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Bringing the Heat

If you don’t know what you are looking for, grabbing a random pepper at the grocery store can be a bit like playing a game of roulette.

Tiffany Duncan
January 28, 2019

With it being the month of February, the officially recognized love month, why not spice it up in the kitchen with an ingredient that is said to contain aphrodisiacal properties: peppers. There’s no denying that even when grocery shopping, it’s tempting to throw a few in the cart because they are all so shiny and colorful. But it can be intimidating because there are so many different kinds.

If you don’t know what you are looking for, grabbing a random pepper at the grocery store can be a bit like playing a game of roulette — it can be too spicy, or even too bland, depending on what you need it for. Oddly enough, in many cases the smaller the pepper, the hotter it is. On one end of the spectrum, there’s the large and voluptuous bell peppers, and on the other end you’ve got the teeny little habanero and ghost peppers — which are anything but teeny in their heat factor.

Here’s a quick guide to try and make sense of it all.

Mild/Sweet Peppers
The spicy factor in peppers is measured in what are called Scoville heat units (SHU). Peppers typically range from 0 to over 1,000,000 SHU, with mild/sweet peppers having a rating of only 0-1,000.

Bell Peppers: These ubiquitous greed, red, yellow, and sometimes even orange bell peppers are a grocery store staple. But most people may not actually realize that red and yellow bell peppers are actually just green bell peppers that have been allowed to grow and ripen on the vine longer. Red peppers have ripened the longest, resulting in their sweet, slightly fruity and delicious taste. Yellow and orange are in the middle of the spectrum, although some varieties remain yellow when fully ripened. Green bell peppers are not nearly as delicious as red or yellow ones when eaten raw, because they still retain that distinct grassy, almost bitter taste. Bell peppers have a SHU of only 0-100.

Other peppers included in the mild/sweet pepper category are cherry peppers, cubanelle, pimentos, sweet Italian peppers, banana, and pepperoncini peppers, which can have a slightly higher SHU rating of 100-1,000.

Spicy/Hot Peppers
This is the category where things can really start to heat up, and if you aren’t careful, consuming a pepper with too high of a SHU rating can actually be dangerous.

Poblano: Starting near the bottom in this category with a SHU of 1,000-1,500, Poblanos are most typically served stuffed in Mexican restaurants, or roasted and then pureed to add delicious depth to salsa. When dried, Poblanos are then referred to as ancho chilies. When pulverized into a powder, ancho chilies make up the main spice in chili powder.

Jalapenos: Jalapenos are perhaps the most popular and widely consumed pepper. Some may consider Jalapenos extremely hot, but they are actually considered merely mild to moderate, with a SHU of 2,500-8,000. But most people have had that strange experience where consuming jalapenos in one dish can be disappointingly bland and mild, yet in another they are so hot, it’s like there’s cartoon steam coming out of your ears.

What could account for such a difference? It could be a few things. The first is that jalapenos love the sun; the more sun they get, the hotter it makes them, so if they are planted somewhere that’s a bit too shady or doesn’t receive full sun, their heat factor will lessen.

Another big reason that could prevent jalapenos from building up their heat is receiving too much water. The component that makes jalapenos and other peppers so hot is called capsaicin, which is actually a neurotoxin meant to defend the plant against being consumed by insects or animals (and also why your body sweats and causes a runny nose when consuming something spicy — it’s trying to get rid of the poison). A jalapeno will release capsaicin when it is stressed, so restricting the plant’s water intake will increase its stress, resulting in more capsaicin release.

Serrano: Sometimes confused with jalapenos for their similar shape and color, serranos are actually very different. They are smaller than jalapenos, can ripen from green to bright shades of orange and yellow, and can pack as much as 10,000- 20,000 SHUs. The best use for serranos is to add a bit to some homemade salsa or a pot of chili if you are looking to up the heat factor.

Cayenne: Mostly found in ground spice form, the cayenne pepper has a SHU of 30,000-50,000. Cayenne is believed to have a long list of medicinal properties and health benefits due to the way the body digests its capsaicin content, including being an anti-inflammatory, soothing joint pain, boosting metabolism, and lowering blood pressure.

Habaneros: These light to deep-orange wrinkly peppers may look small and unassuming, but they are actually pretty wicked. The common grocery store habanero has a SHU of 100,000-350,000. If you don’t love spicy food, do avoid these little guys. But if you love the heat, habaneros can bring a unique, fruity depth to a dish. You can tame the habanero a bit by scraping out as much of the inside as possible (much of the capsaicin is hidden within the whitish membrane). Use sparingly until you know how much heat you can handle.

The Hottest Peppers in the World
The Bhut Jolokia Chili Pepper, or Ghost Pepper: Google “ghost pepper,” and one of the first questions that comes up is, “can you die from eating a ghost pepper?” Shockingly, the answer is yes! Because capsaicin is a neurotoxin meant to defend the pepper as it grows, consuming too much in too short of a time can actually cause heart attack, seizures, and yes, even death. But luckily this is extremely unlikely, as the pepper is so ridiculously hot that a person’s natural biology would revolt before consuming enough to be fatal.

If you’re curious about the ghost pepper, it’s best to start with a novelty food item that includes pulverized ghost pepper or ghost pepper oil in small amounts, like a block of cheddar or a bag of chips.

The Carolina Reaper: Officially recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the hottest pepper on the planet until May 2017, the Carolina Reaper is approximately 600 times hotter than a jalapeno — that’s 1.4 to 2.2 million SHU.

Dragon’s Breath: Unseating the Carolina Reaper in 2017 as the hottest pepper in the world, the Dragon’s Breath pepper can exceed 2.4 million SHU.

Pepper X: Holding the current title of hottest pepper in the world, Pepper X was created by the same man, Ed Currie, who produced the Carolina Reaper. Currie is the mad scientist behind PuckerButt Pepper Company (yes, that’s the actual name), and describes the pepper as two times as hot as the Carolina Reaper, clocking in at 3.18 million SHU. Just for further reference, that is four-times hotter than the Ghost Pepper, and packs a heat level typical of military grade pepper spray.

If your interest is piqued by Pepper X, there is only one place you can get it — in the form of a hot sauce made by PuckerButt called The Last Dab. Now, peppers may be an aphrodisiac and all, but probably avoid lacing your sweetheart’s Valentine’s dish with this devil-hot sauce unless you fancy violent trips to the bathroom and a swift termination of your relationship