The Washington Post
The Scoville scale has flamed out
What was state of the art in 1912 has mostly fallen by the wayside. Cars have replaced horses. Washing machines have replaced washboards. Air travel, refrigeration and container shipping have transformed the way we live — and that’s before we even get to the internet.
So why, oh why, on God’s green Earth are we still measuring chile pepper heat on the Scoville scale?
Of all the units that measure all the things, Scoville heat units have got to be the most antediluvian. This is in no way a diss of Wilbur Scoville, the pharma
cist who came up with this way of measuring pepper pungency back in, yes, 1912. And in 1912, it was genius.
Here’s how it works: Take a pepper, dry it, and dissolve it in alcohol. Then, start diluting it with sugar water. Keep diluting it until three of a panel of five humans — yes, humans — can no longer taste the heat. If you have to dilute one unit of capsaicin-infused alcohol with 10,000 units of sugar water for the pepper’s flavor to be undetectable, that pepper rates 10,000 on the Scoville scale.
It was a great system, because humans turn out to be very good at detecting capsaicin.
But they’re not nearly as good as high-performance liquid chromatographs.
The heat in peppers comes from a group of chemical compounds called capsaicinoids. The most common is capsaicin, so we generally use that as shorthand for the heat-producing element, but there are lots of others.
And here’s the thing about capsaicinoids: We can measure them. Without diluting them in gallons of sugar water. Without assembling a panel of humans who have different perceptions of heat and palates that get fatigued pretty easily. Detecting capsaicin is absolutely, positively a job for a machine.
“Humans differ. We vary in our taste buds and receptors,” Paul Bosland told me, “but with a machine, we can measure very accurately.”
Bosland, now retired, studied chiles at New Mexico State University, and his name is so closely tied to capsaicin that, when the school raised
$1 million to endow a professorship devoted to pepper research, officials named it after him. ( The gifts official at the school, when explaining that the interest on the money will pay the professor’s salary, said,
“That is to ensure that we will have chile research eternally.”)
The machine in question is that high-performance liquid chromatograph (HPLC), which can separate the capsaicinoids from the other components in the pepper and tell you just how many there are in parts per million (PPM). No taste buds required.
This is not a secret in the food industry, where machines are widely used and panels of tasters are mostly a thing of the past. Although an HPLC will set you back some $50,000 to $70,000, once you have it, the testing is only about $100 a sample, according to Bosland. Try recruiting a panel of five humans for that price!
Pure capsaicin, in parts per million, is 1 million PPM. One PPM translates to 16 Scoville units, so that scale tops out at 16 million. The Carolina Reaper, one of the very hottest peppers going, comes in at 2.2 million Scoville, but there’s an entire subculture devoted to growing — and eating — superhot peppers, so an even hotter variety could come along any day now.
For the rest of us, the peppers we’re likely to encounter run the gamut. Jalapeños generally come in at 4,000-8,000. Hungarian hot wax peppers are in the 5,000-10,000 range. Serranos are 10,000-25,000, and habaneros, the hottest peppers most of us are likely to cook with, start around 100,000 and can top 300,000.
And those ranges are maddening. You can grow the same kind of pepper in the same field and get different heat levels depending on environment, weather and ripeness. If it’s a different cultivar, and you’re growing it in a different place, it’s capsaicin content chaos! When you’re trying to manufacture a food that’s supposed to taste the same every time, that’s inconvenient. Manufacturers are used to this, Bosland told me, and will use a combination of peppers to get the heat level they want.
The capsaicin content doesn’t tell you everything, of course. Peppers also have what Bosland calls a heat profile. “When you take a bite, how fast does the heat come on? Is there a delay? How long does that linger? Where do you sense it — at the tip of your tongue? At the back of your throat? And is it a sharp or flat heat? Sharp is like pins sticking you, and flat is like a paint brush on your tongue.”
And then there’s flavor. With a very hot pepper, it’s hard to taste past the heat, but peppers have fruity and earthy and smoky flavors, too. When Old El Paso wanted jalapeño’s flavor, but not its capsaicin, to blend into its products, Bosland was able to grow a heatless jalapeño — and it won him the 1999 Ig Nobel Prize in biology, he told me with a laugh. (Ig Nobel Prizes, parodies of the Nobel Prizes, honor achievements that make people laugh, think, roll their eyes or scratch their heads.)
Now that we’ve covered the basics of peppers, let’s go back to the original question: When we can measure parts per million, why are we still using Scoville heat units? For starters, the food chain is actually measuring capsaicin in PPM, so what’s the point of converting it to a horse-and-buggy-era scale? Then there’s the fact that, by multiplying PPM by 16 to get Scoville units, you make the ratings even more counterintuitive than PPM; 10,000 sounds like a lot, but it’s actually just a little. There’s got to be a better way.
Allow me to propose an alternative. A simple 1-to-10 heat scale, based on the capsaicin content of the chile peppers most of us encounter. Let’s use habaneros to anchor the top end of the scale (and superhot peppers can be over 10). Poblanos are a 1. Jalapeños are a 2, and so on, in a perfectly understandable, simple scale based on a number we can measure.
I thought this was a genius, original idea until I went to the Scoville scale website and saw that it breaks peppers down exactly this way.
I believe what’s preventing this simple, 1-to-10 scale from catching on is the lack of a good name. Scoville was on to something when he decided to name his scale after himself, so I’m going to take a page from his book. Since I’m not getting any younger, and opportunities for immortality are thin on the ground, I think we should name this scale after me.
From this day forward, pepper heat will be measured in Haspels. A habanero is a 10Haspel pepper. Old El Paso will make sure its salsa rolls in at 1.8 Haspels. I will be on the signs in the pepper sections of all the grocery stores. This is particularly appropriate since Haspels measure a substance that can, in quantity, be pretty irritating.
You’re with me. I know you are.
Our theme this week is to look for great value in wine by overcoming your preconceptions. Look for an importer’s or store’s private labels. And be receptive to alternative packaging, such as boxed wines or half-bottles. — Dave Mcintyre
GREAT VALUE Rubus Private Selection White Wine Verdejo 2021
Rueda, Spain, $15
Here’s a pro tip: Ask your independent retailer about privatelabel wines. In some jurisdictions, such as Washington, D.C., a store may be allowed to “direct import” wines at a savings over the regular distribution channel. (Cutting out the middleman, as it were.) Some retailers work with importers to bring in exclusive wines available only at their store. Importers often have sources for good-quality bulk wine, or surplus wine from their clients, which they bottle under their own label and sell at a value price. If you look for a particular importer’s name on the back label, don’t ignore it on the front. Rubus is the private label of Kysela Père et Fils, an importer based in Winchester, Va. Don’t think geographically — these wines are sourced from around the world. I’ve especially enjoyed Rubus old vine zinfandel from Lodi, Calif., and shiraz from Australia. This Rueda from Spain is a racy white, with flavors of apricot, jasmine and honeysuckle, a garden in a glass. It’s the first Rubus I’ve
seen with the “Private Selection” designation, suggesting importer Fran Kysela’s excitement for the wine. I share his enthusiasm. Kudos on the light bottle. Alcohol by volume: 13 percent. Bottle weight: 400 grams (Light).
Imported and distributed locally by Kysela Père et Fils ( kysela.com).
GREAT VALUE Really Good Boxed Wine Cabernet Sauvignon 2019
Paso Robles, Calif., $70 3-liter
I wrote about this label when it debuted late last year as a mailorder-only line. That debut prompted some wineries to experiment with the boxed format for premium wines. Now, after
several additional releases, Really Good Boxed Wine has limited retail availability (in D.C., at Calvert Woodley). This is the equivalent of $17.50 for a bottle of excellentquality cabernet from Paso Robles, a region in Central California that positions itself as an affordable alternative to glitzy Napa Valley. This is a warm-climate cabernet, so look for flavors of black cherry, baking spice, and a hint of praline or toffee. There’s good acidity to balance and just a hint of ripe tannins on the finish, though certainly not enough to suggest aging the wine. It’s for now. In this format, it’s for travel, for parties, for “just another sip” as you clean up after dinner. A notable advantage of the boxed format is its lower carbon footprint (about half) compared with four bottles. There is also a delicious rosé of pinot noir from Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley, and the current online release is a pinot noir from the exciting San Luis Obispo Coast region. Certified SIP Sustainable. ABV: 14.5 percent. BW: No bottle! Available from Really Good Boxed Wine ( reallygoodboxedwine.com). Available locally at Calvert Woodley ( calvertwoodley.com).
Champagne Pierre Gimonnet & Fils Cuis 1er Cru Brut Blanc de Blancs
Champagne, France, $38 for 375ml, $65 for 750ml
I’m a big fan of half-bottles, for restaurants and at home. They are ideal for a first-course wine or, as with this outstanding champagne, a celebration for two to begin a meal. Unfortunately, half-bottles are not economically attractive for wineries, so we don’t see very many of them. This beautiful wine hails from Champagne’s Côte des Blancs, a chalky area where chardonnay achieves a special sparkle and finesse. Look for hints of peach, chalk and citrus blossom over a yeasty, toasty bead of bubbles. ABV: 12.5 percent. BW: (half-bottle sampled).
Imported by Skurnik Wines ( skurnik.com). Distributed locally by Prestige-ledroit Distributing Co. ( prestigeledroit.com).
Prices are approximate. For availability, check Wine.com, Winesearcher.com, and the websites of the wineries, importers or distributors.