Illustration of Scoville scale

1912 Scoville scale

The book of science

Tom Sharp

Wilbur Scoville food science Illustration of Scoville scale

Scoville scale

Tabasco sauce is pungent, between two and a half and five thousand Scoville heat units. A jalapeño pepper is spicy, between one and ten thousand Scoville heat units. A habanero chili pepper is even hotter, between one and four hundred thousand Scoville heat units. Your eyes water, you sweat, you’re in pain, and it grows worse the longer it stays in your mouth. Wilbur Scoville dissolved dried pepper in alcohol and progressively diluted smaller amounts with sugar water. The Scoville unit is the number of cups of sugar water that it takes until a panel of tasters can not detect the heat in it. Today, food scientists measure the number of parts per million of capsaicinoids in a pepper and multiply that by 16 to get the Scoville heat unit.

Heat agents

Chili pepper contains capsaicin and other capsaicinoids. Black pepper contains piperine. Sichuan pepper contains hydroxy alpha sanshool. Ginger contains gingerol. Cinnamon contains cinnamaldehyde. Horseradish, mustard, and wasabi contain glucosinolates. One advantage of an organoleptic test is that it could give a fair rating for any hot substance; however, the Scoville scale was designed and is used only for peppers that contain capsaicinoids.

Organoleptic test

The first bite tests only the breadth. It doesn’t shine much of a light. What would it do on its own? How would it work with a variety of experiences, hot or cold, sweet and savory, nobody can tell without rapelling into its infernal depths.

I like spicy dishes, but I am particularly happy to eat sushi with large dollups of wasabi. I get the thrilling shock in my mouth and up my nasal passages. It stings and my eyes water, but the sensation dissipates quickly without having even temporarily destroyed my ability to taste the next bite. A very hot chili pepper, however, painfully lingers and numbs my taste buds. The reason for the difference is that chili pepper heat is oil-based, but wasabi heat is not.

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