When it comes to adding heat to dishes, peppers are the perfect ingredient to excite taste buds with bursts of intensity in every bite that can range from benign to over the top extreme. Thanks to selective breeding of specific pepper plant varieties there is a very wide range of peppers available that are rated for their heat using a specific unit of measurement.
The fiery heat that peppers produce comes from a compound known as capsaicin. Capsaicin is located in the white membranes on the inside of the pepper fruit (also known as pods). The heat intensity of a pepper is measured using a unit known as a Scoville. The Scoville rating system of pepper heat was created by pharmacist Wilbur Scoville in 1912.
Through a series of dilutions, pepper heat was tested using a panel of judges who used their own tongues to test the intensity of capsaicin found in a variety of peppers. Although thought to be a little too subjective to be truely accurate, this rating system is still used today though it is now performed using a specific piece of machinery rather than human tongues. Based on the number of Scoville heat units (SHU), the following is a list of the hottest peppers in the world.
The Bhut Jolokia (also known as Naga Jolokia and Ghost Pepper) is the hottest pepper in the world with a SHU rating of 850,000 to 1,050,000. This pepper is five times hotter than the hottest variety of habanero.
Following the Bhut Jolokia in heat intensity is the Dorset Naga with 870,000 to 970,000 SHU, the Red Savina Habanero and Caribbean Red Habanero with 350,000 t0 570,000 SHU, the Habanero chile pepper and Scotch Bonnet pepper with 100,000 to 350,000 SHU, the Jamaican pepper, Thai, Malagueta, and Chiltepin peppers with 50,000 to 200,000 SHU, and the Cayenne, Tabasco, and Aji peppers with 30,000 to 50,000 SHU.
As a comparison, the popular Jalapeno peppers appear in the middle of the list with a rating of only 2,500 to 8,000 SHU. The sweet and mild Bell peppers come in last with a SHU rating of 0.
Peppers are grown all over the world and have been in cultivation for at least 5,000 years. All peppers used today originate from five different species of Capsicum that have been domesticated into the pepper plants grown worldwide. Depending on the species of the pepper plant that they originated from some peppers will produce the effect of a volcano eruption in your mouth, while others will have a sweet and spicy taste. The peppers at the top of the heat list are all varieties of the species Capsicum chinense, which includes all types of Habaneros. Other familiar varieties such as the Cayenne, Jalapeno, and Bell pepper are all varieties of Capsicum annuum.
Intensely hot peppers have earned a special place in a variety of dishes and sauces using recipes that have been specifically made to utilize the heat and unique flavor of these varieties. While not everyone will want to take on a dish that uses an extremely hot pepper, such as the Bhut Jolokia, a little extra heat from a tame chile pepper can make a bland dish taste spectacular.