Getting to know…Peppers

Everyone loves peppers, right? They make for some good grub and can also serve as a test of manhood or late night drunken dares. Beyond that, what do you really know about them? If you’re like most Americans, that’s probably about it. I’m here to change that.

Starting with peppercorns (the REAL pepper), you have four distinct varieties, black, white, pink, and green. All are the berries of the same flowering vine plant indigenous to southern India. Black peppercorns are cooked unripe berries that are later dried. Green peppercorns are the same unripe berries, left uncooked, that are usually freeze dried to maintain their green color. White peppercorns are the unripe berries with the outer skin removed, then dried. White peppercorns tend to grind much finer than black or green.

That leaves us with pink peppercorns. There are actually two varieties here, only one of which is actually in the same family as the others. The first type is the dried ripe red berry of the piper nigrum plant and is botanically related to the others. The second type comes from the Brazilian Pepper Tree and isn’t related to the rest but has similar properties. The Brazilian type is most likely what you’ll find if you see pink peppercorns in a store.

By this time, you’re probably wondering why so many other things are also called “peppers”. Historians suggest you thank Christopher Columbus for that. Most people know that he was attempting to cross the ocean to find shorter trade routes to India, where (as I said) peppercorns came from. In Europe, spices were status. Only the very wealthy could afford that kind of luxury and, the more you had, the higher your status. We also know that he didn’t hit India, but landed in southern Mexico where the native Mayans had been cultivating chiles (the Spanish name) for generations. When Columbus returned to Spain, he called these “peppers” as well, most likely to cover up the fact that he failed to do what he set out to do in the first place. That’s the theory, anyway.

Chile peppers are also berries of different plants and are called capsicums. Since they’re berries, they’re also fruits, at least botanically speaking. There are general rules for determining how hot a pepper is. Smaller peppers are hotter than larger ones. Long, thin peppers are hotter than short, round ones. Capsaicin is supposed to protect the plant while it’s young, so unripe green chiles are hotter than other ones. Those last two rules have two VERY important exceptions which I’ll get to in a minute.

A pepper’s spiciness (technical term is piquancy) is determined by how much capsaicin it has. The more capsaicin, the bigger the burn. The level of capsaicin in a pepper is determined using the Scoville scale. The Scoville rating of a pepper is based on an old test of how much the essential oil of a pepper must be diluted in a sugar solution before it’s undetectable by human taste buds. Bell peppers contain no capsaicin, so they rate a 0 on the Scoville scale. The oil in jalapeños needs to be diluted in an 8,000:1 mixture (at the most), so they’re usually given a Scoville rating of 8,000. Serranos (green, small, thinner than jalapeños (see where I’m going?) usually rank at around 22,000 at their hottest. Remember those two exceptions I mentioned? Those would be habaneros (200,000-300,000) and the Bhut Jolokia or Ghost Chile. The Ghost Chile is the hottest thing on the planet, clocking in at well over a million Scoville units. Both of these are small, roundish, and orange or red at maturity. The concentrations of capsaicin are always going to be greatest in the seeds of whatever chile you’ve chosen to play with. Use the seeds for maximum burn.

When dealing with peppers while cooking, it’s generally considered a good idea to wear gloves. If you don’t, washing your hands won’t stop the burn. Jebus help you if you scratch your nose or eyes or (shudder to think) have to use the bathroom. Since capsaicin is oil-based, you need a more powerful solvent. Rubbing alcohol works well, as does whole milk. If you’re dealing with habaneros or Ghost Chiles, nothing will work. You are VERY likely to suffer serious chemical burns. Like the intarnets, this is serious business.

Something else to keep in mind is that you should NEVER cook with these stronger peppers unless your workspace is well ventilated. Inhaling this stuff will burn and scar your lungs. Bad juju. Now you’re probably starting to get an idea of why pepper spray is so effective.

This brings us to what to do after you’ve eaten these things. There are a few things that people try but most of them are complete bunk. The burn from capsaicin isn’t from an acid like many people believe, so trying to counteract that with a base isn’t going to do much. How about water? Once again, capsaicin is oil and water isn’t going to do anything. What happens when you mix oil and water or try to use water on a grease fire?

Cold whole milk will have some effect due to the structure of the fats as well as the dairy sugars but only on smaller levels of capsaicin. The same can be said for sweets. Low levels of capsaicin can be counteracted by sugar. After all, that’s how the Scoville scale was created in the first place. Remember how I said that rubbing alcohol will take the burn off your hands? I’m definitely not suggesting that you drink the stuff, but alcohol is a solvent and can do some serious damage to those burning oils. However, beer isn’t the solution either. Sure, it has sugars and alcohol, but neither will do much against strong peppers. I think you know where this is headed.

Straight booze will work the best against strong peppers or whatever other source of capsaicin you’ve thrown down your face. Clear liquors at least 80 proof will have enough solvency to eat away those oils. The down side is that you have to leave it in your mouth for a while think mouthwash. It needs time to react. After that, spit or swallow, whichever your predilection. The higher the alcohol content, the less time it needs to do its business.

There is one other thing I want to talk about that might pique some interest. There have been studies done (though none conclusive) that suggest that capsaicin has thermogenic effects. Anyone that’s ever experienced pepper sweats can that it raises body temperature. Some people believe this can cause a significant rise in energy expenditure and might actually help in fat loss as a dietary aid. The question isn’t that it has a metabolic effect; the question is more how much of an effect it has. Really, we’re asking how much extra energy capsaicin can help your body burn, awful pun intended.

There we have it, just about everything you never wanted to know about peppers, contained in less than 1200 words. You know you’re happy I help you kill time.