Standing in front of an array of peppers in the grocery store, you may find yourself wondering which are mild and which will burn off all the taste receptors on your tongue. Conveniently, the store staff has labeled the display with Scoville units for each variety. Well, it would be convenient if you knew what the Scoville chart meant. It’s really pretty simple to learn, though: basically, the higher the number, the hotter the pepper.
Wilbur Scoville developed the scale, fully named the Scoville Heat Unit Scale,in 1912, with the help of some rather brave tasters. Scoville prepared an extract of each type of pepper and mixed it into a sugar syrup solution until the tasters could no longer sense the heat caused by the capsaicin in the peppers. The heat number represents the number of times the extract had to be diluted to reach the no-heat level.
The scale runs from sweet bell peppers at zero to pure capsaicin at 15,000,000 units. A sampling of the same variety may have a fairly wide range of heat units, but the scale provides some help in picking out the spice level you want for your dishes. Of course, taking care to completely remove the seeds and the veins of the pepper lets you control the heat to some degree, too. Be sure to wear gloves for cleaning peppers at the higher end of the scale and do not wipe your face or eyes before washing your hands very thoroughly. That’s a mistake you’re unlikely to make more than once!
So, where do your favorites fall on the scale? Anaheims rate at 500 to 2,000 units, while poblanos come in at 1,000 to 5,000. Both of these are delicious when stuffed with cheese or ground meat and baked or dipped in an egg batter and deep-fried.
Jalapeños rank at 3,500 to 5,000 units, cayennes at 30,000 to 50,000, and habaneros hit the scale at 200,000 to 350,000. To put this into perspective, pepper-spray manufactured and sold in the United States usually has a Scoville Heat Unit Scale range of 2,000,000 to 5, 300,000 units.