Members of the Solanaceae family, more precisely the Capsicum genus goes from zero to one
million Scoville units in twenty five or so. Starting at the innocuous Capsicum annuum (bell
pepper) all the way up to Capsicum chinense or frutescens (Scotch Bonnet, habanero and Naga
Jolokia), the chili pepper family produces a wide range of culinary heat.
What Makes Chili Peppers so Hot?
The compound that gives chili peppers their burn is capsaicin. Capsaicin specifically is a
C18H27NO3 methyl-vanillyl-nonenamide with a molecular weight of 305.41 gm/mol, a
melting point of 144 degrees F and a boiling point of 410 degrees F. Geez, making it sound so
clinical. Well, capsaicin isn’t just a darling of the culinary world; it also plays a role in the
chemical and pharmaceutical worlds too.
Capsaicin extract is the active ingredient in pepper spray, if you’ve ever chopped a spicy chili
pepper then inadvertently rubbed your eyes, you know what that feels like. Capsaicin is also used
in cream form as an analgesic. Chronically applying topical capsaicin eventually depletes the
body of Substance P which transmits pain and heat sensation to the brain. Less Substance P, less
perceived pain. Finally capsaicin is also being studied as a potential additive to medications that
can be crushed and abused by snorting. Imagine snorting chili pepper extract. Ouch!
The culinary heat produced from chili peppers are frequently assigned a Scoville rating which is
named after the chemist – Wilbur Scoville – who created the rating system. Chili pepper extract
is diluted in a sugar solution and the dilution factor that produces no discernable heat to a
group of tasters becomes that specific chili pepper’s Scoville rating. At one end is your basic bell
pepper which has no capsaicin and therefore rates a Scoville unit of zero. At the fiery end is the
Naga Jolokia pepper (grown in Northeast India) which has topped 1,000,000 Scoville units.
The Scotch Bonnet or habanero register a mere 100,000 to 350,000, Thai and Pequin peppers
just below that with Cayenne and Tabasco coming in at the 30,000 to 50,000 mark.
Jalapenos only rate 2000 to 8000 Scoville units with pure capsaicin extract rating a whopping
16,000,000 Scoville units.
However, Scoville ratings are based on the subjective assessment of individual tasters and
growing conditions greatly affect the heat of chili peppers so what you purchase at your local
market may not give you the heat you seek.
Any Way to Temper the Heat?
For starters, don’t get into chili pepper eating contests just to prove your machismo. Chili
peppers should be added to food to enhance the dining experience. They shouldn’t be consumed
as part of a competitive eating ritual. And beware that the burn you experience on entrance can
frequently repeat on exit.
That being said, most of the heat in a chili pepper is concentrated in the white pith that holds
on to the seeds. Contrary to popular belief, the seeds don’t contain a lot of capsaicin, it’s what
they’re attached to that contains the mother lode of capsaicin. Therefore when adding fresh
chili peppers to your next culinary creation, simply remove the white pith before mincing.
If you forgot to remove those seed piths and have already started chomping down on your
culinary creation, some feel that sipping a little milk helps to alleviate the burn. Supposedly, the
casein or milk protein interacts with the capsaicin so it’s not available to bind to receptors on
your tongue. Since I’m a little lactose intolerant and mainly because I NEVER have a glass of
milk with meals, I simply reach for the ice water. Enough arctic temperature beverages can
numb any tissue… and also replace valuable moisture lost by copious amounts of scalp
Or Prevent the Burn Entirely
You can simply select members of the Solanaceae family that don’t register in the 6-figure
Scoville range. Remember that chili peppers provide much more than heat. They also add rich
flavor qualities to stews, chili, sauces, spreads, you name it. And when they’re slightly charred by
roasting or grilling, the flavors logarithmically expand. Raw red bell pepper – fresh, crisp. Fire
roasted red bell pepper – rich, complex, smoky. Raw jalapeno – spicy. Roasted jalapeno – rich,
smoky, mouth warming but not searing heat. One of my personal Holy Grail’s of the pepper
world is Chile Verde. And not just any Chili Verde but Mrs. Gomez’s Chili Verde. If you’re in
Nichibei Times readership land Mrs. Gomez, I would love your recipe. A perfect blend of roasted
jalapeno and tomatillo, rich broth, tender pork morsels with just enough heat to warm the
mouth. But until I get her recipe (or create my own), I’ll settle for this Romesco sauce. A blend
of toasted nuts, roasted red bell peppers, rehydrated dried chili, tomato, Sherry vinegar and olive
oil. Add more olive oil for a looser sauce on grilled meat, pork or poultry, toss with whole grain
pasta for that “other red sauce” or use less oil for a thicker spread for crackers or sandwiches.
2 large ancho chile, seeded
1/3 cup hazelnuts
1/3 cup skinless almonds, preferably Marcona
2 inch thick baguette, toasted and roughly torn
3 garlic cloves, chopped
4 plum tomatoes—peeled, seeded and coarsely chopped
2 roasted red peppers (roast your own or from a jar)
1 tblsp sherry vinegar
1/4 to ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
Hot sauce to taste
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
In a small heatproof bowl, cover the ancho with hot tap water and soak until softened, about 15
Meanwhile, in a skillet, toast the hazelnuts and almonds for about 10 minutes, or until fragrant
and lightly browned (frequently shake skillet or nuts will burn). Let the hazelnuts cool, then
transfer them to a kitchen towel and rub them together to remove the skins.
In a food processor, combine the ancho with the hazelnuts, almonds, toasted baguette and
garlic and process to a smooth paste. Add the tomatoes, roasted red pepper and vinegar and
puree. With the machine on, slowly pour in the 1/4 to ½ cup (depends how runny you want it)
of olive oil and process until blended and smooth. Scrape the Romesco sauce into a bowl and
season with salt and black pepper.
From 0 to 1,000,000 in Five