Pharmacologist Wilbur Scoville’s famous rating system, developed in 1912, started with a cocktail of powdered pepper extract dissolved in alcohol and mixed with sugar water. For each pepper, testers sipped a series of dilutions until they could no longer detect any burn. You’d think that they’d do it the other way around, adding pepper until it becomes noticeable, much like a hearing test in which you press a buzzer as soon as you hear a sound. That’s what Craig Dremman of the Redwood City Seed Co. did when he created his Craig Dremman’s Hotness Scale. His and Sue Dremman’s hot pepper offerings are a treasury of diversity.
Today, Scoville’s test is not much in use, even though his heat units still are. Pepper heat — which is fueled by compounds called capsaicins — is generally measured in a lab using high-performance liquid chromatography. The results are then translated into Scoville units, using a formula.
Johnny’s Selected Seeds (which lists an even split of 19 hot and 19 sweet) rates its hots with little red pepper symbols. For example, Red Hot Lantern, a habanero, earned five peppers for its “mouth-blistering heat.” I asked Johnny’s founder Rob Johnston to explain the rating system. His response: “Steve Bellavia, our trials manager, takes a bite. Janicka Eckert, our breeder, does, too. They consult.” Bellavia is a passionate pepper-lover whose palate is one to trust. So is your own, because taste is highly subjective.
Handle pepper fruits with caution, trying subsequently not to touch sensitive areas such as your eyes. I asked Paul W. Boseland, the illustrious pepper specialist at New Mexico State University, whether it’s true that all the heat is in the seeds and ribs, not the outer flesh. He said, “Only the placenta or ribs express the capsaicinoids; the seeds do not have heat. However, when cutting the chile pepper pod, the capsaicinoids can ‘splash’ on the seeds and fruit walls, making them hot.”
In case of injury, don’t try to wash the heat compounds away, because they are soluble not in water but in fat. Cream, alcohol, sugar and something cold will, together, ease the scorched tongue. Sounds like a job for a White Russian on the rocks, made with vodka, Kahlua and cream. Goes great with salsa.
Damrosch is a freelance writer and the author of “The Garden Primer.”
— Adrian Higgins