HOW TO CONTROL THE HEAT IN A CHILI DISH
By Celeste Suber
You sink your teeth into a red-hot chili pepper, the taste hits your tongue, and
milliseconds later a burning sensation surfaces and travels to the back of your mouth.
Then your eyes start to water, your lips begin to burn and your sweat glands start
to pour. If it's too much for you, your first reaction might be to gulp down a glass
of water, preferably with ice. But wait-water is not the solution, and it may even
make things worse.
Capsaicin, (kap-sa´ i-sin), the alkaloid that causes the
heat sensation in chili peppers, behaves much like an oil-it does not mix with water.
In fact, water spreads the oily substance around, increasing the burn.
the ingredients for the topping in the recipe shown here. The dairy products are clues
to how the topping balances the burn. The oil in dairy products dissolves the oily
capsaicin, thus reducing its power to burn your mouth. But don't worry, the topping
does not eliminate the peppery potency altogther.
Chili peppers have been adding
zing to foods in Central and South America for some 9000 years. But in the last few
years that they've burst upon the scene in the U.S., with varieties ranging in intensity
from mild to extra hot.
In addition to including dairy products and selecting
the right pepper, you can control the chili's intensity in your recipe by paying attention
to the part of the chili you use. Capsaicin is found in the pepper's seeds, inner
walls and placenta (point where the seeds are attached). Removing these parts when
cooking reduces the potency.
Technically, chilis are not peppers at all, nor
are green bell peppers. They all belong to the species Capsicum annuum, and the family
Solanaceae, which includes potatoes, tomatoes and eggplant. We call them peppers because
when Spanish explorers first sampled chilis in the Caribbean islands, they likened
the pungent flavor to the black pepper they knew.
Like bell peppers, chilis
turn from green to red (or sometimes yellow or purple) as they ripen, and their flavor
changes from tart and sharp to sweeter and more mellow.
credit birds with the expansion of wild chili plants. They believe birds ate the seeds
and then scattered them from Bolivia to Central and South America.
peppers add culinary excitement for some people, they can become an addiction for
others. In an article in New Scientist, John Prescott reports on findings of a study
conducted by Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization:
"Capsaicin triggers the release of endorphins, the body's natural painkillers.
Endorphins can create a sense of pleasure or wellbeing. So when food contains capsaicin,
the experience of eating is more intense and the food seems more flavorful."
Those findings may explain why some restaurants serve hot peppers as an appetizer.
is used in other, non-culinary, ways as well, such as in self-defense spray, due to
its properties as an irritant, and in a pain-relief cream.
Once you know about
capsaicin, you can make your chili as hot as you dare. Just be sure to serve it with
a glass of milk.
1 TBSP unsalted butter, room temperature
cups of your favorite chili
1 cup tortilla chips
Topping (recipe below)
oven to 350ºF (175ºC). Butter a 9-inch square baking pan. Prepare topping and set aside.
In buttered baking pan, layer chili and tortilla chips, ending with a layer of chili.
Cover evenly with topping. Bake, uncovered, 45 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted
in center of topping comes out clean. Makes about 6 servings.
1 TBSP unsalted butter
3 eggs, separated
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 cup grated Monterey Jack cheese
4 teaspoons ground hot red
2/3 cup canned creamed corn
In a saucepan, scald 11/2 cups
milk with butter. Cool. In another saucepan, beat egg yolks until blended; beat in
remaining 1/2 cup milk, flour and salt. Cook over low heat, stirring, until thickened.
Remove from heat. Slowly add cooled scalded milk, whisking well; gently stir in cheese,
ground chili peppers and corn. Beat egg whites until they hold stiff peaks; fold into
• • •
Visit the Kitchen Theater at Carnegie Science Center
to learn more about the science of cooking, along with a taste and a recipe to take
home. Demonstration times vary, but a daily schedule is posted in the Science Center
entrance lobby. The Kitchen Theater at Carnegie Science Center is sponsored by the
Jewish Healthcare Foundation.
Celeste Suber is an intern at the Carnegie
Science Center Kitchen Theater. Recipe from Hotter than Hell: Hot and Spicy Dishes
from Around the World by Jane Butel.