Some chiles are so hot that they literally kill taste buds. Other chiles? Not so much. But how do you know how hot a chile is (before tasting it and potentially ending up in pain)? Believe it or not, there is a scientific system for measuring and rating the "hotness" of chiles.
Capsaicin Capsaicin is the most common chemical compound associated to the heat from a chile. Capsaicin belongs to a family of chemicals called capsaicinoids which are produces by chiles. Capsaicinoids bind to nerve receptors on the tongue or back of the throat, and they allow the flow of calcium into the cell causing a pain signal to be transmitted (or so I'm told).
Scoville Organoleptic Test In 1912, Wilbur Scoville developed a subjective method of ranking chiles. Scoville mixed ground chile in a simple syrup (sugar and water solution) and had a panel of tasters taste the solutions. The ratio of simple syrup to chile where the tasters were unable to taste the chile spiciness was the rating given to the chile. For example, a serrano chile might need 8000 parts simple syrup to 1 part chile before you would be unable to taste the chile.
As you can imagine, this system seems a bit too subjective. Everyone has different tolerances for tasting spicy foods, the panelists may have grown up eating chiles and become desensitized, and the process of tasting chiles probably helps desensitize the taste buds. The solution? High-Performance Liquid Chromatography.
High-Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC) Becoming popular 1970's, HPLC is a method of separating compounds within a solution under high pressure. Once the solution has been separated, the parts can be identified and quantified. Applying HPLC can be used on ground peppers, chemists can determine the capsaicinoid concentration in parts per million. The capsaicin concentrating in parts per million is directly proportional to the Scoville rating system - by a factor of approximately 16. Thus, a capsaicinoid level of 200 parts per million results in a Scoville rating of 3200. Pure capsaicin would then have a Scoville rating of 16 million. The downside of HPLC is that it is quite expensive compared to having a bunch of people tasting chile flavored Frutopia...
One of the problems with scoville ratings is that no two sources seem to agree just how hot a chile is. Here's some of the examples that I've managed to collect to provide an idea of how the varieties stack up against each other.
Wikipedia's article on the Scoville scale (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scoville) mentions that "Scoville ratings may vary considerably within a species—easily by a factor of 10 or more—depending on seed lineage, climate and even soil. This is especially true of habaneros." Thanks for your article though, I would've never known otherwise that tasting spicy things comes from a sensation of pain signal...
Chipotles are roasted jalapeños, but I think that process makes them even hotter.
I'm Mexican (raised in Mexico) and don't eat chilies, what a joke eh?! Never heard of this scale for measuring hotness. All I know is, my cousins from Puebla cannot live without habaneros, they eat them by the handful, raw, by themselves... geez! I think it's funny some people write habañeros... no tilde needed on the N people!! Haha.
I love your page, I'm a frustrated engineer, and cook!
Thanks for the article!
The day after I set up a blog for my new job at [url]peppertalk.salsaexpress.com[/url] with you in the links even!
Having grown up on hot food – our school cafateria had pickle jars of all-you-can-eat jalapenos on the tables – I am what some people may consider (judging from previous comments) either masochistic or insane. So now I work for a "Fiery Foods" company as part of an absolutely crazy and fun industry!
I too love to eat habaneros raw. They have a definite kick but they also have a fruity flavor to them. That fruitiness makes them excellent peppers for use in desserts, fruit salsas and other fruit (especially citrus) recipes. Thai's though are all attitude. Not quite as hot, but no fruitiness. Every pepper has it's own unique flavor, and even substrains have very distinctive flavors as well as heat levels. Some build in heat as you eat more of them, some stay at the same level.
Dave's Ultimate Insanity, has a couple challengers to the title of th hottest hot sauce now... there's Dave's own challenger to the title "Dave's Ultimate Insanity Limited Reserve" label, and there's "Endorphin Rush" (you can find them at Salsa Express among other places.)
Whatever you do don't use these sauces like you might use Tobasco. I made that mistake once. Thought I grabbed the tobasco and put a good 5-6 shakes into a tomato soup. Wow! It took a half gallon of milk and a pint of ice cream to get my mouth back to near normal. And remember I do eat hab's raw!
I always wondered about the Australian way of refering to peppers. Capsicum is the genus name of the nightshade family of plants that includes both Bell Peppers (C. annuum) and the habanero (C. chinense) so it definitely makes sense...just different.
I don't think HPLC would be that expensive an analytical method to use for measuring capsaicin levels. The wine industry use this technique regularly for other things and if the chile industry could get a bulk testing deal it's quite straightforward. The instruments can be automated so the labour cost would be minimal.
I wonder if it's possible that the smoking process removes some of the water content - so that more parts are included in the HPLC test. (at least I think that's what I understood about the process) Sort of the same way that fresh herbs are not as intensely flavoured as the same quantity of dried herbs.
I'm surprised that "piri-piri" or "African birdseye" chilis - the ones that look like tiny Thai chilis - are missing from that list. Some people argue that the piri-piri is the hottest. (Of course, I cannot find anything on the net that corroborates this....)
I was always boasting that the Scotch Bonnet pepper from my home country - Jamaica - was the hottest. It indeed was, along with the Habanero, topping out above 300,000. Recently though, some insane masochists in California have bred a type of Habanero that starts above 300,000 and goes up over 500,000. The soil has a lot to do with the heat, but the pepper apparently needs to mature on the plant in order to reach its maximum. The ones we buy in the supermarket here in Edmonton (Alberta, Canada) are immature, probably to survive shipping. My father grows some good ones through the winter in his kitchen in his secret soil mixture.
When I was little, my grandmother used to put one whole in several gallons of soup then let me stir with a strong warning to not break the pepper because the soup would be too hot to eat. I "experimented" and proved her very right.
Capsaicin actually refers to a family of compounds, which vary in their "heat," explaining why diferent species of peppers (which produce slightly chemically different capsaicins) have different "heat" (and also where they "hit" you - tongue, back of throat, etc.) in addition to the quantity (and mixture) of capsaicin in the plant tissue.
This also is a good reason why it's a good idea to combine different "heats" (tabasco, habanero, cayenne, plus black AND white pepper) in a recipe. Paul Prud'homme explains this principle in his cookbooks (gumbo recipes).