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Hot Chilies

Learn what makes chili peppers hot and how to cool down a too-hot taste of chilies.

Chilies play an integral role in many dishes, and they often star in ethnic recipes. Keep in mind that the type of chili peppers you select will have an impact on your final prepared dish. A milder chili will leave your mouth feeling tingly, whereas the hotter chilies can send you running for relief. People who love hot chilies appreciate the flavor and sensation so much that even the watery eyes, sizzling sinuses and burning tongue don't deter them from seeking the hotter varieties.

As a general rule, smaller peppers are hotter than larger peppers, red fresh chilies are two to three times hotter than green, and dried chilies, because they're more concentrated, are anywhere from two to ten times hotter than fresh.

To protect yourself, wear gloves when handling hot peppers! The capsaicin oils that give them their heat can actually burn your skin (or your eyes, when you touch them with your hands).

How Hot is It?

In 1912, chemist Wilbur Scoville came up with an idea (after a particularly spicy Mexican meal, perhaps?) to develop a system that would measure the heat level of chili peppers. In his tests, Scoville blended ground chilies with sugar water. Taste-testers sipped the water to see if it burned their mouths, and, if it did, the solution was further diluted. When the testers said that the burning sensation was no longer detectable, the Scoville Heat Index for that particular variety of chili pepper was assigned. The more water it took to dilute the heat, the higher the heat index. Today a more scientific method, liquid chromatography, is used to determine capsaicin levels, but the results are still converted to Scoville in honor of the scientist who started it all.

Looking for red hot chili peppers? (And we're not talking about the band.) The Scoville chart lists the following heat ranges for peppers: Sweet bell, 0; pepperoncini, 100 to 500; El Paso, 500 to 700; poblano and ancho, 1,000 to 2,000; jalapeno, 2,500 to 8,000; chipotle, 5,000 to 8,000; serrano, 8,000 to 22,000; arbol (red chilies), 15,000 to 30,000; tabasco and cayenne, 30,000 to 50,000; habanero, 100,000 to 325,000; and pure capsaicin, from 15,000,000 to 16,000,000. The chili's heat level will typically fall within the listed range, impacted by growing conditions, soil and weather.

Soothing the Burn

lemonsFor most of us, the ability to actually enjoy hot peppers is a taste that's acquired slowly. As you climb the chili heat scale, you develop a tolerance that allows you to try the next hottest variety. If you find that you've eaten a pepper that's too hot for your taste (if your tongue is hanging out, your hands are fanning your face, and you're inclined to pick up your napkin and lick it, you've definitely crossed the line), there are remedies available. First of all, DON'T run for the water. Capsaicin is an oil, and because oil and water don't mix, drinking water will generally just spread the oil to other parts of your mouth. Milk, on the other hand, will help cut the heat, as will rice or bread, which absorb the oil. Others recommend acidic foods, such as tomato juice, fresh lemon or lime to counteract the heat.

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