The Scoville Scale Of Chilli Heat

Just how hot are chillies and is there a way of telling which chillies are hot without destroying your tastebuds?

The short answer is that chilli heat has been measured and there is a scale that you can use as a guide – the Scoville Scale.

The more detailed answer follows.

Wilbur Scoville developed his scale of chilli heat in 1912. He worked for a company that made an ointment for aching joints in which there was an important ingredient called capsaicin. Capsaicin is the compound in chillies that causes the heat. The company kept getting different heat levels in the ointment when different chillies were used and needed to know how to control this heat.

Wilbur Scoville developed a test where an exact weight of chilli extract was diluted with a sugary water solution until a testing panel could not taste any heat at all. The amount of dilution required translates into a scale. The inherent weakness in this scale is that the taste test relied on people so the result was subjective and slightly inaccurate. But the scale was the first serious attempt at measuring chilli heat and it survives, and is used, to this day.

There is a wide range of heat produced by different chillies. The mildest is the Bell Pepper that has a rating of zero. One of the hottest is the Habanero that has a rating of 300,000 plus. The popular Jalepeno is between 2,500 and 8,000.

The following Scoville Scale table has been extracted from Wikipedia.

Rating Variety
0 Bell Pepper
100 – 500 Pimento
2,500 – 8,000 Jalepeno
5,000 – 10,000 Wax Pepper
30,000 – 50,000 Cayenne Pepper
100,000 – 350,000 Habanero

Although the scale was a bit inaccurate, it was the only one around until 1980 when a high-pressure liquid chromatography test (the “Gillett Method”) was introduced. This test is far more reliable. But the Scoville Scale is so widely used that the chromatography test results are multiplied by a factor of 15 to convert back to an approximate Scoville Scale rating. Viva Scoville!!

We get quite a few people asking how hot a curry is on the Scoville Scale. They want to know how hot a vindaloo is on the Scoville Scale or how hot a Madras is on the Scoville Scale. But the scale does not rate curries. The scale rates individual chillies. And a vindaloo with 5 chillies in it is going to be hotter than a vindaloo with 3 chillies. So there is no scale for measuring curry heat. You could always try and rate the curry yourself by repeating the testing method of diluting an amount of the curry in a sugar solution until you get no heat. But what would that prove? It would measure just one curry.

If you have a curry recipe that needs a fresh chilli as one of the ingredients, you can usually buy these in a local Indian food shop or a good supermarket. If you’re not familiar with the type of chilli that you buy then be careful how much you use – make your first curry with half a chilli so that you can judge its strength and heat level, and use more next time if you want a hotter meal.

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