What makes a hot pep­per hot?

The Progress-Index - At Home - - FOOD - Lee Re­ich

Ouch! Who would have thought that veg­etable with the de­mur green skin could con­tain such bite?

But that's just a myth about pep­pers, that red means hot and green means not. Red just means ripe and green means un­ripe.

Hot or not, ripe means more fla­vor­ful. Pep­pers, like toma­toes, taste best fully ripened.


Hot pep­pers' hot­ness comes from com­pounds called cap­saicins (kap-SAY-uh-sins), which have no fla­vor them­selves. Cap­saicins merely stim­u­late pain re­cep­tors, and the body's re­sponse is to speed up the heart and me­tab­o­lism, and in­duce sali­va­tion and sweat­ing. The two dozen or so dif­fer­ent cap­saicins vary in their ef­fects: A ha­banero, for in­stance, bites you right away, then fades, while a jalapeño sneaks up on you with its hot­ness.

Why would any sane per­son eat some­thing that pro­duces pain? The rea­son might be that while the heart is rac­ing and sweat is pour­ing out, the brain is also re­leas­ing en­dor­phins to block the pep­per pain. En­dor­phins in­duce a mild eu­pho­ria.


Some­times pep­pers' hot­ness can, of course, be down­right un­pleas­ant. The fire can be quelled a num­ber of ways — wa­ter or beer not among them.

Sug­ary or acidic com­pounds can mod­er­ate the heat, which makes a case for eat­ing some­thing sweet and sour along with some­thing fiery. Cap­saicins are fat-sol­u­ble, so the quick­est way to turn down the heat is to shove some fatty food into your mouth. Milk pro­tein also quells the fire, mak­ing full-fat dairy prod­ucts use­ful to have on hand. Thus the use of sour cream and av­o­cado in Mex­i­can cui­sine, yogurt in In­dian cui­sine and co­conut in Thai cui­sine.

The cool, green ex­te­rior of a green chili isn't the only thing that could fool a per­son un­fa­mil­iar with it. Your first, ten­ta­tive nib­ble of a pep­per is usu­ally at its tip, which of­ten isn't hot at all.

Don't be fooled: A hot pep­per's fire is mostly in its ribs and near the seeds. Some of that hot­ness also bleeds into the seeds them­selves. So if you want to be spared the full hot­ness of a hot pep­per, strip out the ribs and seeds be­fore eat­ing it.

Make sure to wash your hands thor­oughly af­ter you've worked with pep­pers be­cause the cap­saicins can cling to your fin­gers and be car­ried to your mouth, eyes or other sen­si­tive parts of your body. And don't try to wash the hot­ness away with wa­ter. Milk is a con­ve­nient treat­ment, ei­ther as a wash or just pat­ted on with a milk-soaked pa­per towel.


In 1912, Wil­bur Scov­ille came up with a method for quan­ti­fy­ing pep­per heat. He di­luted a pep­per and noted at what di­lu­tion hot­ness could still be de­tected. So a bell pep­per chalks up zero Scov­ille

units be­cause it's not hot even eaten straight up.

Poblanos are mildly hot (1,000 Scov­ille units), jalapeños are hot­ter (4,000), Thais hot­ter still (100,000) and habañeros top the scale with about 200,000 Scov­ille units. Mix one part ha­banero in 200,000 parts of wa­ter — equiv­a­lent to one drop in more than 2 ½ gal­lons of wa­ter — and you'll still taste some hot­ness! Scov­ille units are av­er­ages.

Grow­ing con­di­tions can turn a pep­per ther­mo­stat up or down, with more stress — hot­ter tem­per­a­tures, or soil that is too wet or too dry, for ex­am­ple — gen­er­ally re­sult­ing in hot­ter pep­pers.

Grow­ing con­di­tions have less in­flu­ence on the bite from pep­pers with smaller fruits than from those with larger fruits.

Ripeness is also a fac­tor, and red pep­pers of any va­ri­ety will be hot­ter than green ones of the same va­ri­ety.

Still, any habañero, no mat­ter what its ripeness or grow­ing con­di­tions, will get more en­dor­phins pump­ing than will any red poblano.


Fresh-picked hot pep­pers and other sum­mer gar­den veg­eta­bles are dis­played for sale Aug. 8 at a farm­ers mar­ket in Falls Church, Va.

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