Written by: Amanda Csolak for Spice Station Silverlake
Many people throughout the world love spicy food. Countries around the globe serve meals flavored with hot peppers. There are literally hundreds of various types of hot peppers available today, from the mild Jalapeno to the fiery hot Carolina Reaper. But which peppers rank the hottest? In this article, I’ll break down the science that ranks the hottest peppers out there, and we will discuss the current top three hottest of the hot peppers in the world and how you can incorporate them into your cooking, if you dare.
What Makes A Pepper Hot?
You may find yourself wondering how some hot peppers get so well… hot! The answer is capsaicin (pronounced “cap-SAY-a-sin”). This chemical is found in nearly all plants in the Capsicum family. The only type of pepper in this family that does not contain any capsaicin is the Bell Pepper.
Peppers of the Capsicum family range in levels of tickle-your-tongue mildness to the kind of spicy heat that will have you reaching for that tall glass of cold milk, unless of course, you have some hot pepper superpower, like my brother. He loves them so much he grows and makes his own hot sauce. I truly think he could eat any pepper out there without any trouble.
But which pepper ranks the hottest and what determines which pepper is spicier than others?
The Scoville Heat Units Scale
Determining which hot pepper is the absolute hottest of them all, can be challenging. With so many different types of spicy peppers being produced by dedicated pepper farmers, its no wonder that the list of the hottest is continuously evolving.
How these peppers are ranked involves measuring the capsaicin levels through the Scoville Scale in Scoville Heat Units (SHUs). This scale was created in 1912 by Wilbur Scoville. Back in his time, Wilbur, an employee of a pharmaceutical company, technology of the day was not up to the task to lab test peppers, so Wilbur relied on taste tests to rank peppers level of spiciness. Using alcohol, Wilbur Scoville would add powder made of dried hot peppers and allow it to sit, creating an extract he would then mix with sugar water. Offering the concoction to willing participants, he would slowly alter the amount of sugar water in the solution in small, specific amounts until those testing the drink could no longer detect any heat.
This test was known as the Scoville Organoleptic Test, and its ratings used to be determined by how diluted the pepper-sugar water solution had to be in order for the heat to no longer be detected by those brave enough to test the concoction. The number of times the solution was diluted to cause the level of heat to disappear was named Scoville Heat Units or SHUs.
In the 1980’s, this dated method of testing capsaicin levels was replaced by what’s known as high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) to assign a Scoville ranking. The problem is this form of testing is expensive and cannot be performed without expertly trained operators. Even more so, some will argue the HPLC is not perfect, as it only measures Scoville heat units and not the flavor of the pepper, something that can only be tested through tasting the pepper itself.
Other SHU measuring tests like, colorimetry, have similar issues. More currently, some labs have begun using electrochemical tests which have shown proof of being fairly accurate.
My Spicy Story
My love for all things spicy didn’t begin until I was in my thirties. As a child I couldn’t tolerate so much as a small amount of black pepper on my food. I enjoyed eating flavorful foods that didn’t leave my tongue feeling tingly, but as I matured so did my palette.
Growing up in the 1990’s, my family, like many others sat down around the dining table to eat dinner together. I remember sitting across from my younger brother and watching as he eagerly added copious amounts of hot sauce to his food. As he grew older, his passion for hot peppers grew and he started growing his own peppers. In 2012 he received a blue ribbon at the North Carolina State Fair for his hot sauce. That blue ribbon win fueled his passion for hot peppers even more, and today his hot sauce, Mythical Inferno, is available online.
Truth be told, it was my brother’s love for hot peppers that sparked my interest in spicy foods. Since I grew up avoiding any foods flavored with capcacin, I never thought I would enjoy spicy foods seasoned with the hottest of peppers. But when my brother first made his prize winning hot sauce and he asked me to try it, I did not want to disappoint him. He had worked so hard to create it, from growing and harvesting the peppers, to creating the sauce and canning it himself. I’ll never forget being handed the toothpick with a drop of sauce on it. It was very spicy but was also smokey and full of flavor. It is still my favorite hot sauce, and I’m not just saying that because he’s family. If you were to open my kitchen spice cabinet you would see three different varieties of his sauce there because it’s just that good.
The World’s Hottest Peppers
Hot peppers, long celebrated for their zest and heat, continue to push boundaries, challenging chiliheads with escalating Scoville heat units (SHUs), the accepted measure of a pepper’s piquancy. The former champion of this spicy arena, the Ghost pepper (Bhut Jolokia), once held held the Guinness World Record, peaking at over 1 million SHUs. The Ghost pepper gained so much popularity in its hey day that many people think it still reigns as king of all peppers, but that simply isn’t the case anymore. Fact is, the recent years have seen a surge in Capsicum cultivations has introduced a new league of superhot peppers that have far surpassed the Ghost pepper in terms of spice and heat. The Ghost pepper actually was knocked from its top spot back in 2011, superseded by the Trinidad Scorpion Butch T pepper and later the Carolina Reaper in 2013. The list ranking the world’s hottest peppers is continuously evolving, so much so, that there is confusion, even among some chiliheads, as to which pepper is number one. Finding an accurate, updated list of the world’s hottest peppers is challenging. This is in part thanks to the passion of pepper growers across the globe who are continuously striving to achieve higher Scoville heat units (SHUs) and thus outdo their competitors.
Additionally, the validation process for determining the ranking adds an extra layer of complexity. As an example, the Guinness World Records employ rigorous testing and verification methods to ensure the accuracy and authenticity of their records. They take into account both the average and peak SHUs of a pepper variety, and these tests can be time-consuming and require a considerable amount of resources. Consequently, a lag often occurs between the creation of a hotter pepper variety and its official recognition. Therefore, while resources and pepper heat indexes do exist, maintaining absolute up-to-date accuracy in such a fast-paced, ever-evolving field is indeed a demanding task.
While I may not identify as a “chilihead” in the formal sense, I like to think of myself as more of a spicy foodie. Since my first taste of Mythical Inferno hot sauce, my palate has been inclined towards the robust and fiery symphony of flavors that are intrinsic to spicy cuisine. But when it came to the intricate hierarchy of the world’s hottest peppers, I realized that my knowledge wasn’t entirely up-to-date. I can be a bit of a perfectionist, and the last thing I wanted to do was give false information. So, who better to turn to than a confirmed chilihead? That’s where my brother comes in – a veritable encyclopedia of all things pepper. I enlisted his help to ensure the data I’d be sharing was both current and factual. With his deep-seated passion for these scorching wonders, he was more than up for the task, providing an up-to-the-minute list that would put any chilihead’s knowledge to the test.
So which peppers rank the hottest today, and what is their SHUs rating? Let’s dive into the facts.
- Pepper X – Ranking in with a whopping 3,180,000 SHUs, Pepper X holds the title as the number one hottest pepper as of July 2023, and comes from a name many chiliheads are familiar with. A South Carolina man by the name of Ed Currie, who gained chilihead king status back in 2013 when he cultivated the well known Carolina Reaper. His newest pepper resulted from several cross breedings, knocking his previous champion down in addition to the pepper that now holds the number two spot.
- Dragon’s Breath – Holding the second place spot is the fiery Dragon’s Breath pepper. With 2,480,000 SHUs, this pepper hails from the United Kingdom. Grown by Mike Smith out of St Asaph, Denbigshire, Wales. Fun fact, this insanely hot pepper was created unintentionally. Mike Smith simply sought to create an attractive pepper plant, and while he didn’t win any awards at the Chelsea Flower Show, his plant did win the Scoville heat unit list’s number two spot.
- Carolina Reaper Vs. Komodo Dragon – Who ranks third in hot peppers is currently a hot topic among chiliheads. The former king of hot peppers, the Carolina Reaper, currently ranks number three on the hot pepper SHUs, list but maybe it has met its match? Hatched in the UK, the Komodo Dragon pepper, which varies in intensity with between 1,400,00 and 2,200,000 Scoville heat units is equal in intensity to the former Guniess World Record champion.
Making Flavorful Foods With The World’s Hottest Peppers
If you’re looking to add a spicy kick of hot peppers to you’ve come to the right place. Incorporating the world’s hottest chilli peppers into your recipes adds depth that is hard to match, the rich spicy heat isn’t the only element hot peppers bring to the kitchen, they are full of flavor too. Many have a fruity, perhaps a bit of a citrus-like flavor to them. However, before you begin dicing up that super hot pepper, there are some important things you need to know to help keep yourself safe. The world’s hottest peppers can invite amazing flavor and fiery heat to your meals, but if not handled properly you may end up feeling like you’re the one on fire.
- Practice Food Safety – The capsaicin inside the hot peppers, the chemical responsible for the spicy punch they pack, is an oil and it will stick to your skin. When working with hot peppers, it is best to wear rubber gloves to protect your skin. For the world’s hottest peppers you may even need protective eye wear and a mask to protect your lungs from this chemical as its released into the air when the pepper is cut into. Your family will want to steer clear of the kitchen during this step unless they too have masks, as it can be quite difficult to breath around without one.
- Dilution – If you’re just beginning to experiment with the world’s hottest peppers than I suggest starting small. Say if you were making a big pot of chili, you can use half of the pepper to start and add more later on if you would like. If you accidentally add too much, and a small taste makes your taste buds melt off, than add more tomato sauce to help dilute the heat.
- Remove the Pepper Insides – One way you can lessen the heat to any pepper is by removing the seeds and inner membrane of the pepper. The fact is that the majority of the capsaicin found in these super hot peppers resides within the whitish membrane inside the pepper. However, keep in mind that removing this membrane along with the seeds, will not remove the heat completely from the world’s hottest peppers.
- Considering Flavors – Its no secret that the world’s hottest peppers pack an extra punch of heat but it may surprise you to learn that they have flavor too. I personally love the complex flavors they bring to any dish. Many have a fruity, citrus-like taste that complement practically anything. Hot peppers can be used in soups, salads, casseroles, salsas, sauces and even fruit dishes.
Shopping For The World’s Hottest Peppers
Browsing Spice Station Silverlake’s site is like taking a wild ride through the world of spices—it’s honestly a whole vibe. They’ve got everything—a crazy variety of flavors and aromas, from your everyday spices to those rare, elusive ones that you don’t just find anywhere. For the spice thrill-seekers like me, their ‘World’s Hottest Peppers’ section is the real deal. You start easy with
the modest heat of a Jalapeno and then whoa—right up to the Carolina Reaper, which is basically like eating fire. Navigating their site is a breeze, and their customer service? Top-notch. For me, when it comes to shopping for spices, Spice Station Silverlake is my personal spice haven.
The BEST Sweet & Spicy Beef Jerky
This jerky brings both a spicy punch and a simple, sweet taste to the table that will leave your chilihead friends and family asking for more!
- 10 lbs eye of round or top round beef trim off fat
- 2 tbsp crushed red pepper
- 2 tbsp onion powder
- 2 tbsp garlic powder
- 4 tsp black pepper
- 5 habanero peppers or jalapenos for milder version
- 2 cups low sodium soy sauce
- 2 cups brown sugar
- 1/2 cup Worcestershire sauce
- 2/3 cup balsamic vinegar
- 1/2 cup fresh orange juice
- 1/2 cup fresh grapefruit juice
- 1 tbsp liquid smoke
- 2 tbsp crushed red pepper
- If your beef isn’t pre sliced, partially freeze it for about 1 hour. Slice it against the grain about 1/4 inch thick, or you can ask your butcher to slice it for you when you purchase it. Trim off as much fat as you can.
- Combine the garlic powder, onion powder, and black pepper. If you have an empty seasoning jar with holes to shake out the seasoning, I highly recommend using this as it will be much easier to evenly season the beef slices.
- Season both sides of the beef slices with the seasoning mix. Refrigerate for at least 4 hours and up to 8 hours.
- Mix all the marinade ingredients except the habaneros and crushed red pepper.
- Blend the habaneros and 2 tbsp crushed red pepper with 1/4 cup of the marinade until smooth
- Add it back into the marinade
- Pour over the seasoned beef and thoroughly massage the marinade into it.
- Marinate in the fridge for 24 hours.
- Line up your beef on the dehydrator and sprinkle the rest of the crushed red pepper on top (2 tbsp).
- Set the temp to 160 degrees Fahrenheit. The time will depend on your dehydrator. I have several, and they all take a different amount of time despite being set to the same temperature. It will typically take anywhere between 4-8 hours. You will have to keep an eye on it during this time. With my presto dehydrator, it takes anywhere between 4-5 hours.
- The jerky is done once you can hold it horizontally and it stays perfectly straight. Another way to tell it is done is by ripping it with the grain- you will see some white stringy stuff in the center.
- Let it cool down completely before storing in an airtight container for one day before eating. You do not have to wait if you don’t want to, but after a day the jerky will develop a nice glaze and incredible flavor. Cut into small strips against the grain for easy & mess free snacking.
Chef’s Tip: The trays at the bottom closest to the heat source will dehydrate faster, so you’ll need to rotate trays once or twice. Some of your beef slices may be thicker than others- try to group slices of the same thickness on each tray and then stack them from the thickest cuts on the bottom to the thinnest on top. This way you may not even need to rotate the trays.