Campbell Vaughn: What makes the hottest of the hot peppers?

There has been a big spike in the interest in the hottest of the hot peppers.


Hot peppers are also know as chili peppers, which owe their heat to a chemical substance called capsaicin. Capsaicin is actually concentrated in the inner white pith or rib of the pepper. While it is common to think that seeds may be the main cause of burning mouths, seeds themselves don’t actually contain any heat. Seeds are only considered hot since they’re in contact with the capsaicin in the rib.


How does one determine how hot one pepper is relative to another? It is a science that has been around since 1912.

Wilbur L. Scoville, a pharmacologist for the Parke-Davis Company, invented the method called the Scoville Measuring Unit or the SHU. According to my friends in Savannah, Ga., at Mo Hotta Mo Betta ( who specialize in hot and spicy food, Scoville’s original test consisted of a panel of tasters who would systematically taste for detectable heat in a solution of extract of chili and slightly sweetened water. The idea was to determine how far the chili extract could be diluted and still have a detectable burn. This is not an exact science but is the closest thing we have found to monitor heat in peppers.

So for example, a Jalapeño pepper rated at 4,500 Scoville units tells us that 4,500 parts sugar water are needed to dilute one part Jalapeño extract to the last point that hotness can be tasted. Add any more sugar water and according to this subjective test, you would not be able to taste any hotness. You have to remember that some of the ratings you might see in publications may be hottest found in a particular one pepper, but what we are trying to see is the average numbers of the Scoville measurements.

If a common Jalapeño clocked in around 4500 on the Scoville ratings, how do we compare some of the other common hot peppers in terms of heat? Pimento is between 100-500 SHU, Serrano 10,000-30,000 SHU, Cayenne and Tabasco 30,000-50,000 SHU and the Habanero and Scotch bonnet top out 100,000-350,000 SHU. That is some serious heat, but these common hot peppers are mere child’s play in comparison to the hottest peppers known to man.

The Ghost Pepper from India started the mega heat craze and was the first pepper to break the 1 million mark on the Scoville scale at 1,019,000 SHU and held the title starting in 2007. In February of 2012, New Mexico State University’s Chile Pepper Institute identified the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion from the dual-island Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago near Venezuela as the newest hottest pepper in the world at a whopping 1,463,700 Scovilles.

And then our local neighbors to the north took the Scoville rating into the Guinness Book of World Records when Ed Currie of The PuckerButt Pepper Company crossed Sweet Habanero and Naga Viper chillies to make the world’s hottest pepper called the ‘Carolina Reaper’. According to tests conducted by Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C., Smokin Ed’s ‘Carolina Reaper’ averaged a rating of 1,569,000. Ed was quoted as saying “my family dies from cancer a lot, so I’ve been researching how not to die.” My guess is people may have mixed feelings about death if they bit into one of his peppers.

How do I grow these super chilis? It’s actually pretty easy. Peppers are warm-weather plants that can easily be grown from seed. Pepper seeds take about 10 days to germinate. You can start them indoors six to eight weeks prior to transplanting them into the garden. Buying transplants might speed up the process, but sometimes finding an odd (super heat) variety already germinated in local stores can be challenging. Peppers self-pollinate, enjoy full sun, and do not tolerate frost or cool, wet soils. Soil temperatures should reach 70°F, with night temperatures staying about 50°F, before planting peppers in the garden.

Peppers need a well-drained soil that receives eight to 10 hours of sun per day. Prepare your soil using compost or other organic soil amendment. Adjust the pH to 6.0-6.5. It is best to test the soil two to three months prior to planting for proper liming and fertilization recommendations, and then to initiate the correct fertilization program. If the soil is not tested, a complete fertilizer such as 10-10-10 or 13-13-13 can be applied at the rate of 2 pounds per 100 square feet of garden, and lime may be added at a rate of 20-25 pounds per 1,000 square feet. Spade or till the soil to a depth of at least 6 to 8 inches, and then level it with a rake.

When planting, space pepper plants 12-24 inches apart in the row, with rows about 3 feet apart. Mulch peppers with compost, straw or wood chips to prevent weeds from growing and to conserve water. Make sure mulch is kept off the stems. Water peppers with drip irrigation or soaker hoses when possible to keep the root zone moist. The root zone should be 6 inches deep. Consistent watering is critical for proper fruit set and development. If cultivating some of these varieties of super hot pepper, handle with care. Use gloves. When you get to sweating and wipe your eyes with the bare hand where you just picked a habanero pepper, you will regret it.

We have a fellow that comes into the office that we refer to as the Hot Pepper Guy and he has taken the growing and processing of hot peppers to a new level. He grows some of these peppers discussed with high Scoville units. He likes the flavor and dehydrates them and then grinds them up to use as a powder to add to his food. WARNING: Mr Hot Pepper Guy is super careful about how he processes these ridiculously hot chilis. He does his work outside and in a well-vented area. The dehydrator he uses has separate treys for each individual type of pepper. Each time he handles a pepper, he uses gloves. He said it only takes once to make the mistake of handling a pepper and rubbing a sensitive area on your body to remember that gloves are a good idea. When grinding the peppers into a powder, HPG only uses a chopper designated to hot peppers. Residuals will hang around and taint anything else you may want to grind. And only grind in an area that is well vented like outside. When these pepper flakes get airborne, you don’t want to be around. Especially if you live in the room next door.

Have fun with these super nuclear chilis, but please be careful.

Reach Campbell Vaughn, the agriculture and natural resources cooperative extension agent for Richmond County, by e-mailing