What Makes Peppers Hot, Hotter, Hottest

Adventurous eaters make it a point to seek out heat. They’re first in line to eat a ghost pepper or pop a habanero, but you’ll never see them break a sweat. (Lucky!)

There’s no shame in “downgrading” to jalapeno in your salsa or singing the praises of the smoky poblano - we’re not all superhuman, after all.

Here’s everything you need to know about how to manage heat the next time you’re manning the cutting board:

Bam! Cooking with Heat

By now you’ve probably read tons of recipes that vilify chili pepper seeds. And while there’s plenty of heat in those little devils, your mouth really burns because of the white pith you see when you cut your pepper open.

The pith of a hot pepper - and to a lesser extent, the seeds - are coated in capsaicin, a chemical compound that’s the real culprit, here.

One of the jobs of a compound like capsaicin, reports Michaeleen Doucleff at NPR, is to make our nervous system react to a possible burn.

“They make us think our tongues have touched something scalding hot, like boiling water,” Doucleff writes at NPR’s food blog, The Salt.

To counteract the “burn,” our brain floods with endorphins - the chemical equivalent of a happy pill. This effect helps explain why spicy foods - like Sriracha and hot peppers - are perennial favorites, even though they can make your feel hot under the collar (literally).

If you’re not willing to wait for endorphins to kick in for a little heat relief, here’s a good rule of thumb for picking the perfect pepper from the get-go: size matters.

Red-orange habaneros, along with the slim red and green bird’s eye chilis commonly used in Thai cuisine, are strong enough to make your eyes water, even though they look tiny and harmless.

That’s because smaller peppers pose a greater danger to those of us saddled with sensitive taste buds. Fiery chili peppers have more capsaicin relative to the amount of flesh on the fruit, which means if you want to save your tastebuds, think big. Pick a poblano or bell pepper for mild heat and full flavor.

But, says NPR, don’t count out capsaicin altogether. This compound, along with Vitamin C, make hot peppers incredible immunity boosters.

John Hayes, a professor of food science at Penn State University who chatted with NPR’s team at All Things Considered, cited a study that found “regular consumption of chilies and chili-containing foods [was associated] with a decreased risk of premature death.”

That is, if you can survive the heat!

Fire in the Hole

Habaneros and bird’s eye chiles may both be tiny, but they pack a wallop on the Scoville scale.

Used to measure the amount of heat in a pepper, the Scoville scale is subjective because it depends on how receptive a tester’s taste buds are to the increasing heat of a hot pepper.

Still, the Scoville scale is the closest we have to measuring the hottest peppers on the planet, from the ghost pepper (a little over 1 million Scoville units) to the world’s new reigning champ, the Carolina Reaper, which rates a whopping 1,569,300.

For comparison, a jalapeno pepper - the most common pepper found in State-side salsa and guacamole - only rates around 2,500 Scoville units.

Read more about the dangers of Scoville scale testing at Smithsonian Magazine.

Cool Your Jets

Have you ever spent ages chopping up jalapenos for your favorite salsa only to accidentally rub the corner of your eye?

If you’ve spent 10 minutes with your head under a faucet regretting your life decisions, then you know exactly how hard it can be to get pepper oils off your fingers.

What makes these oils so hard to get off, anyway?

As it turns out, pepper oils aren’t exactly water-soluble, which means rinsing with soap and water won’t make them budge.

Instead, you’ll have to turn to another oil, like olive oil, or dish soap - which cuts through the pepper oils on your fingers - to get the job done.

The experts at The Kitchn also recommend dousing your hands with rubbing alcohol, which cuts through pepper oils, or milk.

By the by, if your mouth is burning, a glass of milk can help you cool off on the inside, too.

“It works just like soap dissolving grease particles when cleaning dishes,” Chris Gulgas, a chemistry professor at the University of Cincinnati told Greatist. “Milk will dissolve and remove capsaicin from the reactive area.”

Another good bet? Eat starches like rice and bread to collect those capsaicin chemicals, and coat your scorched tongue with honey or sugar to help ease discomfort.

Read more about combatting spicy peppers at Greatist, so you can enjoy the heat.


Ready to live on the wild side? Try adding a dash of capsaicin to your dish - in the form of the pepper’s pith or seeds - for a little extra heat.

But remember: a pinch of pepper pith goes a long way. (Try saying that three times fast!)

Are you a die-hard spicy food fanatic? Tell us about your favorite fireball dishes in the comments below :

Images: Flickr, Pexels, Flickr