Chili peppers are one of our most versatile vegetables (though technically they're berries), capable of turning the blandest meat-and-potato standard into a palate-exploding triumph. Yet even experienced cooks can get confused – what distinguishes a jalapeño from a serrano, a habanero from a Scotch bonnet? We consulted award-winning chef Greg Higgins, who routinely smuggles chili seeds from far-off lands like Mongolia to experiment with in his garden, then uses the results to flavor everything from salami to sorbet at Higgins, his restaurant in Portland, Oregon. "There are so many uses for chilies that'll knock your socks off," Higgins says. "They have such an amazing range of flavors; we've just scratched the surface."
Here, Higgins offers 16 of his favorites, plus a primer on flavor and how to use them to best effect. While the height of pepper season in North America is late summer, many of these chilies are grown in warm climates and can be found year-round in good supermarkets or online. If you're buying from a farmers' market or ethnic grocery (a necessity for some of the more exotic varieties), vendors are particularly knowledgeable, so ask about flavor and hotness.
Lastly, a word to the wise when prepping: Remove the seeds and the white membrane, which hold most of the heat. And for anything more fiery than a jalapeño, wear rubber gloves – these suckers can actually burn your skin.
With searing floral flavors, habaneros pack a punch that can make your eyes melt from their sockets. Use in hellfire chili, or blend up some sikil p'ak, a Yucatán paste of roasted pumpkin seeds, cilantro, and tomato.
Credit: Photograph by Michael Pirrocco