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.
References and ResourcesNew Mexico State University: Measuring Chile Pepper Heat
Chile Pepper Institute: Top 10 Hottest Chili Peppers (That the CPI Has Tested)
Time.com: World's Hottest Chili Pepper Identified
Crazy Hot Seeds.com: Top Ten Hottest Peppers In the World 2014
Smithsonian.com: The Gut-Wrenching Science Behind the World's Hottest Peppers
The New Yorker: Fire-Eaters -- The Search for the Hottest Chili
Guinness World Records: Hottest Chili