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Hot or Not: The Science of Spiciness

Tequila Chile Lime Scallops

Have you ever pondered the chemical micro-reactions that happen in your mouth when consuming food? Nope, me either. But when it comes to the searing sensation of spicy foods, I often find myself wondering “Why?!” while eating (and painfully enjoying) them. So I figured that now is as good a time as any to dive into that “why” and learn about what’s going on chemically.

The science behind taste is complex and beautiful — a synchronized waltz between the tongue, nose, eyes, and brain, all working together to produce our perception of flavor. The National Center for Biotechnology Information says that humans can experience around 100,000 flavors. But it turns out “spicy” is not technically a taste caused by taste buds. It’s a sensation caused by pain receptors that are reacting to capsaicin, the chemical compound found in chile peppers.

What Does Capsaicin Do To The Body?

Capsaicin causes those pain receptors to send signals of heat and pain to the brain. That means that, that to your nerve endings, that wasn’t a ghost pepper you just bit into — it was a hot ember. The higher the concentration of capsaicin within the pepper, the more likely it’ll turn you into a living tea kettle. Ouch! (It’s all good, though. Capsaicin generally doesn’t cause any actual burning or tissue damage.)

Capsaicin is found in all chile peppers and is most heavily concentrated in the pith of the fruit (the white part where the seeds are attached). Why does this fiery compound even exist? It’s the plants’ sneaky/smart method to help ensure their seeds are eaten and dispersed by the right animals. Namely, birds who are immune to the effects of capsaicin. 

So why would we, the smartest of all mammals, willingly consume an irritant? Other than the fact that chile peppers are delicious — with a wide range of flavors including sweet, tangy, fruity, smoky, citrusy, and earthy – a popular theory is that they cause the brain to release endorphins which create a euphoric feeling.

Scoville Heat Units

Chile heat is measured in Scoville Heat Units (SHU) on the Scoville Scale. Your everyday bell peppers are the mildest chiles, coming in at a whopping 0 SHU. The current spiciest chile on record, Pepper X, is over 3 million SHU (because some plant breeders apparently just want to watch the world burn).

Scientist Wilbur Scoville developed this method of measuring spiciness in 1912 by having a panel of five trained tasters sample chile pepper extracts. Nowadays, Scoville Units are accurately measured through chemical analysis in a laboratory.

But sometimes the old ways are the best. Strictly measuring the heat doesn't account for the other qualities chiles might have. For instance, some chiles that are technically spicy also have sun-dried sweetness, while milder chiles might not have that same balance and can actually taste more intensely spicy. There are also variations in heat levels - even within the same crop - due to natural variations in these spicy little fruits.

And that's on top of the fact that heat levels can be subjective to begin with. What's unbearably hot to one person might be just right to someone else. Also, chiles are definitely a spice where quantity matters. A sprinkle can result in delicious flavor with subtle heat and 

To that end, we have Savory Spice taste testers on retainer. This time Brand Designer Jonathan and Test Kitchen Manager Michael sampled a series of Savory Spice’s chiles with increasing SHU levels. Here is a list of chile products grouped by heat level, as well as their reactions to a few of them.

Savory Spice Chiles by Heat Level

Low Heat (aka: Even Kids Can Eat These)

Testers’ reactions to Ancho Chile Powder:

  • Michael: “The taste reminds me of spicy raisins, a lot of fruity flavor.”
  • Jonathan: “I don’t really taste any heat.”

Medium Heat (aka: You're Getting Warmer...)

Testers’ reactions to Jalapeño Chile Powder:

  • Michael: “Very bright, very earthy… almost grassy.”
  • Jonathan: “It’s not hot.”

Medium-High Heat (aka: Perfect For Heat Seekers)

Testers’ reactions to Crushed Urfa Chiles:

  • Michael: “Yum… Sweet and fruity. That’s delicious.”
  • Jonathan: “I don’t feel any heat at all.”

Salsa ingredients with jars of Guajillo Powder, Jalapeno Powder, and Crushed Red Pepper

High Heat (aka: These Have a Kick)

Testers’ reactions to Cayenne Pepper Chile Powder:

  • Michael: “Ok, I'm starting to feel the burn.”
  • Jonathan: “Yeah, this definitely brings the heat.”

Scorching Heat (aka: Daredevils Only!)

Testers’ reactions to Ghost Pepper Chile Powder:

  • Michael: “Definitely smoky…” *coughs* “Chocolatey…”
  • Jonathan: “OH GOD I’M DYING!” *hiccup*
  • Michael: *hiccup* “What’s with the hiccups?”
  • Jonathan: “I don’t know. I feel it in my eyes!” *hiccup* “Why did I do this?”
  • Michael: “That’s a fun fact for your blog. *hiccup* Eating a spoonful will give you the hiccups… and also make you want to die.”
  • Jonathan: “I’m sweating!” 
  • Michael: “Feels like I licked an iron.”
  • Jonathan: “[Expletive deleted]!” *guzzles milk*
  • Michael: *also drinking milk* “There’s no relief…”
  • Jonathan: “I’m gonna go wash my hands… not sure why…”
  • Michael: “This is a learning experience.”
  • Jonathan: “Yeah. Never do this again. That’s the learning experience.”
  • Michael: *switches from milk to half-and-half*
  • Jonathan: “I’m trying really hard not to cry in front of you guys right now.”
  • Michael: “It’s not even crying it’s involuntary waterfalls coming out of my eyes.”
  • Jonathan: “... It’s starting to go down. Gargling the milk helps.”
  • Michael: “Gross.”
  • Jonathan: “Okay, I feel like the worst is over.”
  • Michael: “That was crazy.”

Seasonings with Chiles

Chili Powder
Let's start with the most obvious! The base of both Mild Chili Powder and Medium Chili Powder is mild, earthy, slightly fruity Ancho Chile Powder. Onion, garlic, cumin, and Mexican Oregano are added. And, of course, other chiles in varying amounts and with varying heat levels, depending on the desired heat level of the finished Chili Powder.

Nashville Hot Fried Chicken Spices
Hot fried chicken is a Nashville thing and what a tasty thing it is! This dish is spicy hot thanks to a generous amount of cayenne. Make your own Nashville Hot Fried Chicken. Also use this seasoning to spice up a pot of chili, in sauces and soups, or pretty much anywhere you want to add a spicy, flavorful heat.

Chicken wings being tossed in a bowl of hot wing sauce

Recipes with a Little Spice

Hot Wing Chile Glaze
A sweet, sticky sauce perfect for glazing crispy chicken wings. Make it as mild or spicy hot as you like!

Green Chile Sauce
A classic sauce that is the perfect companion to any of your favorite Mexican dishes!

Tequila Chile Lime Scallops
A unique and simple method for cooking scallops in a flavorful marinade/sauce. Serve over rice and drizzle with remaining sauce.

Mango Urfa Salsa
Add this fresh, fruity salsa to your next burrito, burger, or taco, or eat it on its own with tortilla chips.

What fiery dishes will you be cooking up? Tag @savoryspiceshop on Instagram with photos of your heat-tastic meals!

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