When it comes to barbecue sauces or other pepper sauces, everybody wants to know, “How hot is it?” And besides that, who’s to say what’s “hot” and what’s “medium?” The Scoville chart, named for Wilbur L. Scoville who developed it, attempts to take some of the subjectivity out of the question.
How the test worked originally
When Scoville began his efforts to inform the world about the heat in their peppers, he looked at how many times a solution of a particular pepper would have to be diluted in a sugar solution so that a taster would sense no heat. So a sweet pepper, like a bell pepper that has no detectable heat without being diluted at all would be a zero on the Scoville test, while a Habanero, which has to be diluted about 300,000 times would have a Scoville rating of 300,000.
The problem with his test was that it still relied on subjective, human reporting. Which brings us back to the question: Can I trust what somebody else says about how hot this pepper is?
Modern pepper ratings
Today, technology and chemistry combine in a process called high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) which measures the amount of capsaicinoids, the chemical on peppers that humans sense as heat.
It’s important to note, however, that all peppers—even of the same variety—are not the same. Other factors can affect the amount of capsaicinoids on your pepper, including growing and drying conditions.
Choosing your pepper
So what kind of pepper is right for you? Between the previously noted sweet bell pepper at zero and the Habanero at 300,000, some other peppers commonly used include jalapeños with a rating of 3,500-8,000 and cayenne and Tabasco peppers with ratings between 30,000 and 50,000. Beyond the Habaneros are red savinas at 350,000-577,000.
As with other food combinations, you may find you prefer one pepper or pepper sauce with some specific foods while other peppers are best in other dishes. Personal experimentation, using the Scoville chart for a general guide, will perhaps give the best and most enjoyable results.