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Learn the Burn: The Scoville Scale

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Have you ever tried a dish and discovered it was far spicier than you could handle? That is a decidedly unpleasant experience, but one that the smart cook can avoid. By learning the Scoville Scale, it’s possible to get a specific measurement of just how spicy a specific pepper will be.

Wilbur Scoville. Scoville, a pharmacist who worked for Park Davis, a pharmaceutical company based in Detroit, developed what he called “The Scoville Organoleptic Test” in 1912 at the age of 47. It is commonly referred to as the “Heat Scale” and assigns numerical ratings to different spicy foods based on how much sugar-water must be added before no heat can be detected from the food. Scoville is also known for a book on pharmacology compounding that was published in 1895 and was the top source used in the pharmacy field through the 1960s. 

It’s the capsaicin. Scientists have discovered that peppers contain a chemical called capsaicin that is responsible for the “heat.” The Scoville Scale is a way to quantify just how much capsaicin is in the pepper you may be considering for your barbecue sauce, for example. At the low end of the scale is the mild, harmless bell pepper, which has no heat content and scores a 0 on the scale. The scale tops out at a score of 2 million for the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion pepper and the Carolina Reaper Chili – currently the two hottest peppers in existence.

Using the Scoville Scale. If you like food that has a spicy kick, there’s no better feeling than eating a sauce or meat that is hot – but not quite too hot to handle. Figuring out what peppers fit that profile for you and your family is possible with the help of the Scoville Scale. It’s also necessary to do a little experimentation in the kitchen. For example, the jalapeno pepper has a score of 3,500 to 8,000. That falls into the category of mild to moderate heat. The cayenne pepper, on the other hand, falls between 30,000 and 50,000 on the scale. That’s hot, but the scale goes all the way up to 2 million, so if it’s not hot enough for you and your family, there are always other peppers to consider. The habanero pepper, for example, scores between 200,000 and 350,000 – making it a real scorcher. Consult the Scoville Scale to find some peppers in what you believe is the proper range and then experiment in the kitchen.

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