in ¼ teaspoons.

Scoville Rating: 2,200,000