From super sweet bells to scorching serranos, peppers are enjoyed in many global cuisines –but can you tell the difference between an innocently sweet pepper and a five-alarm chili? There are many factors that go into the heat level of a specific pepper, including its genetic makeup and growing conditions, but knowing the basics can protect your tongue from an unpleasant surprise.

What makes a pepper ‘hot’?

Chili peppers have an active ingredient called capsaicin that acts as an irritant, causing a burning sensation when it comes in contact with the tongue. The highest concentration of capsaicin within chili peppers lies within

the interior veins of the pepper, where the seeds attach to the walls. Removing the seeds and veins within the peppers before consuming does help with spiciness, but won’t get rid of the effect altogether. Be sure to avoid contact with eyes and skin when handling a chili pepper- the ‘spice’ levels can be damaging to sensitive areas.

The Scoville Scale

The Scoville scale is the measurement by which peppers lie on the ‘heat’ scale when it comes to concentrated spice. For example, a mild bell pepper can measure as little as zero Scoville units, where a deadly Carolina Reaper pepper tops the scale at 3,200,000 units. A single pepper variety can hold multiple spots on the Scoville scale, as ripeness and growing conditions can affect a pepper’s spiciness. For example, a New Mexican Hatch Chile can be extremely spicy or fairly mild depending on how much water the pepper had available during maturity.

How to Beat the Heat

If the heat just can’t be tamed, there are a few remedies that will help ease the pain of a scorching hot pepper that work better than plain water. Milk products help tremendously with the burn because they contain a specific protein called ‘casein’ that breaks down the unpleasant reaction. This is often why yogurt-based sauces are paired with spicy Indian dishes; a cooling raita will do just the trick in balancing a hot curry.

Here’s a breakdown of the sweetest and hottest peppers:

Sweet: Bell Pepper, Banana Pepper, Pepperoncini, Anaheim (Hatch) Pepper, Poblano

Romesco Sauce


This sweet and smoky sauce blends mild red bell peppers and toasted walnuts to add bold flavors without the spice factor. If you have fresh peppers instead of jarred, simply place peppers under a broiler and turn every 2 minutes until the pepper is completely charred, about 8 minutes. Place peppers in a heat resistant bowl and cover with plastic wrap, allowing to stand for 5 minutes. Peel skin and remove stem and seeds and proceed with recipe.

Roasted Bell Pepper Peperonata

Roasting bell peppers transforms these mild varieties into flavor bombs, packed with sweet richness and silky texture. Peperonata is a sauce that lends its flavor from roasted bell peppers and stewed onions, served with hot pasta or tossed with roasted vegetables for an Italian-inspired meal.

Hot: Jalapeno Pepper, Serrano Pepper, Guajillo

Jalapeno Salsa

This heat-packed salsa is more like a sauce with its creamy consistency and bright green color, ideal for breakfast tacos or drizzling over a quesadilla. Roasted jalapenos are emulsified with oil in a blender to create a lusciously smooth sauce, packed with plenty of heat.

Hotter: Scotch Bonnet, Carolina Reaper, Pepper X

Carolina Reaper Hot Sauce

Can you handle it? The Carolina Reaper, one of the world’s spiciest peppers, is cooked down into this flaming hot sauce that is not for the faint of heart. Be warned, cooking peppers this spicy could result in pungent fumes that can cause uncomfortable air conditions.

Related Video: How to Soothe the Burn of a Hot Pepper

Header images courtesy of Shutterstock.

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