A Deep Dive Into the Complex Heat of Chilies

Dive into the fascinating world of chilies and spicy food to add to your menu.

From the tropics of India to the fiery kitchens of Mexico, the world’s love affair with heat and spice is richer and more complex than meets the eye. The global journey of peppers and spices has transformed the culinary landscape, igniting a passion for the bold and pungent that transcends borders and cultures.

While the story of spice is one of evolution and exploration, it’s also a tale of nuanced flavors, intricate sensations, and a quest for the perfect heat. As the world of spicy food continues to evolve, it’s no longer just about heat levels; it’s about the intricate and diverse flavor and heat notes that tingle (and more often than not – numb) the taste buds.

Complex heat, an appreciation for these nuanced flavors and notes, is predicted to emerge in the culinary world as a major trend, but how complex can the world of heat actually be? Read on to find out..

The History of Heat

Thanks to an international array of peppers and spices, every culture now brings its unique hot, spicy flavors to the table – but this wasn’t always the case. Chili peppers, a key building block of hot, pungent dishes, is native to the Americas. Shortly after the New World and the Old World collided in the 15th century, these peppers made their way across the Atlantic Ocean where they found new homes in the tropics of Eurasia and Africa. Local chili varieties like the Aleppo pepper, the Kashmiri chili, and Tien Tsin pepper integrated themselves into the local cuisines as people worldwide fell in love with spicy food.

Prior to the global pepper proliferation, Eurasian cultures added heat to their dishes using the less pungent black pepper, native to Malabar in Southern India. Actually, the name “black pepper” is a bit of a misnomer, since the spice is actually produced by drying small berries growing on the vines of the Piper Nigrum plant. These spicy berries frequently found their way on Silk Road caravans, where the heavily traded spice earned the nickname “black gold” or “king of spices”.

,Explore elements of spicy food, including complex heat and the Scoville scale of chilies.

Nowadays, both black “pepper” and regional chili variations are plentiful throughout the world, adding more “spice” to the world of spicy food. Each chili variety brings a slightly different, nuanced level and flavor of heat. Not only are there many varieties of “spice,” but globalization means the majority of these peppers can be obtained in many places around the world. Additionally, over the last five years, young diners have shown an increased interest in spicy foods. Some appreciate the bold flavors, while others the “bragging rights” of being able to withstand the consequences of consuming raw ghost pepper. Some food experts even surmise that the quest for spice is related to the COVID-19 pandemic, where people sought to distract themselves from global events by turning to extreme spice adventures.

The Scoville Scale

Which brings us to the second major event in the history of spice – the invention of the Scoville Scale. The Scoville Scale was invented by Wilbur Scoville in 1912 to measure the heat intensity of different hot peppers. Scoville produced extracts from a range of different hot peppers. Then, he mixed the extract with water and gave it to a panel of taste testers. After they tasted each pepper, Scoville would dilute the mixture with a specific amount of sugar and give the new solution to his testers to drink.

Scoville categorized the peppers by the amount of sugar needed to dilute the mixture enough to remove the burning sensation completely. For example, jalapeno peppers measure at 2,500 to 8,000 Scoville heat units, which means Scoville’s taste testers couldn’t taste the heat after between 2,500 and 8,000 teaspoons of sugar had been added to the jalapeno essence. The hottest pepper on the Scoville scale used to be the Carolina Reaper, which measured at 2.2 million Scoville heat units. However, very recently, Michigan-based pepper breeders produced Pepper X, a hot pepper that measures at nearly 2.7 million Scoville heat units!

Returning to Wilbur Scoville – his actual goal was to find the level of capsaicin in each pepper variety. Capsaicin is the compound in the pepper that gives it its heat – it also happens to be used in pain-killing pharmaceutical cream. Scoville was tasked with finding out how much capsaicin was present in each pepper variety to make extraction more efficient.


Capsaicin is one of several capsaicinoids Capsaicinoids, in case you never heard of them, are really interesting substances. If you put your hand on a hot stove, the stove burns your skin, which activates your nerves, sending a pain signal to the brain and prompting you to withdraw your hand. Capsaicinoids activate the cell receptors that sense heat, but don’t actually cause any heat damage to the cells in the mouth. Some biologists surmise that pepper plants evolved to produce capsaicin to protect their fruit from birds and animals.

Capsaicinoids’ fascinating characteristics demonstrate that there’s more to heat than meets the eye. And, food experts predict that “complex heat” will emerge as a major culinary trend in 2024.

From Heat to Complex Heat

Learn about complex heat and spicy food.

What does “complex heat” entail? It means a focus on more specific heat flavors and sensations. Currently, there are all sorts of specialty chilies available from all over the world. Each chili pepper brings a different heat sensation and a nuanced melody of flavors beyond just heat. The latest trends show that consumers are interested in, not just the level of heat, but also the heat’s underlying flavor and notes, and how these elements pair with other ingredients.

It also turns out that the presence of capsaicinoids doesn’t tell the whole story. New research that food experts predict will expand over the course of the upcoming year shows that there are 22 known capsaicinoids, and each one brings a slightly different heat sensation to spicy food.

What Are Different Heat Flavors?

There aren’t really words in the English language to describe the nuances of different heat flavors, although those who participated in the research attempted to describe these sensations using several attributes.

Some attributes include the heat’s development and duration. When you bite into a pepper, does the heat hit your tongue right away? Do you taste the pepper first and then feel the burn? How long is the “build-up” to the pungent sensation? And how long does the pungency last? Some chilies give you a tingle that lasts for the entire meal, while others flame out more quickly. This can be related to a number of factors, like the level of capsaicinoid in the pepper, its concentration and distribution (for example if the seeds are the spiciest part, you might not feel the heat when biting into the skin of that pepper), and the presence of other compounds. For example, some capsaicinoids have higher levels of lipophilicity, which in simple terms means they like to hang around the fatty membranes in your mouth, and thus the burn stays there for longer. That’s also why drinking fatty substances like milk can relieve the burn sooner.

Another attribute of complex heat is the location. Where in the mouth is the heat intensity felt the strongest? Is it in the lips? The front of the mouth? The tongue? Or the back of the throat? Additionally, research participants tried to describe the exact sensation of the heat. Was the burn sharp so it felt like the tongue was being stabbed with the capsaicin – a feeling referred to as “prickle heat?” Or was it a flatter feeling, like the heat was painted on with a paintbrush?

One study attempted to describe the complex elements of several well known peppers. They found, for example, that cayenne pepper has a sharp heat that comes on rapidly, but dissipates quickly. Cayenne is hot (with a rating of around 40,000 Scoville heat units) and the heat is felt mostly on the front and middle of the mouth. Meanwhile the chile de arbol (also from Mexico) is only about half as hot (with a Scoville scale ranking of around 15,000), but the heat sensation is delayed and lingers for longer. Jalapeno is another lingerer, where the heat comes on rapidly, but only dissipates gradually, and in contrast to cayenne and the chile de arbol, jalapeno’s pungency is flat, not sharp.

Not All Peppers are Created Equal

Complex heat means going beyond the Scoville scale in pursuit of more nuanced, flavorful spicy food.

Every spicy ingredient has its unique heat profile and also every pepper has a unique taste. For example, poblano peppers are mild chilies from Pueblo, Mexico, that come in at around 1,000 to 2,000 Scoville heat units. When dried they are called ancho chilies and have a slightly sweet raisin-like flavor, combined with a mild pungency, and smoky undertones. Ancho chilies pair well with neutral meats like chicken breast. By contrast, habanero chilies are more than 100 times as spicy as their Pueblo peers. They rank at 150,000 to 325,000 Scoville heat units. But, if you snack on these peppers, once your tongue recovers from the faux-burn, you’ll notice a sweet, fruity flavor. Habaneros are a great choice for pairing with seafood.

Meanwhile, the datil pepper, found in Florida, has a similar heat ranking to the habanero, but its fruit tanginess is stronger and hits before the heat. Datils are delicious in seafood recipes, but they are also used in cocktails. There are now websites and services that rank and review the flavors of many known peppers, along with their Scoville scale heat scores — this includes everything from the Fatali pepper, with a Scoville scale ranking of 125,000 to 400,000 and a unique citrusy flavor to the earthy, smokey Bhut Jolokia Chocolate pepper (named this because of its looks, not its taste), which ranks at 800,000 to one million Scoville heat units. An interesting fact about the Bhut Jolokia Chocolate pepper is, not only is it popular in extreme spicy foods and spicy barbecue sauces, but it is also used in pepper sprays: intended to deter elephants in India.

Cooking With Complex Heat

Some hot pepper admirers just enjoy the sensation of eating different chilies, savoring and describing the unique profiles of each one. Some liken the experience to acquiring a taste for fine wines, where more experience with the peppers means more enjoyment from noting each one’s specific complexities. Food scientists and food manufacturers tend to be more interested in how each spice element can pair with other ingredients, and add something special to different recipes and products.

One example of the pairing of specific peppers is in Indian cuisine. Indian food is known for packing a pungent punch, and 25% of the worlds’ chilies are grown in India. The ones most commonly used in Indian cuisine are the bhut jolokia mentioned above (also known as ghost peppers, this won the 2007 Guinness record for the hottest pepper in the world), the Kashmiri pepper, Guntur, Jwala, Kanthari, Byadagi, Ramnad, Khola, and Dalle Khursani (a close cousin of the ghost pepper). Different peppers are found in different traditional recipes. For instance, the Kanthari is crunchy, slightly peppery, with an intense and lingering heat. Its crunch and bitter, peppery punch make it a popular candidate for pickling, with the salt and vinegar slightly mellowing out its 100,000 Scoville heat unit rating. Meanwhile, Kashmiri chilies are rarely pickled, but, with their mild heat, and their smoky-sweet taste, they are often used to make chili powder. 2024 promises to bring more research into the unique flavors, intensities, and characteristics of heat, to find out the best combination of spice.

The world of spicy food has evolved far beyond simple heat levels. It’s now an exploration of the nuanced flavors and varieties of heat from diverse cultures. As global culinary experiences continue to intertwine, the allure of complex heat is sure to grow, promising exciting journeys for food enthusiasts seeking not just spiciness, but the intricate symphony of flavors that comes with it.

Cayenne Raspberry Swirl

 Discover how the allure of complex heat is redefining the way we savor spicy dishes.

One popular trend from 2023 was sweet heat — recipes like the trending dish “hot honey”, that combined the sweetness with the pungency. This recipe for cayenne raspberry ice cream bars also brings both of these flavor categories to the kitchen. The cayenne’s sharp, direct, and rapid heat pairs well with the acidity and tartness of the raspberry, and the ice cream component tempers its 40,000 Scoville heat unit intensity.

To make this recipe you will need the following:


  • 2 cups of heavy cream
  • 1 cup of sweetened condensed milk
  • 1/4 cup of whole milk
  • 1/4 cup of corn syrup
  • 1 tablespoon of vanilla
  • 1/4 teaspoon of salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon of crushed red pepper (this spice is most commonly made from a blend of jalapenos, serranos, and Anaheim chilies)
  • 2 pints of fresh raspberries
  • 1/2 teaspoon of ground cayenne pepper
  • 11 ounces of white chocolate for baking
  • 1/3 cup plus two tablespoons of coconut oi
  • Red food coloring (optional)
  • 16 Popsicle molds


  1. Blend the cream in a blender on high until you see stiff peaks. Pour in the condensed milk, whole milk, corn syrup, vanilla, and salt. Blend until all the ingredients are combined.
  2. Use a food processor to puree the raspberries and the cayenne pepper.
  3. Pour the cream mixture into the popsicle molds until they are about a quarter of the way filled.
  4. Layer a spoonful of raspberry mixture onto the cream in the molds and gently stir until they have a swirled appearance.
  5. Add another layer of cream and another layer of raspberries and swirl again.
  6. Top off the mold with more of the cream mixture.
  7. Place the filled popsicle molds in the freezer for an hour. After an hour remove the molds and put a popsicle stick into each one. Then, return them to the freezer for another two hours.
  8. Place the white chocolate and coconut oil into a microwave-safe mixing bowl. Put the bowl in the microwave for 20 seconds. Remove it and stir. Repeat until the chocolate is melted and the mixture is smooth. If you choose to use food coloring as well, you can pour it into the chocolate at this point.
  9. Let the white chocolate mixture cool to room temperature.
  10. Remove the bars from the freezer and pop out the creamy, raspberry popsicles. Dip each popsicle into the white chocolate mixture until fully coated and sprinkle with crushed red peppers.
  11. Return the bars to the freezer and leave them there until you are ready to enjoy.

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