Tame the Heat from Spicy Peppers

Fury Pepper, 2016
Too much of a good thing? No Worries!

We've all been there… the moment "Bring it on!" turns to "Oh please, make it stop!" Eating spicy foods does at times encourage a sense of bravado, pushing many to see just where their boundaries are (or aren't). What can one do in these trying times? While we've yet to find a magic bullet to address such situations, there are a few things we've found helpful in reducing the time and intensity of this experience – along with a few preventive measures. First, a little background.

What Causes the Burn?

Commonly, credit is given solely to capsaicin for being the heat-producing compound in a chile pepper. While mostly true, it's more accurate to give the credit more generally to capsaicinoids, a group of 22 known heat-producing proteins found in spicy peppers. Capsaicin is the most common of these proteins, comprising 69% of the capsaicinoids in chile peppers on average.

Capsaicinoids are alkaloid proteins that are responsible for creating the burning, or pungent, sensation caused by spicy peppers. Contact with capsaicinoids triggers heat sensors that are located throughout the body – creating the illusion of heat. Though, illusion or not, the feeling is quite real. The greater the concentration of capsaicinoids present, the more heat perceived.

Capsaicinoids are believed to have evolved in pepper plants around 13.8 million years ago, and their burning sensation only affects mammals. While pepper seeds are digested within a mammals digestive tract, they remain viable after passing through birds. This evolutionary path made birds the preferred partner of the pepper plant – until being domesticated by humans.

In dealing with its effects, it's helpful to know that capsaicinoids are mostly insoluble in water. They are, however, soluble in alcohol. Additionally, casein in dairy products helps to break the bonds capsaicin forms on nerve receptors and fatty foods can bind with capsaicin, helping to neutralize.

Reducing Mouth Burn

Ice Cubes for Mouth Burn Relief
We've found ice cubes provide temporary, but immediate, relief from spicy pepper heat

It's helpful to know the burning sensation is temporary and will lessen significantly – usually ending in 5 to 10 minutes. Albeit, those can be a long 5-10 minutes! Instinctively, many people reach for a drink of water, which likely won't help, and may make things worse. Since capsaicinoids are not water soluble, drinking water only serves to relocate them within the mouth and stomach (more on that soon).

On the other hand, a 1990 study by Physiology & Behavior found that mouth-rinsing does help. Specifically, it found cool water (around 40°F), sugar water (around 10% concentration), and whole or sweetened milk worked best. This study also found that rinsing with alcohol in concentrations of 5% was equivalent to rinsing with warm water – providing some, but not optimal, benefit.

Our personal favorite is eating string cheese, as the fatty cheese helps to absorb and disarm the capsaicinoids. We like to peel it into very fine strings and chew thoroughly to increase the surface area contact with the mouth. We've also found sucking on an ice cube to be very effective. Once spit out, the heat level slowly starts to rise again. If needed, grabbing another ice cube will bring it back down. We believe this works due to the mouth's cold sensors offsetting the capsaicinoid-triggered heat signals.

While beer contains capsaicinoid dissolving alcohol, it's also mostly water and doesn't help much. One may wonder if swishing (or mouth rinsing with) a small amount of a higher-proof and chilled distilled spirit would work. We recently tried it with whiskey and didn't find it to provide much, if any, relief.

Reducing Stomach Burn

Soon after the mouth burning sensation fades, one might think they've made it through their fiery experience, only to find that round two is waiting for them in the stomach. This is most often the case when peppers are eaten on their own, rather than when incorporated into a meal – especially if the offending pepper(s) are ingested on an empty stomach. We've found this discomfort can sometimes be worse than the initial mouth burn.

Drinking whole milk, and/or eating a small amount of food to absorb the peppers as they digest does help, especially if done before the stomach sensation fully sets in. Better yet, if you're planning on eating/sampling chile peppers, it's a good idea to have something to eat beforehand.

The potential of temporary stomach discomfort aside, moderate consumption of chile peppers has been linked to improved gut health. While some express concern that spicy peppers can cause ulcers, instead they may in fact help to prevent and potentially even heal them. Additionally, research has linked capsaicin to improved functioning of antioxidant enzymes in the stomach and intestines.

Managing Heat via Cooking & Meal Prep Techniques

Fury Peppers on Smoker
Fury peppers on smoker to reduce initial spiciness and bring out sweetness

The way spicy peppers are incorporated into a recipe can help to reduce heat, while allowing the pepper's natural flavor to more fully come through. Below are a few ways to reduce the heat-level when cooking with peppers.

  1. Remove the seeds and inner pith. The white pith that attaches the seeds to the pepper is where most of a pepper's heat is concentrated. Removing it will significantly reduce heat. When doing this, be sure to wear gloves! If they're not disposable, it's a good idea to wash the gloves off before removing. If you're working with a very hot variety, it's also a good idea open windows. When washing away seeds and pith, the capsaicinoids do go airborne and can make breathing incredibly uncomfortable.
  2. Choice of peppers and amount used. When it comes to heat, all peppers are definitely not created equal. The Carolina reaper is almost 2 million Scoville Heat Units (SHU) – or about 200 times hotter than a jalapeno. On the other hand, bell peppers have no heat, clocking in at 0 SHU. Around 50,000 cultivars of chile peppers are estimated to exist – with peppers at nearly any heat-level desired. Want just a hint of heat? The Beaver Dam pepper at 500-1000 SHU is about 1/10th the hotness of a jalapeno. Or, did someone mock the spiciness of your last jalapeno-based dish? Using habaneros this time around will kick things up about 20-fold. Even ghost pepper can be used in a mild or moderately-spiced dish, if only a little is used and uniformly mixed into the recipe.
  3. Cook or grill the peppers. This study showed that capsaicin breaks down at around 400°F. Another study confirmed that heat, especially at higher temperatures paired with acidic conditions (lemon/lime juice, with tomatoes, etc.) reduced capsaicinoid concentrations.
  4. Use of strategic pairings. With capsaicinoids being soluble in alcohol and partially disarmed in casein and fatty oils, pairing peppers with dairy, avocado or even a little bourbon or brandy can help to reduce heat. The Sichuan pepper (not related to chile peppers or black pepper) provides a mouth-numbing sensation and is often paired with spicy peppers to reduce the perception of hotness – allowing for their flavor to be better appreciated.
  5. Jars of Pepper Powder
    Pepper powders made with dehydrated peppers and a coffee grinder
  6. Using hot sauces and powders as an add-on. What one person considers "just right", may be too hot or not hot enough for others. We'll usually make our spicy dishes to accommodate those with a lower heat tolerance, while providing pepper powder for those who'd like to kick it up a notch. We generally prefer the powder to hot sauces as it tends to accentuate a meals flavor without changing it too much. Additionally, pepper powders don't need to be refrigerated, making them very portable with a long shelf life. That said, hot sauces do pair well with many dishes, and making a specialty sauce specifically for a particular meal is a great way to showcase spicy peppers.

Skin Exposure

Spicy peppers can be just as uncomfortable when they, or their oil, comes in contact with your skin. When cutting or de-seeding peppers, it's good practice to wear gloves. This is especially true when de-seeding as the amount of contact involved can cause the burning sensation to last for over a day in extreme cases. It's also a good practice to wash the gloves before removing them. Or, using disposable food-prep gloves that are simply thrown-away or recycled.

If you're doing some light cutting and decide to go glove-less, it's still a good idea wash your hands immediately afterward. Most people won't detect mild capsaicinoid exposure on their fingers. However, they'll become quickly aware of such exposure when their hands touch other, more sensitive, parts of the body. Be especially careful of this if removing or putting-in contact lenses later on; we've ruined a few pairs of contact lenses due to forgetting this.

If skin exposure is causing discomfort, washing with vegetable oil can help to lessen the irritation.

Adaptation to the Heat

What doesn't kill you, makes you stronger, is also a truism when it comes to adapting to capsaicinoids. Repeated, consistent exposure does help to increase one's tolerance to its effects. In addition to making you more heat tolerant (and impressing your friends), consuming chile peppers (responsibly) is also believed to be good for you!

Additional Resources