My (Hot) Chilli Guide


I quite often get asked questions such as “how many chillies should I put in this?”, “how hot is this chilli?” and “what’s the obsession with chillies?”. Here I hope to answer as many of those questions as I can.

I’m a massive chilli fan (read: addict), I’ve eaten a lot of them and the very thought of them makes me salivate. I think that latter point is the real indicator of a chilli-nut, possibly along with someone who considers a chilli ‘garnish’ with their cornflakes.

What makes a chilli hot?

The heat in chillies comes from a compound called capsaicin. The theory behind the production of capsaicin is that it helps protect the plant from predators, be it animal or fungi. When consumed, the capsaicin irritates the trigeminal nerves in the face. One thing to note is that unlike mustard, chilli doesn’t physically burn – it’s all in your head! (Birds aren’t sensitive to chilli as they don’t have the right receptors so will happily eat the hottest of the hot – admit it, your respect for pigeons has increased slightly!)

How is the heat measured?

The heat of a chilli is measured using a rating system called Scoville Heat Units (SHU), named after it’s inventor, Wilbur Scoville, who devised the system in 1912. It ranges from 0 to 16,000,000 (pure capsaicin) – further down you’ll see a table rating some examples. As a guide, 1ml of pure capsaicin would require 16 tonnes of water to dilute it to the point where you couldn’t taste it any more.

What makes chillies addictive?

When the trigeminal nerves in the face are irrated, they send pain signals to the brain which reacts by releasing endorphins, the body’s natural pain killer. The endorphins can induce a temporary euphoria, providing the chilli eater with a natural high. It’s this sensation that fuels the addiction and craving for ever hotter ‘hits’. Other reactions to chilli include sweating, increased heart-rate, increased saliva production, runny nose and an often memorable experience in the toilet the following day. I often know I’m eating something _hot_ when the hiccups kick in.

Chilli ratings

Here’s a table of various chillies, ranging from pure to barely noticable, which will hopefully give you an indicator of how much to use and what to aim for in your pursuit of chilli nirvana:

Scoville Heat Units (SHU) Examples Notes/Photo
15,000,000–16,000,000 Pure capsaicin Comes in a crystal form classed as ‘chilli extract’, you cannot get any hotter than this. These crystals are not soluble in water, they need to be mixed with a small amount of alcohol (usually Vodka) before adding to food. Can be purchased for as little as £35 for 7ml (here!). See ‘Darth Naga’ trying some here.
16 Million SHU Pure Capsaicin
8,600,000–9,100,000 Capsaicinoids (Homocapsaicin, Homodihydrocapsaicin, Nordihydrocapsaicin) These are irritant compounds.
6,000,000 Capsicum Oleorisin The chilli concentrate used in pepper spray (see below). I’ve started adding a few droplets to one portion of food – it’s pretty intense! Can be purchased for as little as £10 for 7ml (here!).
6 Million SHU Capsicum Oleorisin
5,000,000–5,300,000 Pepper Spray Also known as OC Spray (Oleoresin Capsicum). Yes, this is the spray used by police for riot situations and violent persons. It causes eye, skin and breathing irritation.
1,598,227 Dorset Naga Highest ever recorder SHU level for a chilli, Dorset Naga usually range from 661,451 to 1,032,310 SHU and are derived from the Bangladeshi Naga Morich chilli.
1,500,000 Yeh Wu Shun’s as yet unamed chilli Grown by Yeh Wu Shun, a Taiwanese farmer, he claims his lab has recorded this chilli at 1.5m SHU, the hottest chilli pepper known to man. He plans to get this record officially recognised in the autumn.
1,500,000 Da’ Bomb – The Final Answer Claimed to be the hottest chilli sauce in the world. Can be purchased here.
Da' Bomb - The Final Answer
1,463,700 Trinidad Scorpion Butch T Currently the world’s unofficial hottest chilli, grown in Australia by the Chilli Factory. Named after Butch Taylor, the person credited with growing the original chilli strain.
Trinidad Scorpion Butch T
1,382,118 Naga Viper The Guiness World Record holder as of February 25, 2011.
1,067,286 Infinity chilli The Guiness World Record holder as of February, 2011. A variety of the Dorset Naga, grown in Grantham, England.
~1,000,000 Dave’s Gourmet Ghost Pepper Naga Jolokia Hot Sauce One of my favourite sauces at the moment, hot and tasty. Can be purchased here.
Dave's Gourmet Ghost Pepper Naga Jolokia Hot Sauce
855,000–1,463,700 Bhut Jolokia/Naga Jolokia/Ghost Chili Traditionally known as one of the world’s hottest chillies, sitting around the 1 million SHU mark, approximately 400 times hotter than Tobasco sauce. I quite often add one of these dried to a pizza or chilli for myself and find the heat acceptable. Purchase here!
Naga Jolokia
350,000–577,000 Red Savina Habanero A selectively bred version of the Habanero Chilli.
100,000–350,000 Habanero Chilli, Scotch Bonnet Pepper, Piri-piri I’m a big fan of the Scotch Bonnet – good flavour and a reasonable, but not mind-blowing, heat.
180,000 Dave’s Gourmet Insanity Sauce A classic hot sauce favoured by many – in the grand scheme of things not very hot but a good starting point!
Dave's Gourmet Insanity Sauce
50,000–100,000 Bird’s Eye Bird’s Eye are probably my favourite chilli – often found in Indian cooking. They have an amazing flavour but pack an average heat, I’ll often chop up many of these to ‘garnish’ my food (using dried Naga to add real heat!).
Bird's Eye Chilli
30,000–50,000 Cayenne Pepper, Tobasco Pepper
10,000–23,000 Serrano Pepper
2,500–8,000 Jalapeño Pepper, Tobasco Sauce Jalapeños are one of the most popular type of chilli – often found pickled and on pizzas due to their nice taste and (very) moderate heat. Tobasco Sauce is a widely used sauce from the US made from Tobasco Peppers. Very mild but a good flavour. In relation to this table, after consuming any of these and concentrating hard you may feel a slight tingle at the back of your throat.
500–2,500 Peppadew Sweet and tasty but no real heat.
100–500 Pimento

Images copyright of respective owners.

What next?

Now you have a rough idea of where things rate in terms of heat, start trying them. Don’t jump in at the deep end though, you will regret it. I’d recommend starting low down the table (around 50,000–100,000 SHU) and working up. When you’re into the 1,000,000′s, I recommend trying my Chilli (Con Carne) with balls. Enjoy!

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