You don't need a hazmat suit to try out the world's hottest peppers, but a healthy appreciation for spicy foods -- and a willingness to cry in front of your friends -- will certainly come in handy. Some specialty retailers carry limited quantities of high-end chilies, collectively known as "super-hots," but they can be hard to find. You can grow them yourself, if all else fails, or try them in the form of commercial hot sauces and condiments.
10: Orange Habanero
A longtime terror in the Mexican foods section of your local grocer, these small, round, deceptively cheerful-looking peppers averaged a cool quarter-million Scoville heat units, or SHUs, in a controlled test by New Mexico's Chile Pepper Institute. In comparison, an ordinary jalapeno checks in at around 4,000 SHUs. Orange habaneros make an incendiary salsa or chili, but they lag well behind their most potent peers in sheer aggression.
9: Scotch Bonnet
The habanero's Caribbean kin, Scotch Bonnet peppers are used widely -- especially in Jamaica -- in the islanders' fiery fish stews, jerk marinades and fruit-based condiments. Scaling an impressive average of 350,000 SHUs in the Institute's testing, the Bonnet can definitely command your undivided attention.
8: Red Savina Habanero
The Red Savina was selectively bred from other habanero varieties for outstanding flavor and intimidating heat, and succeeded gloriously on both counts. It has the rich, apricot-like flavor that distinguishes habaneros, but it's backed by 500,000 SHUs. Use it in any recipe that calls for regular habaneros, but very, very carefully.
7: Chocolate Habanero
The chocolate habanero is another example of selective breeding at its finest. Don't let its sweet name or distinctive brown color fool you, because it's a beast. In testing at the Institute, the chocolate habanero averaged a sizzling 700,000 SHUs.
6: Red 7-Pot
The colorful Trinidadian name for this misshapen scarlet pepper is a testament to its ferocity. Even on those heat-loving islands, one 7-pot pepper is considered enough to make seven pots of sinus-draining, sweat-inducing stew. Try it yourself in a favorite island recipe, but be careful. At an average of 780,000 SHUs, they pack more than twice the heat of the legendary Scotch Bonnet.
5: Bhut Jolokia
Yeah, that's right. The legendary "ghost pepper" only rates fifth place. Hailing from the Naga tribal lands of northern India, the bhut jolokia's 1,000,000 SHUs raise it into a grey area between food and weaponry. Several close cousins, including the native Dorset Naga and the commercially developed Naga Viper, pack a similarly stunning punch. Incorporate them sparingly into your favorite knock-'em-dead curry recipes.
4: Trinidad Scorpion
Everything about the Scorpion is intimidating, down to the strangely pointed "tail" that inspired its name. At an average of 1.5 million SHUs in the New Mexican tests, you could be excused for having nightmares about being chased by one of these crimson killers.
3: Chocolate 7-Pot
Like the chocolate habanero, the chocolate 7-pot conceals a rather nasty weapon beneath a sweet-looking exterior. It checks in at 1.8 million SHUs in the Institute's testing, making it a definite heavyweight. A few other 7-pot varieties, including the Primo, the famously flavorful Douglah and the creepy-looking "Brain Strain" pack a comparable wallop, but weren't included in the Institute's tests.
2: The Moruga Scorpion
Another Trinidadian entry, the scarlet-hued Moruga Scorpion has the nobbly skin of a "brain strain" 7-pot pepper and the distinctive tail of other scorpion varieties. It topped the Chile Pepper Institute's rankings at more than 2 million SHUs -- and briefly held the world record in 2013 -- but it wasn't long before a new sheriff arrived in town.
1: The Carolina Reaper
As of November 2013, a hybrid called the Carolina Reaper held the official Guinness World Record as the hottest pepper. Its flavor is deceptively sweet, but it's hard to remember that as it proceeds to annihilate your tastebuds. The Reaper starts by lighting a Molotov cocktail in your mouth, then builds from there. The Guinness organization, which uses a different methodology, rated it at just under 1.6 million SHUs. Others place it at about 2.2 million SHUs, or approximately 10 percent hotter than the fearsome Moruga Scorpion.
Measuring the hottest peppers is a contentious enterprise, because so many factors -- climate and individual variation among them -- affect the end result. The Chile Pepper Institute grew several leading contenders in its own test plots to eliminate as many variables as possible, then evaluated each variety's levels of fiery capsaicinoids through liquid chromatography. Chromatography is the standard technology used to determine a pepper's heat.
Super-hots are best used in sauces and other cooked dishes, where their flavor will diffuse throughout the food. If you're going to use them in a salsa or a marinade, be sure to mince them very, very finely indeed. Getting an oversized piece of a Reaper or Moruga Scorpion on your tortilla chip would be a breathtaking experience.
Dairy products such as milk or yogurt will help moderate the chili burn on your palate if you find you've bitten off more than you can chew. They can also be used externally, if you get a concentrated dose of capsaicin on your skin.
Always wear disposable gloves when handling super-hot peppers, because they're the vegetable equivalent of a thermonuclear device. Their juices, seeds and membranes pack enough capsaicin to really hurt, in exactly the same way as caustic cleaning chemicals. Concentrated capsaicin is an irritant on ordinary skin, and can be cripplingly painful on the delicate membranes of your nose and eyes if you absent-mindedly rub them.
Transfer your knife and cutting board directly to the dishwasher, or to a sink filled with soapy water, before removing your gloves. That way, you won't accidentally handle them later with your bare hands. For safety's sake -- especially if you have children -- any trim pieces, seeds or used gloves should be bagged and tied up before disposal.
Fred Decker is a trained chef, former restaurateur and prolific freelance writer, with a special interest in all things related to food and nutrition. His work has appeared online on major sites including Livestrong.com, WorkingMother.com and the websites of the Houston Chronicle and San Francisco Chronicle; and offline in Canada's Foodservice & Hospitality magazine and his local daily newspaper. He was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.