Don’t Rush for Water!
Many of us have eaten a spicy meal that’s too hot for comfort. Sometimes it comes on instantly, other times it’s a slow burn, so to speak. We reach for a glass of water, beer or wine to quench the heat, but that’s the wrong thing to do. And here’s why.
The substance in a chilli pepper that causes the burning sensation in your mouth is called capsaicin. It binds to a receptor in your mouth and on your tongue called TRPV1 – the same receptor that tells you when something on your skin is too hot. Capsaicin is a hydrophobic molecule, thanks to its hydrocarbon tail, so if you reach for a glass of ice-cold water, you’re not going to wash any capsaicin away. In fact, you’ll end up distributing it around your mouth, making the pain even worse.
Thankfully, capsaicin is soluble in oily or fatty solvents and in alcohols. We know you’re thinking: ‘that’s why beer and curry are such good bedfellows’. Well, no. There’s so little alcohol in beer that it’s likely to have the same effect as water. You’ll need a spirit like whisky or vodka to feel the temperature come down. Not the most practical solution.
A better choice is milk. It’s fatty in nature, so will dissolve capsaicin and contains a protein called casein that acts like a detergent, binding to the capsaicin and making it more soluble. Cream and dairy yoghurt also work well (yoghurt is famously added to spicy recipes to cool them down a bit).
But, vegans beware, there is no casein in dairy-free milks, so they won’t have the same effect. You could eat something fatty (a naan) or starchy (such as rice) instead, as both of these will help remove the capsaicin from your flaming tongue.
Sugar is also effective because it increases the solubility of capsaicin in water, as the inventor of the infamous Scoville scale found out in 1912.
To rank different chilli peppers according to their fieriness, Wilbur Scoville came up with the idea of dissolving a standardised weight of dried chilli in alcohol then diluting it with sugar water until a panel of trained tasters could no longer taste it. A chilli pepper’s heat levels are based on the amount of dilution required and quoted in Scoville heat units (SHUs).
While bell peppers are zero on the Scoville scale, jalapeños can reach 8000 SHUs and a bird’s eye chilli (popular in Thai cooking) can top 100,000. Some of the rarer breeds of chilli can reach the same potency as police-grade pepper spray, a staggering 1,500,000 SHUs.
One contestant in a 2016 chilli-eating contest in New York state ate a Carolina Reaper (at more than 1,600,000 SHUs, the hottest chilli in the world) and was subsequently hospitalised with ‘thunderclap’ headaches. That didn’t deter pain-enthusiast Mike Jack. He set a new world record for the fastest time taken to eat three Carolina Reapers in one sitting. Mike chewed, sweated and cried his way through an estimated 4.9 million SHUs in just 9.72 seconds at his home in Ontario, Canada during the 2020 Covid-19 lockdown. What he used to quench the fire is, sadly, not on record.
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