Sunday, September 5, 2010

Ranking chilis - The Scoville Scale

A while ago, I posted an article on Flavors of Brazil detailing the antics and activities of a group of hot chili fans from São Paulo, the Jolokianos. They are united in their love (and tolerance) for the world's hottest pepper, the Bhut Jolokia. The status that this chili enjoys as the top dog of the the world's hot peppers isn't merely an impression, it's a proven fact. In 1912, an American chemist, Wilbur Scoville developed a scale for determining the relative hotness/pungency of any species of chili pepper, and he called it the Scoville Organoleptic Test.

The Scoville Organoleptic Test is not infallible, as it based on the taste perceptions of five human tasters, but it does provide a reliable guide to the relative strength of the capsaicin oil content of a species or hybrid of chili pepper.

Although the Bhut Jolokia is the "hottest" chile in the world, with a Scoville rating of 1 million, it is not common in Brazil, nor is its use traditional. Certain regional cuisines of Brazil do make extensive use of chilis, and chili "heat" is an important part of their flavor profiles. It's interesting to see where the chilis commonly used in Brazilian cuisine fit on the Scoville scale, in comparison to other Brazilian chilis, and to other chiles used elsewhere in the world.

Here is a basic rundown of the relative "heat" of a number of Brazilian and non-Brazilian chilis, starting with the Bhut Jolokia, the world's hottest, with following chilis becoming progressively milder. The chilis are broken into three group: hot, medium, and mild.

Bhut Jolokia (Scoville 1,000,000)
The hottest in the world, colored red and brown. Don't try to eat uncooked.
Bhut Jolokia

Red Savina (up to Scoville 580,000)
Hybridized in California, with undulating shape. Makes good sauces and preserves.
Red Savina

Habanero (Scoville 500,000)
When ripe very hot. Various colors. Used in making salsas, moles and chutneys.

Scotch Bonnet (Scoville 250,000)
Flattened and irregular. Fruity aroma. Used in Caribbean sauces, like jerk.
Scotch Bonnet

Malagueta (Scoville 100,000)
Hottest Brazilian chili on this list. Iconic chili of Bahia. Goes well with fish and meat dishes.

Murupi (Scoville 60,000)
Aromatic. Abundant in the north of Brazil, where it is preserved in whey.

Fidalga (Scoville 50,000)
Common in the states of Mato Grosso and São Paulo. Makes good sauces and preserves, and accompanies salads.

Pimenta-de-bode (Scoville 50,000)
In the state of Goiás it is used to flavor almost all of traditional daily dishes.

Cayenne (up to Scoville 50,000)
Eaten dried and ground in Africa and India. Indispensable in Cajun cooking.

Tabasco (up to Scoville 50,000)
Elongated, colored red or yellow. Highly flavored, used primarily in sauces, including Tabasco Sauce.

Cumari (up to Scoville 50,000)
Brazilian green chili, with small egg-shaped fruit. Can be eaten fresh or cooked in sauces.

Pimenta-de-cheiro (Scoville 20,000)
Color varies from light green to bright yellow. Common in the north and southeast of Brazil. Aromatic.

Dedo-de-Moça (Scoville 15,000)
Green and elongated. When dried and ground it is known in the south of Brazil as pimenta-calabresa.

Jalapeño  (Scoville 5,000)
Along with the tabasco chili, it is the most consumed in the USA. Makes excellent sauces.

Biquinho (Scoville 1,000)
Very mild. Small and sweet, it is used in sauces, pickled or eaten raw.

The chilis in this list that are used most in Brazilian cuisine represent a good sampling of Brazil's chili harvest, but certainly not the totality. There are literally thousands of varieties of chili peppers that are used daily by chefs and cooks in the creation of Brazilian cuisine, both traditional and contemporary. From the relative ranking, you can see that Brazilian gastronomy is not afraid of hot chilis; on the other hand, with the exception of the Bahian regional cuisine, is it among the world's "spiciest" cuisines. The contribution of chilis to the flavors of Brazil is most often in the form of a hot chili sauce, and thus the amount of heat desired is very much a personal one. One person at the table might want to add 500,000 Scoville units to his or her meal, another 5,000 and another none at all. By keeping the "heat" in a tabletop sauce, all these options are open to the Brazilian diner.


  1. Red Savina incorrectly listed below the habanero and scotch bonnet chile at 200,000 SHU. The red Savina is actually a cultivar of the habanero family of chiles (Capsicum chinense Jacquin). It has been tested at 577,000 Scovilles.

  2. Thanks for the comment. I've moved the Red Savina up in the rankings to the number 2 position, just behind the Bhut Jolokia.

  3. where are you finding these? im in SP and can barely find one variety of fresh chile pepper much less this rainbow! no one eats spice in my family, im shocked there are this many varieties. Do i have to come to Fortaleza for them? good i think i will be there in February ;)

  4. I have found that in Fortaleza, the best place to source all types of chilis is in the central market - São Sebastião. There's a video tour of part of the market on Flavors of Brazil. I would imagine that SP's wonderful Mercado Municipal would have an equally large selection - have you tried there? (Even if you are unsuccessful, it's a good excuse to dine in one of the restaurants on the mezzanine floor!)

  5. Sorry for coming to this chili party so late, but I'm really interested to see Dedo de Moça so low on the list. I was chopping some up 3 days ago to make chili oil and I still have burning finger tips! Seriously, I found them to be very hot, certainly *far* hotter than pimenta de cheiro. Perhaps this is a ripeness issue - your picture shows them as green, but the ones I get are always red...

  6. Hi Tom - It's never too late to come to the party! Your comment on Dedo de Moça is interesting and on point - I've found that the range of hotness ranges tremendously from individual chili to individual chili, no matter what the variety. Whether it's Dedo de Moça or Serrano or Habanero, one can burn like the devil and next one (sometimes from the same plant) is a meek and mild little thing. Hope you've been able to extinguish the finger tips!

  7. Can anyone give me a mailing address where I can buy Brazilian pepper seeds? I am especially interested in pimenta de cheiro (do Para').

    1. Hi - This isn't a mailing address, but an URL and it might help you. Check out . It's a Brazilian website that sells all kinds of pepper seeds, including pimenta de cheiro. Note that their site calls it do Norte instead of do Para.
      Hope this helps you.

  8. I always thought that Scotch Bonnet and Habenero were one in the same just called differently in Latin America.

    Also, is the Malagueta just the Brasilian word for Thai chili pepper?

    1. Thanks for your interesting comments on this article.

      According to the English and Portuguese versions of Wikipedia (even though they're not authoritative) the Malagueta is native to Brazil and is a variety of the species Capsicum frutencens. The Thai bird-eye chile was thought to be a variety of the same species for a long time, but recent research has led to it being listed as a variety of Capsicum chinense.

      Again according to the Wikipedia entry on habanero, it says "The Scotch bonnet is often compared to the habanero, since they are two varieties of the same species, but have different pod types."

      The whole issue of nomenclature of chilis is so illogical and confusing that what might be true in one region, or with one variety, isn't true in another region or in another language.


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  12. Great article!
    I also did some research about 5 hottest chili peppers that you can find on earth based on the Scoville scale. See below for the article:
    Thank you!

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