Chiles evolved to produce fiery capsaicin as a defense against hungry mammals, but it only made humans crave them more. And in late summer, when fresh chiles are at their peak, we can’t think of another ingredient more thrilling to cook with. But what should you do if the heat gets too much to bear? (Hint: Water isn’t going to cut it.)
What makes peppers spicy?
Sweaty palms. Red cheeks. Watery eyes. Anyone who has eaten a spicy chile is familiar with what capsaicin can do. This compound and several related alkaloids are produced by cells mostly found in the pale, fleshy placenta directly beneath the chile’s stalk. (Plants in the genus Capsicum are the only things in the world that can produce it.) The heat is distributed to the nearby membrane and seeds—and to a lesser extent, the whole chile—which is why many recipes tell you to remove those parts before cooking to help manage the spice.
The spiciness of chiles is popularly denoted in terms of Scoville heat units (SHU), a scale created by pharmacist Wilbur Scoville. For scale, shishitos can be between 50 to 200 SHU, the average poblano is around 1,500 SHU, while a habanero can be anywhere from 100,000 to 350,000 SHU.
While the Scoville scale can be a helpful way to gauge a particular chile’s heat level, it’s also imperfect. For one, it relies on human tasters, but moreover, no two chiles are ever going to be exactly alike. Factors like growing altitude, temperature, rainfall, and stress all impact individual plants and, in turn, spiciness, which is why you’ll sometimes end up with a disappointingly mild or surprisingly face-melting jalapeño. Try nibbling a small piece of a raw chile before cooking so you know what you’re dealing with.
What can I do when my mouth is on fire?
Whatever the Scoville level, when the heat from a chile overwhelms, do not reach for that glass of water—despite that being the first instinct. Here’s why: Capsaicin dissolves in fat and alcohol, but water will only spread the burn around. The better option is to soothe your inflamed palate with a glass of dairy (like whole milk, a speedy lassi, or Thai iced tea) or something boozy (the higher ABV, the better), in which the fats and alcohol can cut through the heat.
Reaching for sugar, like a spoonful of honey or granulated sugar straight to your mouth, may provide the illusion of temporary relief, but does nothing to break down the capsaicin. You’re essentially distracting your mouth from one sensation with another. Crunching on ice? Same effect: a distraction but not a solution. You’ll feel the heat again as soon as the ice melts. Reach for ice cream instead, which provides a one-two punch of (literal) cooling relief and fatty dairy to break away the spicy compound.
Beat the heat:
This mango and cumin lassi from chef Preeti Mistry strikes the right balance of sweet and savory. Try adding white rum, “if that’s your thing.”