Although it's a culinary irony that hot peppers crop up in the cuisines of countries where conditions are already sweltering -- such as Mexico, India and Thailand -- perhaps a method is in the madness. Chili peppers actually cool down your body by encouraging perspiration; they also incorporate antiseptic properties and contain high levels of vitamins. Their heat-inducing chemical compounds range from mildly stimulating to temporarily incapacitating, without any reliable visual clues as to which you can expect.
The Scoville heat scale, the primary reference for measuring chili heat, was developed in 1912 by Wilbur Scoville. The scale measures the concentration of capsaicin in the pepper, which ranges from sweet pepper, which has no capsaicin and scores "0" on the scale, to the Naga-Bih Jolokia or “ghost” pepper, the hottest pepper in the world, according to "The Guinness Book of Records." Also called the "Bhut Jolokai," the North Indian pepper has measured at 1,001,304 Scoville Units. In contrast, common pepper spray measures 2 million units.
Several peppers pride themselves on their fearsome heat and frequently feature in hot sauce brands whose names riff on themes of fire, pain and insanity. The previous world-record holder was the Red Savina habanero, packing roughly half as much capsaicin as the Naga-Bih Jolokai. Native to Mexico and South America, hot habaneros are characteristically fiery with citrus notes, and they are the most common hot peppers found in grocery stores. The Scotch Bonnet pepper, popular in Jamaican and Caribbean cuisine, is part of the habanero family. Habaneros have a short, rounded pod and can be red, orange or brown when ripe. Peppers in this range should be handled with gloves as the juice can irritate the skin or eyes.
Half as hot again are the familiar cayenne and tabasco peppers, which are distinguished by their short, tapered pods, with the capsaicin content of between 30-50,000 Scoville units. Tabasco peppers have a bright red color and succulent interior, unlike most peppers, which are dry inside. The cayenne pepper is part of the same plant family. While tabasco typically finds its way into the hot sauce by the same name, cayenne is typically dried and ground to make the fire-red cayenne pepper powder. Other tapered peppers with mild heat are the Mexican arbol and Thai peppers, which are often dried and crushed into spicy dishes.
Peppers that give a little bite without attempting to sear off the roof of your mouth entirely include the serrano and jalapeno varieties. The serrano can be as mild as a jalapeno, at around 6,000 units, or reach a rating in the low 20,000s, almost in cayenne territory. Jalapenos have a deep or light-green color and sweeter flavor, with most of the heat concentrated in the seeds. Serranos look like smaller jalapenos, but they can turn red or yellow. Mild but tangy, they work well in salsas and marinades.
Peperoncini and pimento peppers barely push the 500-unit barrier, ranking slightly higher than sweet pepper. Middle Eastern or Mediterranean food connoisseurs are familiar with the peperoncini, vibrant green pods which are usually pickled and served as accompaniments to heavy or fatty meats, where their slight bitterness and mild bite add a touch of balance. Pimento peppers, on the other hand, often end up stuffing olives and present little challenge spice-wise.
- Visage/Stockbyte/Getty Images