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Chile Peppers 101: Your Burning Questions, Answered

Do you often panic when selecting a pepper at the grocery store, fearful of what its skin and seeds are capable of? Are you staring at this page, wondering which colorful peppers deliver sweet nuances and which slap you with blistering heat? Fear no more, my friend. We're here to answer your chile questions and help you find one that's just right for your next meal.

Hot Peppers

Kate Sears

The “C” Word: Capsaicin

Capsaicin is the chemical in chile peppers that makes them spicy. Found in no other plant or animal on earth, it’s most concentrated in the ribs and other pithy white tissue inside chile peppers. (Seeds get coated with capsaicin from that tissue when peppers are chopped up for cooking, which makes people mistakenly think that the seeds are the hottest part.)

Contact with capsaicin activates capsaicin receptors in your mouth and other membranes (skin, eyes, lips), creating the illusion of heat and causing perspiration, watery eyes, a runny nose, flushed cheeks, and eventually the release of endorphins.

Basically, your body views capsaicin as an invader and tries to flush it out. When the attack is over, your relieved brain sends out the all-clear signal—“We lived!” That’s the heady rush that spicy-food fans love.

The Scoville Heat Scale

American pharmacist Wilbur Scoville developed a way to rate the relative spiciness of chile peppers back in 1912. His original method involved having people taste a series of solutions containing lessening concentrations of chile until they no longer sensed the spiciness. For example, if the last solution to register as spicy was 100 parts water to one part pepper, the pepper rated 100 Scoville Heat Units (SHUs). The higher the number, the more intense the spiciness.

We still measure chile pepper heat in terms of SHUs. But these days the most accurate way uses machines called chromatographs to measure the capsaicin in ground chile samples. (No human tongues required. Phew!)

Safe Chile Handling

Put out the fire: The best way to cool a chile-scorched tongue is to drink milk or eat thick dairy products like yogurt or sour cream. They contain casein, a protein that strips capsaicin molecules from the receptors in your mouth. Crunchy foods also help; the texture distracts your brain.

Protect your skin and eyes: Wear plastic or rubber gloves when cutting or handling chiles.

Protect your airways: When grinding dried chiles in a food processor, open the windows or do the grinding outside and wear a painter’s mask if possible. Inhaling chile fumes can cause intense sneezing, coughing, and a runny nose.

Chill out: The freezer is the best place to store any kind of ground chiles, including powders and pastes. Ground chiles lose color and flavor when exposed to air and sunlight.

Size matters: A small pepper has less flesh to dilute the spicy capsaicin, so usually the smaller the pod, the hotter the pepper.

Chile FAQ

I touched a hot pepper and rubbed my eyes. Ow! What now?

Flush your eyes with water or saline solution until you wash the capsaicin away. The pain is intense, and your sight will be impaired (capsaicin is the active ingredient in pepper spray, after all), but the effects are only temporary.

Why does my nose start to run when I eat chiles?

Your nervous system treats capsaicin as an invader, and making your nose run is one way the body fights to repel the attacker.

Does freezing chiles destroy the capsaicin in them?

On the contrary: Chiles that have been frozen are more potent than fresh. They lose water as they freeze and thaw, so capsaicin concentration increases. Same goes for peppers that are withering on your counter or in your fridge: As they dry out, they get more spicy.

Which spelling is correct: chile, chili, or chilli?

Actually, all are right. “Chile” is the spelling in Mexico, “chili” is the Anglicized form of that, and “chilli” is the spelling in Europe and Asia. Many American food publications (including Allrecipes) use “chile” when referring to a specific hot pepper and reserve “chili” for unspecified mixtures containing hot peppers, like the “chili powder” you use in the stew also known as “chili.”

—PopeOfPeppers

This article originally appeared in Allrecipes magazine.

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