Posted November 30, 2004 by Nick Lindauer in Hot Sauce News


“In the Ozarks and deep South of the United States, an African-American legend holds that in order for peppers to grow out and be hot, you have to be very angry when you plant them. The best peppers are said to be planted by a lunatic!”–Dave DeWitt, Chile Peppers in Legend and Lore.


Nuts, chile peppers, tomatoes and tomato products, berries, leafy greens, quinoa, yogurt and tea…Full of phytochemicals, antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and fiber, these superfoods may lower cholesterol and scour your arteries, reduce your risk of heart disease and several forms of cancer, prevent birth defects, improve your digestion, strengthen bones, and boost your immune system.

“The genus Capsicum is a member of the Solanaceae or nightshade family. Peppers share a branch in the family tree with the tomato, potato, tobacco, eggplant and petunia…”–Dave DeWitt.

Scoville Heat Units

Capsaicin is a crystalline alkaloid which causes the heat in chile peppers. This heat (capsaicin), is contained within the placenta and the seeds of the pepper–the placenta is the whitish tissue surrounding the seeds and anchoring the seedbed to the inner walls (the seeds acquire their heat through contact with the placenta). The heat in chiles is measured on the Scoville Scale, in Scoville heat units. Wilbur Scoville developed this rating scale in 1912 on behalf of Parke-Davis Pharmaceuticals, but because he based it on the subjective observations of human tasters, it’s accuracy is often questioned. There is a high-performance liquid chromatography test which measures capsaicin heat far more accurately, but is also far more expensive. In most cases, the rating of the heat in chiles conforms to Scoville’s standard.

Bell peppers rate zero Scoville units; pure capsaicin measures 16 million units. The hottest pepper ever recorded was an habanero, measuring a blistering 577,000 heat units.

Properties of Capsaicin

“The neuron receiving a molecular messenger from such an offending vegetable responds exactly as it would to a sudden rise in temperature… capsaicin binding stimulates certain spinal cord cells that signal the brain to perceive heat…Pepper aficionados know that if one can withstand the initial sense that the mouth is on fire, desensitization follows. That is, the more you eat, the more you can tolerate. There is a physical basis for this phenomenon. In cells growing in culture and in laboratory animals, several hours of exposure to pure capsaicin leads to degeneration and death of the exposed tissues.

Researchers hypothesize that prolonged but not dangerous exposure to capsaicin by hot-food lovers may actually kill pain fibers, and this is why they can tolerate the spicy food. This effect has led to uses of capsaicin in topical treatments for arthritis and herpes outbreaks. The scientists’ elucidation of precisely how capsaicin sets the human mouth afire may lead to development of new types of drugs to treat chronic pain.”

“…Once thought to cause peptic ulcers and aggravate hemorrhoids, the vegetables have been vindicated. The peppers are chock-full of vitamins A, C and E, beta carotene, folic acid and potassium, and are low in calcium, sodium and calories.”–Dr. Ricki Lewis, 1998, Geocities Napa Valley.

Poor Guy

At 23,000 Scoville units, the Serrano pepper is moderately hot–hotter than the jalapeno and ranking just under cayenne. It will set your mouth ablaze, but unlike many chiles, there’s more to the Serrano than pure heat. The Serrano chile has a fruity aspect, a hint of the sweetness of a ripe red bell pepper.

Nineteen year-old Jake, on his first day in the kitchen, in his starched and uncomfortable jacket, was assigned to the cleaning and preparation of a fine dice out of three pounds of Serranos–a fiery salsa for a big clambake we were catering down on the beach a few days ahead (this was before the introduction of inexpensive latex gloves to the foodservice industry). It took him quite a while–that’s a lot of peppers, and Jake was meticulous, anxious to do a good job. He was obviously relieved when his task was completed, and excused himself immediately for an overdue visit to the bathroom.

He didn’t wash his hands first.

That moat which separates extreme discomfort from agony? Jake was swimming in it.

Sous-chef Antonio, a giant Oaxacan of fiendish humor, insisted that Jake have an extended time-out in the men’s room, with a cup of whipping cream and detailed instructions. Jake did as he was told, while the cooks laughed themselves senseless.

The Golden Rule: Wear gloves. If you have no gloves, wash your hands thoroughly with plenty of soap. Do this immediately after handling hot peppers.

“Oh yeah, I like it hot.”

One of the high points of a visit to the unforgettable New Moon Restaurant in Los Angeles’ Koreatown was the reliable theater of those gasping, weeping, snot-dripping unfortunates who’d just had their first experience with real kimchi. I never remembered to bring a camera, though I was convinced it would make a good photo series.

The Golden Rule: No water! Capsaicin is odorless, tasteless and insoluble in water. Drinking ice water to put out a capsaicin fire only serves to distribute the fire more evenly throughout your mouth.

The Best Solution: Eat more hot stuff and desensitize.

The Next Best: Gargle with milk, or eat rice or bread.

The Myth: Drinking alcohol assuages the pain. It doesn’t, but it makes you feel like a stud and it fattens up the check.

Nick Lindauer

The Original Hot Sauce Blog