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.

Consider 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.

Some archeologists 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.

While hot 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.

Capsaicin 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.

Chili Combo

1 TBSP unsalted butter, room temperature
3 cups of your favorite chili
1 cup tortilla chips
Topping (recipe below)

Preheat 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.


2 cups milk
1 TBSP unsalted butter
3 eggs, separated
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup grated Monterey Jack cheese
4 teaspoons ground hot red chili peppers
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 corn mixture.

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.