Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Putting the heat in the hot seat...

Someone saw the ingredients list on Peppermaster's Chili Chocolate Passion and made the comment that no self-respecting chilihead would eat a Mole made with extract; Actually, he said "self-respecting Mexican", but I digress.

Which was annoying enough to me, since what the guy who was posting refers to as an extract isn't what I was thinking was an extract. So the art department got busy trying to figure out what better way to say that we extract the natural essence from the pepper for the Chocolate sauce.

Which of course brings me to this blog.

After doing a bit of research two big questions come to mind. First is why the heck would anyone even put an "extract" into their mouths, never mind into their hot sauce? And second, with it being so subjective, how do you know how hot a sauce really is?

I'll start with the extract. The idea is pretty inert at first, but in truth, really, there is something scary to me about the idea of extracting capsaicin from a pepper... Especially when you learn how it is done.

Read this:
"Pure capsaicin is so powerful that chemists who handle the crystalline powder must work in a filtered "tox room" in full body protection. The suit has a closed hood to prevent inhaling the powder."

Said pharmaceutical chemist Lloyd Matheson of the University of Iowa, who once inhaled some capsaicin accidentally:
"It’s not toxic, but you wish you were dead if you inhale it."

"One milligram of pure capsaicin placed on your hand would feel like a red-hot poker and would surely blister the skin,"
said capsaicin expert Marlin Bensinger."

Source of quotes: Fiery Foods.

It takes guts to want to work with that sort of toxicity. I have two doors between my office and the kitchen, and they're both closed tight during production so that I don't inhale the peppers while they're cooking back there. I can't imagine what pain I would be in, were I to inhale pure capsaicin powder. Can you say; "major owie"?

There is a link to a University of Toronto page that gives instructions on extracting capsaicin. I gather it's class instruction for a chemistry lab.

In the quote it mentions the use of "acetonitrile" as the extraction solvent.

So, I looked up acetonitrile and do you know what it is more commonly known as??? Methyl Cyanide.

According to,
"Methyl Cyanide is a toxic, colorless liquid with an aromatic (ether like) odor and forms explosive mixtures with air."


Toxic... explosive... And we're eating this? Eeeeew Gross!

Is there any wonder that the Scovie Awards judges refuse to taste sauces made with extracts?

Truth be told though, lots of extract-based sauce makers don't actually use Methyl Cyanide extracted capsaicin. They use pure grain alcohol to force the capsaicin out of the peppers, strain off the pulp of the fruit and somehow manage to get nothing left but capsaicin. Then in the cooking, they evaporate off the alcohol; I hope; at least that seems to be the idea. I'm sure there's way more to it than that and I've probably really oversimplified the entire process, but until I can find step by step instructions, somewhere, that's as close as I can get to explaining the process in layman's terms.

Given the premise that self-respecting chiliheads can not or will not eat sauces that contain these extracts, what do they eat?

For starters. We chiliheads like it hot. The hotter the better. The problem is that depending on how long we've been chiliheads and what peppers we are used to eating, one chiliheads' hot might be completely different from another chiliheads' hot.

Which brings us to the question that I get asked all the time; how hot is it.

Most self-respecting chiliheads have at least heard of the Scoville scale, even if they don't know how different peppers score on it or even if they can't quite remember what it is called.

The Scoville scale was invented in 1912 by Wilbur Scoville. And even though it is a subjective taste test it has the misplaced respect that a more scientific test might deserve. When the scale was invented, (and it is still the same test, today), it asked a panel of tasters to state when an increasingly dilute pepper solution no longer burned. And based on the tasters, the peppers were given their Scoville levels... Generally stated, one part per million of 'rates' would then score 1.5 Scoville units. Confused? Yeah me too, but that's beside the point. The point is they taste the stuff, score it and based on that, it gets a certain number of Scoville units. Got it? Ok.

So, I'm thinking wouldn't that scale be different if the tasters were all chiliheads or heaven forbid, if none of them were? Like I said; subjective. I've seen people take Peppermaster Hurricane Mash in their mouths like it was apple sauce and once tested, we are pretty certain it would score about 200,000 to 300,000 scoville units, essentially because it is 90% pure pepper solids and those peppers all regularly score 250,000 to as much as 577,000 on the Scoville scale. By the same token, I've had people go berserk simply tasting the Chili Chocolate Passion sauce, which based on their reactions, could suggest that the sauce would score more than 200,000 because it's made with the same peppers, but then again, if someone (like me) is used to eating habaneros and scotch bonnets regularly, it might only score 60,000 or less... subjective. Even for those of us used to eating such peppers, that subjectiveness becomes really clear when one takes a teaspoon of the sauce and mixes it into a hot cup of coffee. Rather than being a mild burgeoning heat in the back of the throat, as described on our label, it suddenly becomes a fuming heat that you notice immediately. But, if the chilihead is used to that type of pepper, it still might not feel hot. again, subjective.

Depending on how you look at it, though, it could have absolutely nothing to do with the taster, it could be entirely affected by the ingredients one uses in the sauce. Again, I use the Chili Chocolate Passion as an example, once mixed with the chocolate, butter, sugar and other ingredients, the effect of the peppers is modified. The more of a chilihead one is, the more the nullification is obvious; so much so, that real diehard chiliheads can't even feel the heat.

It gets worse. When one starts bouncing around the internet trying to find out how many scoville units a particular type of pepper or a particular sauce has. It gets ridiculous. It makes me wonder how any self-respecting chilihead can possibly accept a Scoville unit as having anything but historical significance when it comes to heat classing peppers. clocks jalapenos at 25,000. has them at 2,500-5,000. has them score 2500 - 8000.

and The Chile Pepper Institute scores them between 4,000 - 50,000 And these guys have the good sense to show that those scores occurred over different breeds of jalapenos.

Individual peppers are going to have enormously varying levels of heat even off the same bush. So, one could readily eat even habanero peppers as if they were candy, then suddenly, one day, they hit a really hot one and ochochaw! As Jimmy Durante might say.

What that means is that depending on what they're tasting, depending on how used to that particular pepper the taster is, depending, depending, depending... Why are we even talking about this test? It's a joke. It's like measuring a child's fever by placing your hand on their forehead, wearing gloves. Sigh.

Interestingly enough, there is a more technologically advanced test available, which only the sauce makers seem to be aware of and it's called the HPLC test, or High Performance Liquid Chromatography. An HPLC legitimately detects the heat compounds in the peppers and records the amount in parts per million (ppm). For the diehard need-to-know-the-scoville-unit chilihead, a quick conversion is to multiply the HPLC ppm by 15 to get the Scoville Heat Unit. So, here we are back at Scoville units.

So once now you know more than you ever need to know about Scoville units. How is that supposed to help anyone be able to tell you what the world's hottest pepper is?

The Guinness Book of World Records records the Red Savina Habanero as the World's Hottest Spice.
"It has a rating of 350,000–570,000 on the Scoville scale (an index for measuring the hotness of chilies), compared with a score of 2,500–5,000 for the jalapeƱo."
It seems that even they know better than to say a pepper has a certain Scoville unit rating. The record was entered by GNS Spices of Walnut California in 1994. It scored a whopping 577,000 Scoville units. Of course, it doesn't say how, but then, it's the record holder.

So, given that the Red Savina Habanero holds the world record, does that make it the World's hottest pepper? I'm not so sure.

Reimer Seeds, world famous seed distributor, sells a Tepin Pepper, which is subtitled "World's Hottest Pepper".

Greg Brooks, reputed Peppermaster and owner of Brooks Pepperfire Foods, will argue to his grave that the Bahamian goatpepper is the hottest pepper and indeed the hottest pepper he has ever tasted.

And, according to an article, by Dave Dewitt, the famed Pope of Peppers, which appeared in Chile Pepper Magazine, a report from the Chile Pepper Institute details tests they had done which shows both the Orange Habanero and the Chocolate Brown Habanero beating out the Red Savina.

Then of course there is the infamous Tezpur pepper from India. It supposedly scored a whopping 850,000 scoville units. Published in the Japanese magazine, Paper Sky, the Tezpur is supposedly the Naga Jolokia. Wow! FWIW, the Naga Jolokia in and of itself is another blog altogether. Suffice it to say at this particular moment in time, that I believe the Naga Jolokia is a frutecens and not a chinense and thus incapable of ever scoring enough Scoville units to ever beat out any habanero breed, nevermind score 850,000.

So, moving on... there is more.

I'm going to narrow the whole thing down for you and conclude this entire blog so that when you click away from here (assuming you're still reading), you'll know the correct and only answer to the question; What is the world's hottest pepper.

There are essentially 1000s of different kinds of hot peppers, but there are really only a few "types". Those types are broken down into (but not limited to) the following: (Note that sweet green and red peppers don't have capcaicin, so I'm not even going to include those here.)

Capiscum baccatum

Capiscum annuum

Capiscum frutescens

Capiscum chinense

With me so far?

Well, Capiscum baccatums include such peppers as Aji and Puyas and they tend to have such small amounts of capsaicin as to be barely warm on a good day.

Capiscum annuums tend to include peppers such as jalapenos and cayennes, and other generally not very hot chili peppers. The Scoville units on such peppers range from anywhere near 0 to as high as 75,000. These are noticibly warm.

Capiscum frutescens tend to include super cayennes, such as the Naga Jolokia and the Tabasco. They can also range from anywhere near 0 to as high as 120,000. These are noticibly hot to extremely hot (depending on what kind of heat you can take)


Capiscum chinenses are the hot babies, scotch bonnets, habaneros, my beloved goatpeppers, etc. They include, of course, the Guinness World Record holding Red Savina which as we already mentioned scored 577,000 Scoville units. These are just plain extremely hot.

Wait it gets better. Anyone who has ever grown peppers can attest to this, but the heat level of any individual pepper, regardless of its type, can and will vary from one bush to the next and even from one pepper to the next on the same bush! Which is why ranges are used by the real pepper experts.

So what does this all have to do with the true heat level of peppers. Well, frankly, everything.

What my entire diatribe tells me, (you, of course, can draw your own conclusions) is that the potency of a Capiscum annuum may occasionally beat out a Capiscum frutescens but more often than not, the Capsicum frutescens will beat the Capiscum annuum, but neither type has the ability to come up with the potency that one finds in the Capiscum chinense peppers. And thus it's obvious to any logical thinker that any chinense has the given potential to beat out any other chinense at any time, but that neither variety of chinense has as yet come up with a consistent enough potency to give it the true name of World's Hottest Pepper.

So, to conclude; What is the hottest pepper in the world?

Why, the Capiscum chinense, of course.

You can say you got that from me.

Me out.


Josh Morris (staffing) said...

Very well written, Tina. I have heard of chromatography being used to clock the heat of peppers. The problem is, as you very well know, it depends on where you get the peppers. If you were comparing a jalapeno from a grocery store to one out of my garden, you would have a large variation in heat.

I agree that people oversell the scoville units as a selling point. A self-respecting chilehead (your term, I believe) isn't into chiles for the pain; he/she is in it because they like the taste of peppers. At least, that is my take on it.

Regarding extracts, I have tried a few, and will try a few more. They are not my every day fare, like habanero sauces are. To be honest, I tried a sauce the has been determined to register over 1 million S.H.U. ala a chemistry lab at UT Knoxville. The reason I tried it was to see what 1 million units feels like, and what physical reaction I would have. As you would imagine, I sweated a bit.

As a hot sauce collector, I find something phoney about someone who collects various levels of heat without sampling them. Kind of weak, in my eye. Similarly, my
Dad bought me the Harvard Classics collection of old literature, both non fiction and fiction. It looks good on the shelf, but I feel obligated to read it as well. I would be embarrassed if someone asked me "so...which of those books did you enjoy?" if I hadn't read any. I am currently working on a collection of poetry written by Robert Burns.

BTW, I like your taste in books and music. My wife would also approve. We loved The Stand (and the Dark Tower series), as well as Pillars of the Earth. Good reads.

Again, nice article.


jon said...
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wholl resources said...
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Pepperfire said...

Last I checked, we were talking about hot peppers; not cancer.

Although... I did mention that the chemicals used to extract capsaicin are cancer causing... the article wasn't about cancer.

God... don't you just hate spam, even if it has a good cause???

FTS said...

Checking in to see if you're still around...

louhanna said...
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Anonymous said...

You may wish to update that article with the latest info on naga jolokia.

Wikipedia article

Pepperfire said...

Don't you just love the way that people leave tags on folks' blogs, but don't have the guts to leave their names????

You know, if drive-by posters bothered to read the rest of my blog, they'd see that I already had updated this article when I published my article on the Naga Morich.

By the way... In the future, don't link Wackypedia to my blog. They care more that there is an internet source for their info, than they care whether or not it's true...

Cite the battle over 16,000,000 Scoville units as a perfect example.