Facts and Food: The Scoville Scale, Explained

Updated: Sep 16, 2021

Just how hot is your hot sauce? Learn how the burn of hot sauces and hot peppers is measured, and talk Scoville Heat Units like a pepper pro.


What is the Scoville Scale for Peppers (or Chilis)?

The Scoville scale measures the "heat", spiciness, or pungency of hot peppers and chilis. It's a practical test that bases its ratings on the actual experience and perceptions of people (trained testers) who eat different types of chilis.


Who Created the Scoville Scale?

Wilbur Lincoln Scoville was the American pharmacist who developed the method and scale for measuring the spiciness (also known as pungency) of peppers and chilis. He was interested in the chilis' potential health benefits and uses, and needed a way to quantify their strength in his research.


When was the Scoville Scale Developed?

Scoville developed his test in 1912, and versions of his method have been in use ever since. His testing method is called the Scoville Organoleptic Test.


How is the Scoville Scale Measured?

The pungency of different types of peppers is rated in SHUs (Scoville Heat Units). You can gauge the spiciness of peppers or hot sauces by their SHU number.


The scale starts at 0 and goes up and up as peppers get hotter. For example, a bell pepper is SHU 0, because it isn't at all spicy, but the spiciest peppers can have SHU higher than 2 million!


How Does the Scoville Scale Work?

In the test's simplest form, dried chilis are ground into a powder. A specific amount of this dried chili powder is then steeped in alcohol to extract the capsaicinoids (predominantly capsaicin) from the dried chili. This spicy solution is then diluted with sugar water, and drops of the mixture are placed on the tongues of trained testers. The solution is diluted more and more until the testers can no longer detect any "heat".


The number of sugar water dilutions needed to neutralize the spiciness of the original solution is the SHU. So, for a pepper with a 100,000 SHU rating, the capsaicin mixture had to be diluted 100,000 times before the testers could no longer detect the spiciness! That's a spicy pepper!


This method can also be adjusted for hot sauces and other mixtures containing hot peppers, not just the peppers themselves. So, you can use the Scoville scale to help you choose a hot sauce that's the level of heat you like.


What is the World's Hottest Pepper?

New varieties of hot peppers are being bred and grown all over the globe as you're reading this. Many pepper growers are in a race to breed the hottest possible pepper.


As of July 2021, the Guinness Book of World Records holds the Carolina Reaper as having the hottest recorded SHU. In 2017 a batch of these peppers was tested at 1,641,183 SHU. This was the average SHU for the whole batch. The hottest individual pepper within the batch rated 2.2 million SHU!


Since then, a few other notable peppers have made a claim on the title of World's Hottest Chili Pepper. The Dragon's Breath Pepper has been reported to reach 2.48 million SHU, and the Pepper X (bread by the same grower as the Carolina Reaper) is reported to reach 3.18 million SHU.


Is Anything Hotter than the Hottest Chili Peppers?

Yes and no.


Pure capsaicin rates at 15-16 million SHU, and pepper sprays commonly rank anywhere from 2-5 million SHU. These are obviously much hotter than any actual chili pepper.


However, the capsaicin used for pepper spray is collected and refined from actual chili peppers. So, you can make hotter substances, but only by concentrating and processing the peppers themselves.


How Hot are Habaneros?

As you may have noticed above, nearly all peppers on the Scoville scale are listed as an SHU range, rather than a single number. This is because different instances of the same exact breed of pepper can have different concentrations of capsaicin. There are many reasons for this, ranging from the soil they were grown in, to the local weather and growing conditions, to how much water a given plant absorbed that day, to the genetics of the parent plants.


Habaneros typically range from 100,000 to 350,000 SHU, with the closely related Red Savina Habanero ranging from 350,000 to 577,000 SHU.


Habaneros were ranked as the World's Hottest Peppers by the Guinness Book of World Records up until 1999.


Common Chili Peppers Ranked on the Scoville Scale

Color-coded scale showing pictures and names of chili peppers on the Scoville scale, from mildest at the bottom to hottest at the top

How Hot is Habanero Hot Sauce?

Habanero hot sauce isn't as hot as pure habanero peppers, because it includes a blend of tasty ingredients that are less spicy than the peppers. Though each sauce has its own unique recipe, common ingredients include salt, vinegar, tomato, carrots, water, fruit or vegetable juices, and any number of dry spices. All of these ingredients dilute the pure heat of the habaneros.


So, though a very concentrated habanero hot sauce could potentially rank as high as 100,000 SHU, most habanero sauces fall between 500 and 50,000 SHU. This is a huge range for a single type of pepper!


How Hot are El Yucateco Hot Sauces?

El Yucateco hot sauces are made with a variety of peppers, including jalapeño and chipotle, but the majority of their sauces feature the fiery habanero. Different sauces naturally have different SHU rankings and, like the peppers themselves, different batches of sauce can have a slightly higher or lower raking based on the individual peppers used in the recipe, so each sauce has an SHU range.


Jalapeño Sauce 1,500-1,900 SHU


Chipotle Hot Sauce 1,900-2,300 SHU


Black Label Reserve Habanero Hot Sauce 4,500-5,500 SHU


Caribbean Habanero Hot Sauce 6,300-7,700 SHU


Green Habanero Hot Sauce 7,000-8,800 SHU


Red Habanero Hot Sauce 7,600-9,500 SHU


Kutbil-Ik XXXtra Hot Habanero Sauce 10,000-12,500 SHU


Conclusion

Now that you know the ins and outs of the Scoville scale and how chili peppers are ranked, you'll be able to talk SHUs like a professional chili head.


Use your new expertise to help find new favorite hot sauces, try fun new peppers, and impress your friends around the grill!


Speaking of grilling, be sure to explore all our other summer grilling posts here on the King of Flavor blog, and check out the awesome hot sauce gear over at the El Yucateco Store!

 

For more hot sauce info and delicious spicy recipes, check out these other posts:

Fresh Summer Heat Kale Salad

How to Grill a Better Burger

How to Teach Yourself to Love Hot Sauce, One Bite at a Time

 

Looking for more spicy summer recipes, grill tips, and ways to level up your backyard? Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter, or YouTube for more great ideas, all summer long!

 

#ElYucateco #KingofFlavor #KingofFlavorSince1968 #SauceOn

919 views0 comments