Hotness – SHU (Scoville)

So you wanted to know how hot our sauces are in SHU?

Well, your bad – you won’t. It’s not like the Scoville Scale (if you’re not up to, scroll down to tl;dr) is total sham, but it has serious limitations. It measures the content of capsaicin in dry mass – and our sauces are, surprise surprise, wet. We produce hot sauces from fresh peppers, which can vary in hotness even on a single plant. And because we make craft hot sauces (which means that we mix them in pots and pour into bottles ourselves), each batch has its unique character and pungency. Each of our sauces is filled with peppers as much as possible – in most of them the content of peppers reaches 30, and even 35 percent. So drop the puny sauces with trace amounts of peppers.

Another issue is that measuring capsaicin content costs money and some manufacturers prefer to dream up (i.e., make rough estimates of) exorbitant values that can’t be verified anyway. It doesn’t really amuse us, so we created our own scale.

The hotness of our sauces

— is measured on a 10-point scale indicated by dots on the sides of our bottles:

1. Formula One – level of spicy ketchup. We don’t stoop so low.

2. Two Straws / Two Wheeler – extra spicy ketchup. As above.

3. Three Little Pigs – distinct, but delicate hotness: Iskra, Jalapeno

4. Four Horsemen – real fuel: Habanero, Babushka

5. Fifth Element – significant, sharp hotness that still won’t hurt you (too much): Habanero X

6. Electric Six/Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence/Sinister Six – above-average hotness; careful with the dosage!

7. The Magnificent Seven/Seventh Heaven – a hell of a ride; this level of hotness will move every heart (although not everybody is gonna admit it): #Yolo

8. Eight Bits/Eight Legged Freaks/Section Eight – you better hold on to something, because Kansas is going bye bye!

9. Cat O’nine Tails/Cloud Nine/K-9/Nine Circles of Hell/Divine Nine – it will scourge your lips. And mouth. And throat. And so on…

10. Ten Plagues – kills every other taste. And you. In a good way: Ninja

Some history:

SHU, meaning Scoville Hotness Unit, is a measure of pungency on a scale created in 1912 by the American pharmacist Wilbur Scoville. Scoville was also one of the first to recommend milk as an antidote to the burning sensation caused by eating spicy stuff. The scale was initially based on an organoleptic test – which means tasting.

A strictly defined amount of dried peppers was dissolved in alcohol in order to extract capsainocids, and later gradually diluted in sugar water. Five testers were tasting increasingly diluted extracts until at least three of them deemed the hotness to be imperceptible. The scale reflected the dilution level needed to reach this point – e.g., in case of Habanero peppers they had to be diluted between 100 000 and 350 000 for the hotness to become imperceptible.

This method had its obvious limitations – it was very time-consuming, the procedure was tedious, and the tasters’ individual sensitivity to heat, fatigue and subjectivity. All this resulted in low precision, which caused it to be replaced by more modern techniques.

The scale and unit retained their names, but currently it measures the concentration of capsaicin using chromatography (and more specifically HPLC, which stands for high-performance liquid chromatography). It consists in drying and grinding the tested substance to powder. Then, the chemical compounds responsible for heat are extracted and analyzed in a HPLC apparatus. It enables objective, precise and quick measurements.

Nonetheless, the usefulness of this method in choosing hot peppers and sauces for consumption is quite limited. This test gives results pertaining to dry mass units. Because of that, comparisons between products with varying water contents can be misleading – fresh peppers contain much more water than dried ones, and hot sauces contain other liquids, such as vinegar, tomato sauce, etc. It is easy to determine the hotness level of capsaicin extracts – but nobody in their right mind eats those, right? (Well, we know some and we like them and respect them, but we’re not sure if we understand them.)

What’s the SHU?

— WTF for dummies

When you enter the world of hot food, you may feel like at a protest: tear gas fills the air, and fiery creatures crowd all around: capsaicin, scovilles, scorpions, chillihead…

What am I doing here? Am I the only one with a chili-shaped hat?

Capsaicin is an easy one – it’s simply the chemical compound responsible for hot taste. What about that mysterious Scoville person?

Wilbur Scoville created a hotness scale. The unit is SHU, which stands for Scoville Hotness Unit. Initially the measurements consisted in diluting and tasting, but science has kept advancing and now pungency is determined by means of chromatography.

This scale ranges from 0 SHU for bell pepper and 15 000 000 – 16 000 000 SHU for pure capsaicin.

The estimated peak hotness of the most popular peppers looks like this:

Poblano 2 000 SHU

Jalapeno 10 000 SHU

Serrano 23 000 SHU

Pepperoncini 30 000 SHU

Tabasco 50 000 SHU

Piri piri 175 000 SHU

Scotch Bonnet 350 000 SHU

Habanero 350 000 SHU

Red Savina 570 000 SHU

Dorset Naga 970 000 SHU

Peppers hotter than 1 000 000 SHU are classified as ‘superhots’:

Naga Jolokia 1 040 000 SHU

Naga Viper 1 382 000 SHU

Ghost Pepper (Bhut Jolokia) 1 041 000 SHU

Infinity 1 067 000 SHY

Trinidad Scorpion Butch T 1 464 000 SHU

Trinidad Moruga Scorpion 2 010 000 SHU

The official hottest pepper in the world is currently (as of 2021) the new generation of the Carolina Reaper variety grown in the USA by the famous Smokin’ Ed Currie.

Its peak power is 2 200 000 SHU

Which is the spiciest?

The spicest pepper in the world

The competition is fierce, there are controversies and scandals, growers accuse each other of dishonesty – reportedly there were even death threats.

The title of the world’s hottest pepper is also claimed by Dragon’s Breath (2 480 000 SHU) and Pepper X (3 180 000 SHU), but their hotness has not been officially confirmed yet.

Tear gas, which is based on capsaicin, has between 2 000 000 and 5 000 000 SHU, which means that by eating superhots you can become immune to it. Revolution is a chillihead!

The feeling of hotness is subjective and based on a couple more factors than mere capsaicin content. For example, tomatoes contain sugar, which mitigates burning. You know the superhot sauces made of extract and vinegar? Now you know why there’s nothing sweet in them. Corporate producers prefer for a single drop of sauce to be perceptibly hot than for it to have any taste. You will add their sauce to your dish and be sorry you didn’t go with Dziki Bill.

tl;dr: Scoville created a scale. The testing method took forever and was a pain in the ass. In the meantime, science went forward and the name stayed the same, but now the method measures capsaicin content. That’s it!