Friday, March 7, 2014

Chili Peppers: Bring on the Heat, Part II

How Hot is Hot?

Today, I’m continuing to mumble on with some of my thoughts and research about hot peppers and such.  After learning last week about the chemistry of hot and how it reacts with your tongue, I thought I revisit something I wrote about a long time ago, and talk about how “hot” is measured.

There are a number of ways, but the most common of all is the “Scoville” scale. It’s named after pharmacist Wilbur Scoville, who developed this method of testing and measuring in 1912..

Here’s how it works:  When you want to test a pepper variety, or even a crop, some of the peppers are dried, and an extract is made with alcohol.  That extract is then diluted with a formulated sugar and water solution until a panel of tasters no longer taste any heat.  The measure, then, is how much dilution there has to be to tame the peppery beast.

The system works, but there are a lot of variables.  First of all, since the tasters are humans, there will be variances from testing group to testing group.  It’s not empirical, like counting the actual capsaicin molecules would be.  Second, even the same variety of pepper will not measure the same.  Soil, climate, and many other factors will impact the heat of a given pepper crop.  So, not all jalapenos are created equal.

In addition, those eating the pepper or the dish will have different tolerances to heat.  Some of that’s born in, some of that changes with age, and the eater’s own experiences with hot can make perceptions vary.  For example, someone who eats hot food on a daily basis won’t be phased by a milder pepper that would make a lightweight run screaming for the water fountain.

As if that isn’t variation enough, the preparation of the pepper can impact its heat, too, like pickling, etc...

Still, it’s good to have a relative scale.  This guides us in making choices about what kind of heat to use, and how much of it to use.

  • Scoville heat units - Examples
  • No significant heat - Bell pepper, Aji dulce
  • 100–900 - Pimento, Peperoncini, Banana pepper, Cubanelle
  • 1,000–2,500 - Anaheim pepper, Poblano pepper, Rocotillo pepper, Peppadew, Sriracha sauce, Gochujang
  • 3,500–8,000 - Espelette pepper, Jalapeño pepper, Chipotle, Smoked Jalapeño, Guajillo pepper, New Mexican peppers, Hungarian wax pepper, Tabasco sauce, Fresno pepper
  • 10,000–23,000 - Serrano pepper, Peter pepper, Aleppo pepper
  • 30,000–50,000 - Guntur chilli, Cayenne pepper, Ají pepper, Tabasco pepper, Cumari pepper (Capsicum Chinese)
  • 50,000–100,000 - Byadgi chilli, Bird's eye chili, Malagueta pepper, Chiltepin pepper, Piri piri (African bird's eye), Pequin pepper, Siling Labuyo 
  • 100,000–350,000 - Habanero chili, Scotch bonnet pepper, Datil pepper, Rocoto, Piri Piri Ndungu, Madame Jeanette, Peruvian White Habanero, Jamaican hot pepper, Guyana Wiri Wiri, Fatalii
  • 350,000–580,000 - Red Savina habanero
  • 855,000–1,463,700 - Naga Viper pepper, Infinity Chilli, Bhut Jolokia chili pepper (Ghost pepper), Trinidad Scorpion Butch T pepper, Bedfordshire Super Naga, 7-Pot Chili
  • 1,500,000–2,000,000 Trinidad Moruga Scorpion, Carolina Reaper

With this chart (courtesy of wikipedia) as a general guide, you can experiment with various chilis and various amounts of heat.  The ones in bold are the ones I, personally, like and use the most. Also, this wikipedia article has some interesting information about chilis in general, particularly about their history and origins.

Mark has discovered a love of Dutch Oven Cooking. Mark also has other sites and blogs, including and his MoBoy blog.

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