Skip to main content
August/September 2017

Getting to Know: Heat

Whether you crave the spicy burn of hot chile peppers or want to avoid it, it pays to know the ins and outs of chiles’ incendiary qualities. Chile peppers get their fire from a class of spicy compounds called capsaicinoids, the most prominent of which is capsaicin. This compound binds to receptors on our skin and tongues and causes that familiar burning sensation. Here’s what you need to know to cook with chile peppers.

Where Is the Heat in a Hot Chile?

Most of a chile’s heat is found not in its flesh but in its white pith—including the ribs. In fact (according to lab tests we conducted on jalapeño chiles), the pith contains more than 40 times as much capsaicin as the flesh, while the seeds contain six times more. So if you want the flavor of a jalapeño but not its full burn, remove the pith and seeds and use just the flesh.

Heat up Your Spice Cabinet

Red Pepper Flakes: We often use a small amount of red pepper flakes to add flavor and depth—but not necessarily burn—to a dish. The flakes lose their potency over time, so don’t buy a big jar unless you use a lot of them.

Cayenne: This pepper powder has enough kick that we often call for just a pinch in recipes. It’s the go-to heat in Louisiana cooking.

Chipotle Powder: This smoky, hot powder packs lots of flavor—use it sparingly.

Hot Sauces: You likely know Tabasco, the peppery Louisiana sauce that clocks in at 2,500 Scoville units, and Frank’s RedHot Original Cayenne Pepper Sauce, the vinegar-heavy sauce that’s much milder at 450 Scoville units. But there is a world of choices beyond those two supermarket staples. One test kitchen favorite is sriracha, a Thai hot sauce that packs 2,200 Scoville units into every drop.

Storing Chiles

Fresh chiles dry and wither relatively quickly in the refrigerator, so we ran a series of tests to find the best way to preserve their flavor, texture, and heat. To keep chiles in peak condition for the longest time, halve them lengthwise, submerge them in a brine of 1 tablespoon of salt per 1 cup of water in a nonreactive container (a clean jelly jar works great), and refrigerate them. Chiles stored this way retain their flavor and crunch for up to one month. Rinse the chiles before using.

BEST METHOD: Store the chiles in brine.

Protect Yourself

When handling hot chiles, we recommend wearing rubber gloves, as capsaicin can get on your hands and be readily—and painfully—spread to your face and eyes if you unwittingly scratch an itch. Don’t have rubber gloves? Try putting plastic sandwich bags over your hands instead.

Remedy: How do you find relief when your mouth is on fire?

We found that two of the most common purported remedies—drinking ice water or drinking cold beer—don’t work at all. Milk is a much better bet, as its fats bind with and thus absorb the capsaicin.

How Hot Is That Chile?

In 1912, pharmacist Wilbur Scoville invented the scale of spiciness that bears his name. Scoville scores are computed by diluting pepper extract until it no longer registers heat; a sweet pepper has a Scoville rating of zero, while a weapons-grade chile such as the ghost pepper has a score of more than 1,000,000—the larger the number, the spicier the pepper. Scoville scores are often presented as ranges; the numbers below are the average of ranges collected from several sources. And remember, even within the same types of chiles, some will be hotter than others.

Bell Pepper: 0

Poblano: 1,200

Jalapeño: 5,000

Serrano: 18,000

Cayenne: 40,000

Habanero: 400,000