Serious Heat: Taming the Chile Fire

Serious Heat

Andrea Lynn, senior editor of Chile Pepper magazine, shares thoughts and observations from the fiery food world.

Editor's note: On Thursdays, Andrea Lynn, associate editor of Chile Pepper magazine, drops by to drop some Serious Heat.


Photograph from TooFarNorth on Flickr

20090311chilediagram.jpgWhen the fiery power of a chile catches you by surprise, calming the scorching pain is a necessity. The key to extinguishing the fire is understanding the chile and its heat. Science experts David Joachim and Andrew Schloss explained this in a recent article we did in Chile Pepper. According to the duo, hot and sweet peppers are members of the same botanical family, Capsicum, but sweet peppers have a recessive gene that prevents them from producing capsaicin.

This spicy compound is produced by a chile pepper's placenta, the white internal membrane or "core" that holds the seeds. From there, capsaicin migrates into the seeds and along the inner walls of the pepper in lesser amounts. The outer, edible layer is the pericarp.

When consumed, capsaicin makes you feel warm, increases your metabolic rate, and stimulates blood flow and sweat. Curiously, only mammals are affected by capsaicin; birds are immune to it.

So what can you do to control the pain? At Chile Pepper, we're pretty much experts on this issue. While working on our March Hot Sauce issue, we tasted more than 350 hot sauces. Yesterday, we powered through 40 salsas--just another day in the office. Here's how we get through the scorch:

  • Cooling dairy products like sour cream, yogurt, or milk draw the heat away from your tongue. The fats found in these products go a long way to soothe the pain. In 1989, John Riley, editor of the journal Solanaceae, found that a protein in milk called casein strips capsaicin from the nerves
  • Eating bread or crackers absorbs the heat
  • According to Joachim and Schloss, cold temperatures do a good job of relieving burn by chilling the nerve receptors. To douse the flames after a spicy bite, drink something cold like beer or milk again. (That's two points for milk!)
  • One thing that surprisingly doesn't help as much? Water. Capsaicin is soluble in fat or alcohol but not in water. Water just spreads the capsaicin around your mouth, which can make things even worse

Take it from the experts. Don't forget to wash your hands after handling chiles or chile-infused products, otherwise you'll spread that burning sensation to other sensitive areas, such as your eyes. Ouch!