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How Hot is Hot?

Peppers come in myriad shapes, sizes and heat levels.  The Scoville Heat Index, invented by Wilbur Scoville, ranks peppers in order from mildest to hottest. It starts with zero being the mildest and goes over 1,000,000 to indicate the hottest peppers. Everyone has a personal preference for how much heat they can tolerate. Capsaicin is the ingredient that is measured to determine how hot the pepper is.

The bell pepper is the most common type of cooking pepper for cooks who are into hot peppers.  Blocky and ranging in size from a baseball to a large grapefruit, the basic bell pepper is green.  Some varieties continue to ripen and turn other colors over time. If you’ve ever noticed and wondered why red, yellow or purple peppers cost significantly more than the basic green, the price is directly related to how long that pepper is on the plant.  If a farmer has to wait two to three extra weeks for a pepper to fully ripen to red, the soil where that pepper plant is growing can’t be planted with anything else.  Bell peppers are also known as sweet peppers, and have a Scoville index of 0.

Another relatively mild pepper is the Anaheim pepper. This pepper is usually four to five inches long and is delicious roasted or stuffed and baked. While the Anaheim pepper usually has a Scoville Heat Index around 1,000, some varieties can have a rating as high as 5,000.

Jalapenos are one of the most popular peppers in the US. Their Scoville Heat Index ranges from 2000 to 8000 units depending on the particular variety and how they are grown.  Jalapeno popper appetizers are seen frequently on menus.  Try this recipe for grilling Jalapenos with cream cheese. I’m also particularly fond of chopping a little Jalapeno into scallop ceviche.

The Serrano pepper is much hotter than the Jalapeno but looks pretty similar. On the Scoville Heat Index, the Serrano Pepper can be between 10,000 and 25,000. This pepper is usually small - around two inches long and green in color.  Serranos make a perfect sauce for fish tacos.  In the food processor blend a large fistful of cilantro, 3-4 serrano peppers (remove seeds and chop slightly,) 4 cloves garlic, 1 cup plain Greek yogurt , one cup of buttermilk, and salt and pepper to taste.  You can adjust thickness by adding more yogurt or buttermilk as necessary.

The Cayenne pepper is a hot pepper that measures between 25,000 and 50,000 Scoville units.  Cayennes are often dried and used in powder form and have been used medicinally for hundreds of years. It seems far more interesting to me as a food though.  I will often throw a whole cayenne into a soup or stew that is simmering.  It adds tons of flavor and a fair amount of heat.  The longer the pepper simmers, the more heat is imparted into the meal.  Be sure to remove the entire pepper before serving!

Under the heading of ‘Very Hot’ you will find Thai peppers.  With a Scoville index between 50,000 and 100,000 these peppers will make you reach for some dairy to kill the heat.  You can make a great dipping sauce for Thai food, eggs, vegetable rolls or fried rice by combining about 1 tbl of minced Thai peppers with about ¼ vinegar.  Spicy dishes at Thai restaurants feature these diminutive peppers that have enormous taste.

Of all the hot peppers commonly found in this area, Habaneros are the hottest.  Their Scoville Index can range from 150,000 to 350,000. It’s not practical to use these in every day cooking, but since a very little goes a very long way, they are often used to make hot sauces that feature other flavors.  My husband insists that he can taste a unique flavor when he cooks with Habaneros, but when I taste something made with this demonic vegetable, it just burns my mouth.

When you are cooking with any peppers that have heat, be sure to wear gloves when you are chopping them.  If you have to chop peppers without gloves, be extremely careful when touching any sensitive body parts, as the capsaicin will remain on your hands and burn whatever it comes in contact with. It may take several handwashings to remove the capsaicin entirely. There is a lot of heat contained in the seeds, so if you throw them into whatever you are cooking, it will be hotter than if you omit the seeds. And if you are not sure how hot that pepper is that you are using, start with a little and remember that the heat will develop as it cooks. And finally, if your mouth is burning, do not reach for water. This will only exacerbate the pain. Dairy helps kill some heat (the higher the fat content the better) and beer goes a long way towards putting out the fire!


after habeneros, the ghost (bhut/naga jolokia) peppers are among the hottest but the world's hottest is the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion which can be up to 2 million scoville units.  I'm growing some this year.

Hilary Newell's picture


You are far braver than I am!  I'd be interested to know how prolific the plants are, and how you end up using them.