Hot foods are getting hotter. And it’s not lessening up. Peppers are being bred to become violently hot. Even typically non-spicy foods have received the hot treatment, from Sriracha potato chips and beer to the Ghost Pepper fries at Wendy’s. There’s even a documentary about Sriracha now. In our spicy guide, we’re going to track the history of the chile pepper—the source of quality spice the world over—why it’s so darn hot, and how that little chile gave rise to the hottest hot sauces in the world.
The popularity of extra spicy foods may be heating up right now, but chiles, the crop responsible for heat, has been a staple of the human diet for several thousand years.
Hot foods are a genuine global phenomenon, reaching across multiple continents and cultures. But many of these cuisines have a shared origin: Bolivia. Chiles were initially found only in the Americas and have been part of the human diet since at least 7,500 B.C. They are known to have been consumed by the Mayans, Incas and Aztecs.
Nowadays, we associate extreme spice with cuisines as far ranging as Ethiopian, Senegalese, Thai, Chinese, Mexican and Indian, just to name a few, and many different types of chiles continue to be bred and cultivated around the world.
The word “chile” comes from the Aztec language, referring to the pepper.
It wasn’t until Columbus’s 1492 voyage to the Americas that the chile’s journey would ultimately begin to travel eastward and subsequently to both Asia and Africa. When Columbus first encountered the chiles he thought they were black pepper; and so, he called them “red peppers.” We have Columbus’s mistake to thank for this misnomer, of calling a chile a pepper.
Within a hundred years, chiles had spread throughout the world and became an integral part of food cultures everywhere. They began as an ornamental plant in Spanish monasteries before even being used for culinary purposes. Monks then spurred on their use as an everyday spice when they discovered chiles were a good alternative to black pepper, which was, at the time, a luxury spice only accessible to the rich.
Although chiles are not peppers at all, since then, these terms have been used interchangeably. Chile, chili, paprika, aji, and pepper can technically all refer to the same thing. Depending on who you are talking to, they could get very offended if you spell “chile” (the plant) like “chili” (the state dish of Texas).
What makes it spicy?
The "heat-level" of any pepper depends on the levels of capsaicinoids—lots of capsaicinoids equals lots of heat.
All chiles come from the same species of plant, the Capsicum Annum. The primary source of spiciness in chiles comes from several chemicals, all of which are called capsaicinoids; the most well known among them being capsaicin.
Then, like any crop harvested for consumption, weather conditions, growing conditions, and age can all affect the heat of the fruit.
What’s that burning feeling?
Capsaicinoids bind themselves to receptors on the tongue that are uniquely evolved to detect heat or abrasion. Signals are then sent to the brain tricking it into thinking it is experiencing a chemical burn. This heat can range in different varieties from incredibly mild or sweet (like the bell pepper) to physically burn-inducing (like pepper spray).
How hot is hot?
The oldest, and most iconic, measure that is used to rate the intensity of heat for chile peppers and hot sauce is called the Scoville Organoleptic Test. The test was developed by the American chemist Wilbur Scoville in 1912 to measure the pungency, or heat, of chile peppers. The test is measured in Scoville Heat Units (SHUs).
Here’s how a test would work: A panel of five representatives are given an extract from a pepper in question. With each taste, it would be diluted with sugar water until none of the panelists would be able to taste the heat. The degree of dilution is the number of units the pepper or hot sauce would rate on the Scoville scale.
For example, a common Jalapeno pepper has Scoville Scale rating of anywhere between 2,000 and 8,000 SHU. A habanero pepper, in contrast, has a rating of anywhere between 100,000 and 350,000 SHU. Tabasco hot sauce, 7,000 - 8,000 SHU. Sriracha, 2,200 SHU. Individual peppers can often test hotter than its average heat, hence the wide margin of difference.
FACTS about pepper
Generally, the heat itself resides in the membrane or placenta of the pepper, and not, as is popularly thought, in the seeds.
Did you eat just have too much hot sauce? Don’t drink water. Capsaicinoids are hydrophobic. In the same way, oil won’t mix with water, water will not mix with capsaicinoids. It will just spread them out over the tongue. You need milk, peanut butter, or anything fatty.
Pepper Spray actually has a Scoville Scale rating of 2,000,000 - 5,000,000
Ironically, capsaicin is actually used as a pain reliever through a chemical process that results in the de-sensitizing sensory receptors in your skin
The Ghost Pepper was actually weaponized and tested for grenades in India
Although this test is still the most common way to talk about the intensity of heat, since the 1970s the less subjective High-Performance Liquid Chromatography [HPLC] test has begun to be used to test chiles as well. The test is considered more accurate since it doesn’t rely on human taste buds. Rather, it measures the capsaicin content directly.
Back to the present:
the superhot chile pepper
Within the last ten years, a trend towards breeding the hottest possible peppers possible has emerged.
The first “superhot” pepper, a designation on the Scoville scale rating of 1,000,000 SHU, was first bred in 2000. That pepper, the Bhut Jolokia, or “Ghost Pepper,” only reached western countries years later; in 2007, it was named the hottest pepper in the world by the Guinness Book of World Records. (Since then, its title has been usurped by other peppers.)
It wasn’t long before another pepper came along to usurp the ghost pepper’s position as the hottest. However, due to its initially viral spread through popular culture (in particular, YouTube videos of people taking the so-called ‘ghost pepper challenge’), many people still believe it is the hottest pepper in the world. The Bhut Jolokia can be said to be the one pepper that really got the ball rolling in the domain of insanely hot peppers.
Since the introduction of the ghost pepper into the world of hot foods there has been a veritable windfall of superhot peppers around the world. It’s as if that the moment it was discovered it was conceivable for peppers to be cultivated to be that hot, the rest of the world took it on as a challenge.
The designation of the hottest pepper in the world is complicated. While the Scoville scale and the HPLC tests are both used to classify heat there is often a lack of consensus on how exactly to implement them universally.
It was only a few years ago, that the Chile Pepper Institute, which is considered at the forefront of chile pepper studies and research, conducted the first-ever scientific study comparing so-called super hot varieties of chiles to each other. This is super important: until then, there was no other other “official” source for rating a pepper’s piquancy. And online, you can find just about anybody stating they have the newest, hottest pepper based on some dubious rating. The debate continues to rage about what peppers are the hottest and what the specific criteria should be even, in spite of official claims. The top two hottest peppers in the world still continue to garner controversy.
As of now the presumed hottest pepper in the world. It’s bright, hellish red exterior could make someone sweat just by looking at it. They look like gaping leprosied alien maws with sinuous pointy tongues lurching out of them descended upon earth to destroy the taste buds of the human race. This top spot is not without its controversy. The reaper was developed by South Carolinian “Smokin’” Ed Currie of the Puckerbutt Pepper Companyin 2013. According to the Guinness Book of World Records it has an average scoville scale rating of 1,569,300 Scoville Heat Units (SHU). However, it has been purported to achieve ratings over 2.2 million for individual peppers. Ironically, it was from trying to cultivate a sweet pepper that this helloid was unleashed upon the world. Chemotherapy patients can’t taste anything but sweet and so when he was trying to develop something they’d be able to taste he accidentally created the reaper. Still, there are many people who don’t consider it the hottest since its average heat is still considered unstable.
Trinidad Moruga Scorpion
More than 1,200,000 SHU
Named after the Moruga district of Trinidad & Tobago, where it originates. When the Chile Pepper Institute conducted its first superhot study, the Moruga Scorpion came out on top. There are some that still believe it is still the most consistently hot pepper in the world. When the institute conducted its study it achieved a rating of more than 1.2 million SHU. During the study, the capsaicin content was so high that it kept burning through the latex of the handler’s gloves. As of now, depending on where you look online, the Moruga is able to reach a Scoville rating of over two million SHU.
7 Pot Douglah
To just drive the point home how close these comparisons can get, the 7 Pot’s highest recorded heat is actually higher than the mean heat of the Moruga. However, it’s mean heat was just below the Moruga at 1.70 SHU.
Despite its namesake, the pepper has its origins in Australia and was developed by a company called the Chili Factory. Butch Taylor is the name of the person who originally discovered the strain that ultimately lead to the pepper that yielded a 1,463,700 SHU rating. When he discovered a variation of a pod seed while cultivating another strain he kept the pot and used it to create a new one. The provenance of this particular seed is particularly convoluted and involves seeds being distributed and purchased through different companies and online forums. It exemplifies just how complicated this process of creating your own peppers can become. Although Butch Taylor originated the strain it wasn’t until the Chili Factory purchased seeds from the Hippie Seed Company that it achieved its highest levels of heat.
and hot sauce
Although chile peppers can reach absurd levels of heat that can cause people to hallucinate and/or vomit, their Scoville scale ratings are nothing compared to what some hot sauces can achieve. Hot sauce is a completely different beast with its own share of insane individuals trying to oneup each other for honor of most mouth burning food in the entire world. Scoville scale ratings designations appear to be difficult to verify, however.
Hot sauce has a documented history that can be traced all the way back to the 19th century with Tabasco made from the pepper originating in Louisiana from which the sauce’s name was derived. (However, sauces such as Tabasco never achieved a Scoville rating higher than a few thousand units.)
While the “superhot” designation for peppers has only been around for a little less than ten years, superhot sauces have been around much much longer. In a Reddit AMA in 2012, Dave Hirschkop, founder of Dave’s Gourmet Fiery Foods, says he started the trend over twenty years ago with a line of insanity sauces. He claims begun selling the hot sauces as a restaurateur to mess with drunk patrons late at night when they caused a fuss. Eventually they left or stopped coming altogether.
These days when looking on sites that track the quantified heat of hot sauces it look like it’s become kind of an unfair fight. Of the top 20 spots only four brands are represented and of those four brands, Blair’s holds the eight top most spots and eleven of them overall.
Although Blair’s is the highest rated edible substance on the scale, the highest rated chemical is resiniferatoxin. It is a naturally occurring chemical in a Moroccan cactus known as the Euphorbia poissonii.
It comes in at a whopping 16,000,000,000 SHU on the Scoville Scale. It will literally kill someone if it is consumed. And if it doesn’t kill them, it will ruin their taste buds forever.
The one thing all the hot sauces in the top spots of the hot sauce Scoville Scale is that many of them aren’t really even sauces in the strictest sense of the word—they’re extracts. The primary reason Blair’s holds the top spot on pretty much every list that can be found online is because it is capsaicum in its purest form extracted from a pepper and turned into a powder. It literally can’t get hotter than that. Many of the other sauces are so-called extract sauces as well. Some are just diluted in oil to make it a liquid while many do indeed hew closer to what could be called a sauce. Extracts can’t be consumed directly since they are way too hot for the human mouth to handle. They’re mostly used as food additives to increase the heat of a recipe without compromising the flavor. Which is also the major issue with extracts as well: even if there is flavor present in the sauce it is impossible to detect because the heat from the extract overpowers it.
Another issue that complicates calling anything the ‘hottest in the world’ is that many of the claims are unverifiable and often times outright lies. It’s practically impossible to trace the provenance of many of the listed scores online. It’s very difficult to whittle down a list of hottest hot sauce for this reason. There are just SO many hot sauce brands and almost as many claiming to have created the hottest sauce ever to exist anywhere that would even make the devil himself cry.
So the only real way to verify the heat of a sauce is to taste it yourself or consult an expert for their opinion.
Below is a list of extracts and non-extract hot sauces that can at least be considered in contention for the hottest stuff in existence.
Blair’s 16 Million Reserve
Deriving its name from the bafflingly high Scoville rating of sixteen million it is pure capsaicin crystals in a bottle. It is the actual pure chemical in powdered form. This is like the crystal meth of hot foods. It could actually burn a person’s skin if it came in contact with it. Produced over ten years ago it can’t actually be dethroned since as of now sixteen million is considered the hottest capsaicin can get in its purest form. Only 999 bottles of the stuff were ever made and as of now they can go for over 700 dollars on ebay. The limited edition item sits in a vial wedged inside a bottle sealed with white and golden wax making it look more like a mantel piece than actual hot sauce. Indeed, it’s not farfetched to imagine most people who own them probably don’t even eat it, but instead put them on their mantels to show guests what the devil himself looks like. In fact.
Texas Creek’s Pure Evil 9.6mil Capsaicin Drops
Once again, not even sauce per se, but vials full of drops. As their site states, there isn’t any flavor and it is pure heat. The difference between this, and the aforementioned Blair’s Reserve is the fact that the capsaicin here is diluted with water and alcohol among other ingredients so it can be dropletted into / onto food thus reducing its Scoville rating only slightly. All kidding aside, one of the primary reasons something like this or Blair’s would be used at all is if someone wanted to add heat to their food without augmenting the flavor they had already established.
Culley’s Fire Water
Like many hot sauces with an extreme heat its recipe uses more than one type of chile to contribute to its bite. A mix of both Carolina Reaper and the Trinidad Scorpion Butch T’s went into this limited edition New Zealand sourced sauce. A mix of New Zealand white wine vinegar and Mexican tequila add to its flavor. Only 666 were ever made.
Torchbearer’s The Rapture / Trinidad Scorpion Pepper Sauce
The description on Torchbearer’s site starts with the hyperbolic claim that it is the hottest natural sauce in the world. Although these claims are made all of the time it is hard to argue when the sauce has sixteen Scorpion chiles per bottle. Following the trend of associating things that are spicy with the devil, this sauce supposedly has 66.6% pepper content.