The Scoville Scale, developed by chemist Wilbur Scoville in 1912, measures the heat produced by chile peppers. The scale demonstrates what adventurous eaters already know: Peppers vary wildly in their level of hotness. Sweet bell peppers serve as a threshold with a zero rating; jalapeños go as high as 8,000; and Thai peppers can clock in at 100,000. In 1994, the Red Savina, also known as Dominican Devil’s Tongue, was listed in Guinness World Records as the world’s hottest, topping out at 577, 000, which, competitively speaking, seemed to turn up the heat. India certified its Naga Jolokia at 1,041,427. And England’s Dorset Naga joined the battle with an impressive 970,000.
Why we crave something that causes our mouths to burn and our eyes to water is a subject of debate. Historically, the Carib tribe used the Scotch Bonnet pepper as a means of torture. Some say the burn triggers the production of endorphins, our body’s natural opiate. Others say it’s simply because once we’ve acquired a taste for heat, other foods seem bland.
No time to check the Scolville Scale? Here’s a more manageable approach to gauging a pepper’s hotness: Small peppers can burn more than large ones, and dried are hotter than their fresh counterparts. No matter which peppers you choose, be sure to handle them with care. Even pros wear rubber gloves when dicing and slicing. Or try what native cooks have done for centuries: coat your hands with oil before handling. To tone down heat, remove seeds and veins, wash hands thoroughly after handling and avoid eye contact.
—By Jo Marshall, a food writer in Deephaven, Minn.