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Anyone who likes (or hates) spicy food has been in the situation: You're at a restaurant, your mother-in-law is preparing dinner, or you're preparing dinner for your best friend, and the question comes up:

How spicy do you want it?

But how can one answer (or ask) this question unambiguously?

I'm aware of the Scoville scale, but that applies to a specific (dry) ingredient in a recipe, and not the finished dish (which will typically dilute even the spiciest of peppers).

Restaurants often rank dishes from 1-5 "stars", "peppers", or other units of spiciness, but even this rating system varies greatly by country, region, or even the specific restaurant. What is "5 star spicy" in the Netherlands, might be "2 star spicy" in the midwest USA, for instance.

Is there any unambiguous way to discuss the spiciness of a dish?

I don't mind if I need to take 5 minutes to explain this method to my mother next time I cook for her, or to the waitress next time I order a Phad Thai. The key is that it must be (mostly) unambiguous in communicating one's preferred level of spice/hotness in a dish.

Does such a thing exist?


As an analogy, one might describe a beverage's or dessert's sweetness in relation to a commonly-known item, such as table sugar, honey, or even a Coca-Cola. "I want a sweetened iced tea, but only half as sweet as a Coke." While not precise, this is (basically) an unambiguous request. A similar, common point of reference to use when discussing spiciness would satisfy me.

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    The waitress would probably mind you taking 5 minutes to explain a spice-rating system to her. Basically: no, there isn't any method because peoples' experience of spice is highly subjective and varies according to exposure. A dish that you find "medium" spicy may seem quite mild a year later after you've eaten an abundance of chilies, so this isn't even consistent within individuals. – logophobe May 6 '16 at 13:19
  • @logophobe: The objective spiciness of the dish does not change over the course of a year. Which is the point of my question. I'm happy to adjust my preferred "objective spiciness" rating as my taste changes. But my taste should not change such an unambiguous/objective rating system. – Flimzy May 6 '16 at 13:23
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    The Scoville scale would still technically apply; it's a perceptual measure of the amount of sugar water needed to counteract the perceived "burn" of a food, so you could use it to measure a finished dish, in theory. But good luck getting a restaurant to do that. – logophobe May 6 '16 at 13:40
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    I've never heard someone ask for a sweetened iced tea with "half as sweet as coke". I've heard lightly sweetened or people getting unsweetened and having syrup or sweetener brought to them. And even then, I'm not sure thats objective -- I have friends who can't drink one sip of coke without complaining its insanely spicey whereas others don't notice its sweet. – Batman May 6 '16 at 13:47
  • @Batman: Spicy coke? – Flimzy May 6 '16 at 13:55
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The best choice, in my opinion, is not to try to communicate - but to ask for a taste! Places that use spicy sauces will likely be willing to give you a small taste of the sauce (as spicy sauces are usually made in advance, and even if not, they likely prepare the dish for another person at some point).

And even if you're asking about something that isn't really tasteable ("How spicy are your spicy tuna maki") etc., you could ask for a taste of a sauce that is spicy, and then use that to calibrate.

  • While short on technical description, this is the most pragmatically helpful answer, so I'm accepting it. I have upvoted other answers, where appropriate, too. Thanks to everyone who provided an answer. – Flimzy May 28 '16 at 23:17
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Spiciness is a taste perception, and as such, it is simply subjective. There is no way to create an objective scale for rating it.

I read your comment about "objective spiciness", but it is not something that can exist. It is based on the erroneous assumption that the spiciness you perceive is a 1:1 measurement of some quality of the food. This is not true. Even foods with the same amount of capsaicin will taste differently spicy to the same person, or the same food can taste differently spicy to the same person in two separate meals. So no, all scales will be subjective, with all the usual consequences of subjective rating scales.

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    The only way to improve this answer would be links to efforts to identify the range of human responses to capsaicin. – Derrell Durrett May 6 '16 at 15:50
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    @DerrellDurrett I don't have such links. But Stack Exchange sites don't have a requirement that all the relevant information is contained in a single answer. On the contrary, partial answers are considered answers and are encouraged! If you (or somebody else) have this information, please post another answer, it will deserve readers and upvotes. – rumtscho May 7 '16 at 19:56
  • This list looks to contain relevant studies: scholar.google.com/… I wasn't impugning your answer, only suggesting a way to improve your response, given that it's a topic of current research. – Derrell Durrett May 8 '16 at 1:09
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I don't think there is an unambiguous system -- for example, the Thai places in my town alone have vastly different systems for rating how hot their dishes are (so an extra hot at one place is a medium at another, for example; this may be partially due to location and thus their clientele). It isn't like restaurants do some sort of analytical measurement on their food's spicyness, since it varies depending on ingredients (sometimes your peppers are mild while others are blazing hot), so it will likely be calibrated to what the local population tolerates. Plus, even if there was a system more complex than "no spice, mild, medium, medium hot, hot, extra hot" or equivalent in number of chili's, its not like the wait staff or chefs would be able to keep up with it in a reasonable fashion.

In some cases, you can order food without heat (or on a lower heat level which you believe will be acceptable to you) and get the spicy stuff on the side (e.g. in the form of some chili sauce). Then, you can add it to some appropriate level for you after trying the food. It might not be as flavorful as if it was cooked in the dish, but by setting the bar appropriately, you should be able to reach something tolerable.

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No, there is no objective way, other than the Scoville scale or measuring the moles of capsaicin per gram, because people lose sensitivity to spiciness as they get used to it. I would describe how spicy you want something by the type of pepper you are used to. If you can eat a habañero, then tell them you want it habañero spicy.

pepper scale
click to expand

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    The problem with using a pepper as a gauge is that peppers aren't all created equal. The spiciness of the pepper can vary from pepper to pepper, from the same plant. And it can vary even more greatly by regio where they were grown. I've had jalapeños too hot to eat straight in Mexico at times. In Europe, I can barely taste a locally grown jalapeño. – Flimzy May 6 '16 at 21:07
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As Rumtscho has pointed out, the perception of spiciness is strictly subjective. But if you were to have a standard, how would you standardize it? How would the chef comply with the standard? And then, when you get what objectively conforms with the standard you requested, how would you know you've got it? Above all, would you like the taste?
First, standardizing it: you take some scale. This would reduce to an objective measurement of capsaicin, and whatever other compounds contribute to a spicy taste. Well and good. Who standardizes each pepper? Two peppers identical in appearance and type might have widely different concentrations of capsaicin. Ground spices will be even worse. Where I live, one of the problems of buying spice in the market is knowing which are adulterated with salt or corn meal to bulk them up.
Good chefs go by the taste of the food as they prepare it. This applies particularly to spicy cooking -- the idea of measuring spices out in milligrams would not occur to a good chef, because the final result would be all that counts.
When you finally get your standard, calibrated, weighed and measured spicy, the taste will vary according to what's cooked with it, what you've eaten before, what you're eating after, whether you're having alcohol with it -- any number of factors. Then what does your standard count for?
What you really want is to enjoy your food. If you're cooking for yourself, take it seriously, listen to the food, taste from time to time to make sure you're heading in the right direction. If you're eating in restaurants, find one that does things the way you like, and be prepared to be delighted sometimes and, rarely, a little disappointed. And if you're eating at your mother-in-law's, always thank her with a smile and a little flattery, but not too much, so you all enjoy the meal!

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There is no way to have this conversation on a consistent basis without ambiguity. You may find you could at certain restaurants who understand you well, but you'll never find a one size fits all way of communicating affinity for spice usage.

It's because the two variables have tremendous variance in the population:

  • the diner's individual tolerance and labeling for spice level varies tremendously
  • the cook's labeling of his/her own spice use will vary as well

Example: I can eat very spicy food and not even notice it. My dad would sample from the same dish and would revolt at the spice level. But we both would have said I like it medium spicy.

And you are correct, Scoville does not address your Q. Scoville addresses pungent heat. I consider heat (or pepperiness) to be a subterm of spicy. There are other attributes of spicy that are not pungent heat, like some curry's, level of garlic and onion, and use of herbs.

I tried to think of a way to communicate spice tolerance and altering this chart from the medical world came to mind: enter image description here

But as I said before, my Dad and I would self label as a 5, but he clearly has lower tolerance than I.

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While 'hotness' is somewhat subjective, most people who cook with spices understand the concept of adjusting the heat level according to the palate of others. Simply saying "mild", medium, spicy, or slap your mama my face is on fire! The other thing to do is to just take the ride and eat it the way it is prepared. One proven way to cool the heat is with dairy try so have some milk on hand if you know you're going to be eating spicy food.

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