The capsicum species has a wide range of members with hundreds of known varieties spanning from sweet to very hot. Originally known as chilies, they were mistakenly renamed by Columbus thinking he found a source of black pepper; instead he brought to the New World red pepper or chile.
The name Capsicums comes from the fiery ingredient in peppers known as capsaicin, which gives the pepper all its heat. This heat is measured by the Scoville Heat Index invented by pharmacist Wilbur Scoville. It indicates how much sugar-water is necessary to cancel the burn on the tongue. For example, if a pepper is rated at 3,000 Scoville units, it takes 3,000 times the volume in sugar-water to neutralize the burn of the capsaicin.
Did you know? Hot peppers are beneficial in protection against peptic ulcer and gastrointestinal injury from aspirin. Capsaicin has antibacterial and anesthetic properties. It is also used as active ingredient in arthritis treatments. Peppers also have great nutritional value. Rich in vitamin A and C, they contain age-defying and disease fighting antioxidants. I know someone who loves hot peppers and never seems to get sick.
One of the hottest peppers known is the Red Savina. Closely-related to the Habanero (Scotch bonnets), it is a few hundred thousand units hotter that the average habanero. It measures a flaming 577,000 on the Scoville scale, 15 times hotter than a jalapeno 3,500-7,000 units). The McIlhenny Co. known for their Tabasco hot sauce uses Red Savina as their main ingredient in their Habanero hot pepper sauce.
A new member to upstage the Red Savina is the thumb size chili pepper from northeast India called bhut jolokia the “ghost chili”. It measures more than 1 million Scoville units! According to Guiness World Records, it is the hottest chili in the world. Wheew! that’s one spicy chili!
In general, the bigger the pepper the milder it will be, the smaller the hotter. Nutrients increase as the pepper ripens but decrease with cooking. The redder a sweet pepper is, the sweeter it will be. With hot peppers, the riper (redder) the hotter they will be. Most of the heat (capsaicin) is concentrated in the ribs and seeds.
Take care when handling hot peppers.
Wear rubber gloves. Don’t touch your eyes or sensitive areas. Wash cutting surface and utensils with hot soapy water.
If you have an unexpected encounter with ingesting a hot pepper, don’t go for the water. It will just distribute the heat. Capsaicin is soluble in fat and alcohol, not water. Drink beer or better milk or yogurt to ease the burn.