Have you ever found yourself needing to clarify whether you mean “hot hot,” “burning hot,” or “spicy hot?” You’re not alone. While many languages have specific words for these sensations, it’s a gray area in English.
Colloquially, “hot” and “spicy” are often used interchangeably, but some insist that “hot” means temperature, and “spicy” indicates flavor. Culinary experts agree that “hot” refers to chemical compounds (capsaicin) that produce a burning sensation, and “spicy” refers to seasonings like black pepper.
However, the conversation is far more nuanced than that. Is there a better way to express these three variations of “hot?” Read more to find out.
The Casual Use of “Hot”
People often create misunderstandings when using “hot” to refer to food because it could be hot from the taste or the touch. Many say that it should be clear from the context which “hot” is implied, but many times, food is both things at the same time, so it’s unclear which “hot” is the aggregate.
When asked, many people believe that “hot” should only refer to temperature and that marketing hot sauce as “hot” is inaccurate.
However, many culinary experts disagree because some peppers produce a “burning” sensation similar to burning your mouth. The Scoville scale measures this burning sensation.
The Scoville Scale
Wilbur Scoville developed the Scoville scale in 1912 through the “Scoville Organoleptic Test.” The experiment involved grinding the peppers and mixing them with sugar. Then, he would have several people taste them. After each taste, he would dilute the mixture with water.
After each dilution, he would record a point. Scoville Heat Units (SHU) is the measurement determined by how many dilutions were needed to disperse the burning sensation. In his article, “The Scoville Scale,” Mike from Chili Pepper Madness describes this in detail.
The Scoville Scale ranges from the bell pepper, which contains no capsaicin, to resiniferatoxin, a plant in Morocco with a SHU of 15 billion.
Pure capsaicin has a SHU of 16 million and is marked as “harmful” to mammals because it irritates our tissue. To put things into perspective, pepper spray has a SHU of 5.3 million.
Two kinds of peppers that are popular in cooking are the cayenne pepper and jalapeño pepper. Cayenne pepper is about 50 thousand SHU, and the jalapeño rests at around 5,000. That’s a lot less than the original Tabasco sauce, which sits at a comfortable 37,500.
The Casual Use of “Spicy”
While “hot” could mean “spicy,” the terms are not entirely interchangeable. For example, you can’t use “spicy” to refer to freshly-baked chocolate chip cookies. However, you could use “spicy” to describe a sauce on the Scoville scale even though it doesn’t use spices.
In casual conversation, “spicy” is seldom used to describe a well-seasoned dish. After all, it would feel odd for most people to describe vanilla ice cream or cinnamon rolls as “spicy” even though they contain spices. But that’s the perspective of culinary experts!
By definition, “spicy” food contains spices like nutmeg, cinnamon, and black pepper, so “spicy” food doesn’t necessarily have to burn your palate. That’s why many people rank “spicy” food to be less spicy than “hot” food.
Is Hot Sauce the Same As Chili Sauce?
One of the most popular ways to give food more flavor is through sauces! These sauces might seem to fall right back into the linguistic hole in terms of “hot” or “spicy,” but because hot sauce is a common term for sauces with capsaicin, it’s less of a debate here.
“Spicy sauce” isn’t as catchy. Nevertheless, sauces have their fair share of debate, namely between hot sauce and chili sauce.
Hot sauce and chili sauce aren’t the same. Hot sauce is a blanket term for any sauce that leaves a burning sensation. On the other hand, chili sauce implies the primary ingredient: chili paste. While hot sauces generally use peppers like the long pepper, chili sauce uses chilis.
These sauces come in varying textures and heat levels.
The Traits of Hot Sauce
Even though “hot sauce” describes many different things, most people differentiate it from chili sauce due to its consistency. Many generic hot sauces tend to be watery and have vinegar as a primary ingredient. These sauces come in dasher bottles made for easy sprinkling.
Famous hot sauces include:
- Tabasco Sauce: This hot sauce is one of America’s favorites. With just three ingredients, Tabasco Original Flavor Pepper Sauce (available on Amazon.com) adds a vinegary punch to any dish.
- Cholula: If you’re looking for a great Mexican hot sauce, you can’t go wrong with Cholula Original Hot Sauce (available on Amazon.com). This sauce is spiced with classic Mexican spices and contains arbol and piquin peppers.
The Traits of Chili Sauce
Chili sauce tends to be a lot thicker because it contains the fiber from the chilis. Many times, they are also richer than hot sauce. Chili sauces have a ketchup-like consistency that comes in a squeezable bottle. Many chili sauces have a tomato base that compliments the flavor of chilis and adds to the thick texture.
Famous chili sauces include:
- Huy Fong Sriracha: This popular Thai chili sauce is made from sun-ripened chilis and garlic. In fact, Huy Fong Sriracha Chili Hot Sauce (available on Amazon.com) is the most-used chili sauce in America!
- Melinda’s Thai Sweet Chili Sauce: Melinda’s Thai Sweet Chili Sauce (available on Amazon.com) uses cayenne peppers but has the thick and rich texture of a chili sauce.
Culinary Experts Expand Vocabulary
Chefs broaden their vocabulary to describe the different tastes and sensations a person experiences. Two of these concepts are pungency and piquancy.
Pungency is a sharp smell or taste, and the degrees vary between mild and hot. Because of this, chefs use the term “pungent” instead of “burning hot.” Generally strong, pungent foods include hot peppers, horseradish, and mustard.
On the other hand, spices like cinnamon and cumin are piquant. They create pleasant flavors that don’t necessarily burn your tongue. Alternatively, these foods could be referred to as “spiced” instead of “spicy.”
With the adaption of these terms, “hot” would simply mean hot from the oven.
Different Kinds of Heat
Taste is a science. To chefs, there is a clear distinction between “hot hot,” “burning hot,” and “spicy hot,” but there are other kinds of chemical compounds that they consider as well!
- Piperine is the mild, short-lasting heat that comes from peppercorns. Chefs describe this flavor as “peppery.”
- Allicin is a part of the garlic family and has a pungent, mild heat. This flavor falls under the “pungent” umbrella.
- Gingerol is the chemical compound found in ginger. It has a “warming” heat that enhances other compounds.
- Cinnamaldehyde is a piquant compound found in cinnamon. It enhances other compounds.
- Menthol comes from the mint family. It’s described as a “cold heat.”
- Ethanol is the chemical compound found in alcohol. It “burns on the way down.”
- Alpha Hydroxy Sanshool is the compound found in Sichuan peppercorns. This pepper has a “tingly” or “numbing” effect and was completely illegal in the United States until 2005, and even now, it’s still heavily regulated.
In this day and age, it’s perfectly acceptable to use either “hot” or “spicy” when describing foods containing capsaicin, even though they aren’t necessarily the same thing. The Scoville scale measures levels of spice.
While “hot” and “spicy” are inadequate terms to avoid misunderstanding, they are so ingrained into colloquial linguistics that it might be difficult for everyday citizens to adapt to standard culinary terms such as “pungent” and “piquant.”
That said, “hot,” “spicy,” and “spiced” may have the potential to catch on in the future.
- UsingEnglish.com: Spicy and/or hot? What’s the difference?
- HiNative: What is the Difference Between Hot and Spicy?
- Reddit: Spices vs spicy vs hot
- YouTube: What is the difference between Spicy and Hot?
- Alimentarium: The Scoville Scale
- Chili Pepper Madness: The Scoville Scale
- The Nibble: Pungent vs Piquant foods
- PepperScale: What’s a Good Chili Sauce Substitute?
- Reddit: Do Chefs Have Different Words to Describe “Hot hot,” “Spicy hot,” and “Burning Hot?”