What Is A Scoville Unit?

The Scoville scale is used to rate hot sauces and hot peppers with the Scoville unit helping decide what's hot and what's not.

Maybe your first exposure to a Scoville unit was when you dipped that tortilla chip in a fresh batch of salsa, popping it into your mouth greedily. Or maybe it was when you grabbed a small little pepper from the grocery aisle and nibbled on it, trying to decide if this minute vegetable would have enough bite to warrant adding it to your kitchen selection. If you ended up gasping for air and racing for the water cooler you've had your first experience with the wonderful measurement known as the Scoville unit.

The Scoville scale was devised by Wilbur Scoville in 1912 to determine exactly how hot a chile was in comparison to each other. Until then chiles had never been sorted, allowing new chefs to go by trial and error until they found the right amount of heat to go with their cooking. Especially in the Southern United States and Mexico the Scoville unit provided a quick and easy reference for people to rate their hot sauces and determine what would be appropriate for what dishes.

But what makes a chile hot in the first place? Well, each chile contains a certain amount of capsaicin, a special chemical that activates the nerve endings on your tongue and creates the sensation of heat that is transmitted to your brain. The Scoville unit, or SHU, measures how much capsaicin is present by determining how many squirts of sugar water from a small spray bottle is needed to dilute the capsaicin in a certain pepper to the point that there is no heat at all. For example, a sweet pepper has a Scoville scale reading of zero, since there is no heat at all in this popular pepper.

You can test this yourself by taking a small bit of any hot chile and crushing it up then determining how much sugar water it takes to remove the heat from your mouth. But be careful, because Scoville units can range up into the hundreds of thousands when measuring such hot peppers as the habaneros, which regularly rate over three hundred thousand!

Of course the Scoville rating is more subjective than scientific, since each pepper will have a certain range of heat depending on the soil and cultivation as well as the human used to test and rate the pepper. But while more scientific ratings have been developed, most fans of hot sauces and chileheads remain firmly behind the Scoville scale as the best way of determining the heat and strength of a good hot sauce or hot pepper.

Let's take a fast look at some of the more popular peppers and their ratings, according to the Scoville scale.

While a sweet pepper rates at a zero on the scale, a pepperoncini pepper comes in between one and five hundred Scoville units. Tabasco green pepper sauce rates between six hundred and twelve hundred units while the popular jalapeno runs between twenty five hundred and eight thousand units.

Pepper spray, which can be bought at many stores for the primary use of self-defence, comes in at two million Scoville units! And for the purist you can purchase liquid capsaicin for your kitchen in small quantities at the highest rating ever - sixteen million units!

However, this is way behind what the human body can absorb so do not consider this an easy way to liven up your homemade salsa. At those levels you can easily destroy your taste buds as well as deliver a major blow to your digestive system. If you do feel the need to experiment with pure capsaicin, check in with your local pepper distributors to see what sort of precautions are necessary. Remember, capsaicin is used in police-grade pepper spray - don't play around just to add a little zing to your lasagna!

The Scoville unit was designed out of necessity like many great inventions; born out of the need to try and measure the heat in the different brands of hot peppers. It may have been technically replaced with more scientific methods but the Scoville scale and the Scoville unit have remained the most popular way of measuring the heat in hot sauces and various peppers for years. So the next time you pick up that jar of hot sauce or consider that extra-hot salsa be sure to look for the Scoville rating and prepare to get your dose of capsaicin!

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