How hot is that pepper?

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ted manzer


Friday, May 4, 2018

My wife can’t tolerate any heat in her peppers at all. Even mildly hot peppers have too much fire. I’m sure she’s not alone.

There are hundreds of pepper cultivars on the market and we often can’t decipher too much from the name alone. Obviously, there are some. Carolina reaper and ghost pepper are two names I will avoid, but dozens of names are unclear until I check the all-important Scoville chart.

The Scoville chart is an indicator of the degree of heat in a pepper. Pure capsaicin, the chemical that makes hot peppers hot, is 15 to 16 million units. Pepper spray used by law enforcement usually runs about 2.5 to 5 million units.

Some folks can’t get enough Scoville units and hotter peppers are being developed all the time. The hottest one currently on the market is the Carolina reaper at a little over two million units.

The heat units are grouped in ranges as hotness can vary tremendously even within a cultivar. In other words, not all jalapenos are the same. Time of year, fertilization, water stress and preparation influence how hot a pepper is. Hot dry climates produce the hottest peppers.

As hot peppers go, jalapenos are not particularly hot. They usually run from about 2,500 to 10,000 Scoville units. Poblanos are popular for chili rellenos, a favorite of mine. They usually run slightly less hot. Hungarian wax and Serrano are in this range as well.

Paprika, pepperoncini and cherry peppers are a bit milder than that. They seldom top 1,000 on the Scoville chart.

Marzano peppers run about twice as hot as jalapenos. Cayenne and tobasco peppers are about double that at 30 to 50 thousand units. Habaneros are simply too hot for me. They can be as high as 350 thousand Scoville units.

For those who love the taste of peppers but like to limit the heat, being careful to remove all seeds will help. Much of the fire resides in the seeds. Removing the veins helps too.

Soaking peppers in lemon juice can take some of the fire out of them. Someone once told me Sprite soda worked even better. After rinsing, the peppers have no tainted taste. They are less hot, however.

Whenever working with hot peppers, it is important to wear gloves. I learned this the hard way about 35 years ago. I was canning peppers and had to sleep with my hands wrapped in ice. My bed was soaked but I was finally able to sleep.

A few years ago, we grew some habanero peppers at school. The students were curious, and I told them that anyone who touched them should go to the bathroom and thoroughly wash their hands.

One student decided to go “number one” first. That was a mistake and the whole class was treated to screaming. The student wound up calling home for new jeans as his were now soaked with water.

The simple lesson is this. When it comes to peppers, people need to be smart and not macho. Trust that Scoville scale and beware.

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.