When it comes to chile peppers, either you love them or you don’t. Some people will be sweating after eating a jalapeño-laced nacho, while others will seek out the spiciest curry in the city and down it with gusto, their mouth aflame. No matter your opinion, you have to admit that super-spicy chiles are pretty fascinating, and the hottest peppers on earth make a jalapeño look like a bell pepper.
Not too long ago, the habanero was considered to be the spiciest pepper on earth. It’s not exactly easy to eat one: it definitely burns, and for most people it’s way too spicy. Today, however, the spiciest variety of habanero, the Red Savina, packs less than a quarter of the mouth-scorching power of the hottest chile on the planet.
Once you get up to the satanic levels of heat that the world’s spiciest chile peppers possess, it’s impossible to gauge actual spice just by tasting it. That wouldn’t be very scientific anyway. Instead, there’s a rating system called the Scoville scale, which measures the amount of capsaicin (the active ingredient) in a given pepper. Scoville units are measured through a complicated dilution process; for example, a pepper whose extract needs to be diluted 10,000 times before capsaicin is undetectable will have a rating of 10,000 Scoville Units.
For a little perspective, a peperoncino (one of those little green peppers you find in antipasto) is near the bottom of the Scoville scale, at about 900 units. Further up the scale you find jalapeños clocking in at about 8,000, and the Tabasco pepper (the main ingredient in Tabasco sauce) at about 50,000 units. The standard habanero, which is far too hot for most people to handle, tops out at about 350,000. And as for pure capsaicin? With a blistering 16,000,000 Scoville units, ingest any of that and you’ll have a very bad day. And a bad month.
So what is it that leads growers to constantly find ways to develop hotter and hotter chiles, and why do chileheads seek them out? Isn’t a habanero or ghost pepper spicy enough for them? Apparently not.
“The ghost pepper is hot enough, but the quest for new peppers is twofold,” Mike McAdams, the founder of artisan hot sauce club Fuego Box, told us. “For a chilehead, being able to say you ate the world's hottest pepper is equivalent to a mountaineer climbing Everest.”
Every year it seems like a new chile pepper comes along to claim the title for the world’s spiciest, and there are in fact teams of researchers all over the world dedicated to creating hotter and hotter chiles. For the time being, though, the following peppers are currently the spiciest ones on earth. So put your seatbelts on, because it’s going to be a spicy ride.
#11 Red Savina Habanero
With 500,000 Scoville units, this pepper was the world’s spiciest for a long time before the “spice wars” of the 1990s. Today, it doesn’t even make the top 10!
#10 Bhut Jolokia (Ghost Pepper)
Bobby Flay once told us that after being gifted a ghost pepper he finely diced about a fingernail-sized portion and added it to a big batch of risotto, and that tiny amount completely overpowered and ruined the dish. Clocking in at about 1,000,000 Scoville units, a ghost pepper is nothing to fool around with. While many still believe it’s the world’s spiciest, it actually doesn’t even come close.