The Secret of Ghost Peppers (8 Important Facts)

The Ghost Pepper, officially known as bhut jolokia, is a legendary spicy pepper that has set world records for its powerful, spicy punch. 

While no longer the record holder as the world’s spiciest pepper, the ghost pepper holds many interesting facts and boasts its own standing in the Guinness Book of World Records.

What is a ghost pepper?

Ghost peppers, or bhut jolokia, are one of the hottest peppers in the world. While many other varieties of pepper have since been cultivated to be even spicier, in 2006 the bhut jolokia set the Guinness World Record for “spiciest tropical species” and held it until 2010.

Where do they come from?

The name “Ghost Pepper” comes from the plant’s origin – it is originally from Northeast India, in the states of Nagaland and Assam. The term “bhut” comes from the Bhutia people, and it means “ghost”. This has often been interpreted to mean the comparison of the heat from the pepper. It is slow-moving, and sneaks up on you, like a ghost.

Others have attributed the ghostly name to the powerful burning sensation, with some saying it is so hot it feels as though you are dying.

What do they look like?

While the term ghost often conjures faded pale white or ghastly grey images, the ghost pepper tends to mature into a vibrant bright red. There are occasionally more colorful variations, including yellowy-orange, purple, or brown chocolatey colors.

The skin of the pepper, when it is ripe, will take on a slightly wrinkled and dimpled texture.

The peppers themselves are quite small, usually maturing at a size of 2.5-3.3 inches. Their shape is somewhat pod-like, with a tapered, pointed tip and stem that is reminiscent of other common peppers such as jalapeño or a Carolina Reaper.

Why are they so special?

As previously hinted at, these peppers have set some impressive World Records for their spice.

But what about them is truly so remarkable?

The spiciness of peppers has its own measurement scale – the Scoville scale. This scale was created in 1912 by pharmacologist Wilbur Scoville.

The Scoville scale measures the chemical compound in peppers that makes them spicy, which is capsaicin. The amount of capsaicin is measured in Scoville Heat Units, known as SHU.

This scale measures spice on a level of 0 (none) to over 2,000,000 SHU, increasing exponentially in spice as the SHU increases.

In many regions, the most common spicy pepper that people think of is the jalapeño. They are known to send people searching for a cool drink to help soothe their mouths.

These peppers are considered in the medium range of the Scoville scale and tend to come in at 2,500-8,000 SHU.

On the mild side for comparison are the notoriously sweet bell peppers, which score 0 SHU.

So, what makes the ghost pepper so unique? These individual peppers, small in size, range anywhere from 800,000-1,000,000 SHU. That is more than one hundred times as spicy as a typical jalapeño!

What does it taste like?

Although most peppers have a familiar burning, spicy sensation, bhut jolokia are renowned for the way their heat slowly creeps up to its full potential.

The pepper begins as a fruity, sweet chili flavor. That is, for 30-45 seconds after the initial taste. After this time is up, the heat begins to kick in.

The heat of ghost peppers typically brings those who have consumed it to tears, although involuntarily. It also leads to hiccups, shortness of breath, and sweating.

Bhut Jolokia’s burn continues and intensifies for upward of 10 minutes, and eventually begins to subside after 30-40 minutes.

Cooking these peppers down rather than eating them raw is the best way to enjoy their blooming heat and flavor.

What are they used for?

The ghost pepper is largely used for making other dishes, rather than consuming it raw or on its own.

The largest use is for ghost pepper hot sauces. Their powders and flakes can also be added to barbeque or pasta sauces or sprinkled as a finishing flavor on other dishes.

If you do attempt to use the pepper fresh, you can finely chop it and add it to a slow-cooked dish such as a roast, stew, or chili.

Be judicious with your use of the pepper, as a little bit goes a long way. They are up to five times as hot as habaneros, and again, exponentially hotter than the common jalapeño.

Precautions and Pepper Safety

As with all peppers, it is best to avoid contact with the eyes when working with them. For any preparation, the use of gloves and optional goggles is advised. Avoid contacting your eyes, nose, mouth, or sensitive areas after consuming ghost peppers.

Other than the immediate burning, the side effects of consuming the pepper can include an upset stomach and diarrhea.

There are precautions to consider if you have allergies to latex, bananas, avocado, kiwi, and chestnuts.

These allergies are more likely to make you sensitive to the consumption of capsaicin and can exacerbate unpleasant stomach ailments, and even lead to difficulty breathing.

It is important to start small when sampling these peppers and see what you are comfortable with before ingesting more.

A tiny bit goes a long way, even in large dishes.

Where to obtain

Ghost peppers are becoming more and more common in international markets. You may easily find sauces or other condiments that include ghost peppers but may want to call ahead before visiting your local supermarket to see if they are available. You may also want to check local international markets, spice shops, or even nurseries (both online and in-person) if you are interested in propagating your own ghost pepper plant. Keep in mind these plants are used to high heat, humidity, and long growing seasons. It may not grow to be as spicy as the peppers from India (foreign-grown ghost peppers tend to fall between 300,000-800,000 SHU), but will still certainly surprise you with its fruity, powerful spice.