Mad About Science: Peppers

By Brenden Bobby
Reader Columnist

You knew it was coming. If I could reference something to put into a taco, I definitely would, and here I am!


Ghost pepper.

Peppers! You love them, you fear them, you know that one weird uncle that eats habaneros like potato chips.

If you’re as much of a Food Network fan as I am, I’m sure you’ve seen at least some of their stars touting the level of heat of various peppers using something called the Scoville Scale, where they use ridiculously big numbers in seemingly random quantities to attempt to frighten and confuse you. How does it work?

Basically, you take a panel of five people with exceptional taste buds for peppers. You then take a dried pepper, mix the hottest parts of it with a sugar water solution, then once at least three of the five judges have declared they can no longer taste any trace of pepper in the solution, you have your number based on how much of the solution was required.

Unfortunately, this method of measurement isn’t completely scientific. It’s largely subject to both human error and personal sensitivity (or lack of thereof) to heat. There are other, more empirical forms of measurement, but none have caught on in the public eye quite like the Scoville Scale.

Worth noting, once you start getting into the 5-billion range of the Scoville scale, the chemicals involved begin to be referred to as “Toxins”. You know, like the delicious lemony stuff under the sink your mom wouldn’t let you drink as a kid (or an adult.).

So you think you can take the heat?

Let’s start with a poblano. You find these in chile rellano. Tender, a little sweet and they hide a bit of kick when you reach the seeds near the stem. 1,000-1,500 Scoville Units. Nice.

How about a jalapeno?. It’s got a little kick to it, not bad. They range from 1,000-20,000 Scoville units depending on a number of factors. That’s pretty cool! You don’t devour 20,000 of anything very often.

Barely a sweat.

How about cayenne and tabasco for some sweet southern heat? These bad boys range from 30,000 – 50,000 SHU, Scoville Heat Units. If you’re keeping count, that’s over double the heat of the hottest jalapenos.

Phew, a little bit of a bite to it, but I’m good.

The dreaded Habanero, the hottest pepper used in standard cuisine. Some people can handle these dry and eat them like you or I eat french fries. How hot is it? 100,000-350,000 SHU. Habaneros are used frequently in hot sauce and have a unique cautionary orange color. Maybe it’s trying to give you a hint.

Now that I’m starting to pant, I should let you know that this is the threshold of standard cuisine.

In some states, exceeding this threshold requires signing a waiver, because people have been hospitalized and died from this level of spice.

The ghost pepper. Feared, loved, admired. Its true name is Bhut jolokia, but it’s a lot easier for us yanks to say “ghost pepper”, since you’ll probably wish you were dead after eating it. Rest assured, any run-of- the-mill taco chain store (any corporate-run one spanning several states) touting a $2.99 burrito stuffed with ghost pepper chiles is lying to you, or at least telling a half-truth. It may have ghost peppers, but it almost certainly doesn’t include the seeds, which are the hottest part. We’re talking just over 1 million SHU, here. If a jalapeno were a stick of dynamite, the ghost pepper would be an atomic bomb.

Seriously, folks, they crush the seeds to create an extract that they infuse into pepper spray for prisons and bears. (And maybe even bears in prison.)

I’m not done.

The ghost pepper may have once been the reigning world champion, but specialty farmers have gone above and beyond the call of duty to deliver a physical manifestation of an edible hell.

The Carolina Reaper.

1.5 million SHU, 50 percent hotter than the ghost pepper. Though I’ve never eaten one of these bad boys, I can only assume that it tastes like nuclear fission. Someone proudly holds a world record (and likely a transplanted colon)  after eating 22 in 60 seconds.

After speaking of this mad inferno, I may have some tips on how to beat the heat, if you’re feeling brave.

Drinking milk after eating something hot won’t save you. In fact, it will probably just make you feel even more sick, and the last thing you want is to taste the pepper again.

If you drink the milk first, slowly over about five minutes then eat the pepper, it may help a little bit, but not a whole lot.

Did you just bite off more than you can chew? Don’t drink the water, it will only fan the flames. If you have sugar at the table, pour liberally over your tongue, or into water. The sugar counteracts the capsaicinoid in the pepper that causes your mouth to burn. It won’t work instantly, and the hotter the pepper, the more sugar you need. Give it a few minutes and keep dousing your tongue until it dies down.

If you’re unsure about how you will handle something very, very spicy, the best cure is prevention. You might not even want to try it at all.

If all you’ve ever eaten is jalapeno poppers and you’re thinking about a Carolina Reaper speed eating competition, you may want to rethink some of your life choices or consider taking out some life insurance. Just sayin’.

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