Just What Does Hot Mean on the Scoville Scale?

If you’ve ever wandered through the grocery store considering the different chilies or hot sauces, you’ve likely noticed designations along the lines of mild, medium, or hot. (That is until you get to the super hot sauces which are more likely to carry warnings of “too damned hot for you” or “you’ll die if you try.”)

But what on earth does mild, medium, or hot really mean? What are you supposed to tell the server when they enquire whether you want your curry mild, medium, or hot? Surely all that practice you have consuming chilies Stateside means you can handle the same heat in an Indian restaurant in India or a Thai restaurant in Thailand.

And, you’ve had more than enough experience with Mexican food to go in for the hot level while your south of the border, right?

How far you want to push yourself is totally up to you. However, we do wish you luck finding over the counter medications to soothe your bowels in those countries.

Hot Means Something Different to Every Person

Before we get to the personal interpretation of heat, let’s talk about the peppers themselves for a moment.

Everyone knows that there are different peppers and some are hotter than others… relatively speaking. We know that a green bell pepper has zero heat and that a jalapeño feels hotter when it attacks the back of your throat. That’s kind of a no brainer.

But, wait for it…

The conditions under which that jalapeño was grown will have an impact on the amount of heat you perceive when you eat it.

A ghost pepper grown in Alaska (um?) is not going to be as hot as one grown in India. Well, it’s not likely to be; some chili peppers do remarkably well in unusual climates. We’d need to make batch after batch from Alaska and India to measure them against each other to make this a truly realistic statement.

For the sake of this argument, however, let’s just say that chilies grown in certain conditions (generally sunnier and hotter) are hotter than those grown in less ideal conditions.

You might find the jalapeño sitting somewhere around the 6000 marks on the Scoville scale in a diagram. That does not mean that every jalapeño is 6000 Scovilles. Some are hotter; some are milder. In fact, jalapeño peppers usually fall between 2500 and 10,000 Scovilles.

If you make a jalapeño dish in Ohio, it’s unlikely to be anywhere near as hot as the same dish in New Mexico. And that’s just using jalapeño as an example. Imagine the difference in peppers that are generally hotter.

And, there’s something else that will clutter this equation…

Every person has a different number of relevant heat receptors in their mouth. So, each person perceives the heat differently.

If you have a lot of receptors, your mouth may feel as if it is melting off your face when you bite into a pepper (and that’s probably a cue to wipe the drool from your chin). Fewer receptors equal less sensitivity, and that means you may be more likely to taste the flavor of the pepper rather than the fire.

We Don’t Really Muck Around with the Scoville Scale Anymore

We’re grateful to Wilbur Scoville for the measurements he gave us to test for heat in chili peppers, though his system of taste testing is hardly accurate. As he pointed out in his own research, scientific equipment just hadn’t advanced to the point of greater accuracy.

At the moment, we use high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) to determine how hot chili pepper or hot sauce is. Then we convert accurate HPLC readings to a relatively inaccurate number on the Scoville scale.

Maybe we like tradition, even as we attempt to push the boundaries and create ever more powerful chilies and hot sauces.

That’s totally irrelevant, however, when faced with the choice of mild, medium, and hot chilies and sauces.

And funnily enough, mild, medium, and hot still wouldn’t mean anything if you did assign a Scoville marker to each one and jalapeño sat at exactly 6000 Scovilles (or as relevant to any other chili pepper).

As Anna Maria Barry-Jester points out in her article, Rating Chili Peppers On A Scale Of 1 To Oh Dear God I’m On Fire, different peppers behave differently as you consume them. According to her research, there are five different pepper characteristics you’ll need to keep in mind:

  1. How fast does the heat come on? Asian types of chile peppers produce instantaneous heat, while habaneros are known for a long delay.
  2. How long does the heat linger? Asian varietals tend to punch you in the mouth and diminish, while habaneros linger, the heat creeping up over several minutes. The lingering makes them taste “hotter,” even if they aren’t higher in parts-per-million of capsaicinoids.
  3. Is the heat sharp or flat? Peppers can produce a sharp pins-and-needles feeling or produce the sensation that someone has spread heat inside your mouth with a paintbrush.
  4. Where in the mouth do you sense the heat? Habaneros burn the back of the throat, while New Mexican varietals scorch the mid-palate.
  5. What is the amount of the actual heat? This is what is measured by the HPLC test.

Yikes!

More than anything, it’s a demonstration that chili peppers are way more complex than most people give them credit for. It also means, as Anna Maria Barry-Jester has already discovered, the only way to truly determine how hot a pepper is, and how you will cope with that heat, is to give it a go for yourself.

We just want to clarify that, though. If a jalapeño is your idea of hot, attempting to eat a reaper on camera is a dumb idea. We’ll totally enjoy watching you suffer on YouTube, but we can already tell you that you’re not going to enjoy the experience as much as we will. (Oh, and bathing in hot sauce is even more ludicrous, as is smoking reapers.)


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