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Friday, May 31, 2013

Handling Hot Peppers

I love hot peppers.  We grow a bunch of different varieties, from the not-at-all-hot sweet bell peppers to the super-lethal Trinidad Scorpion peppers.

We love cooking with all of these different peppers, but some do require care in handling and preparation.

First you need to know about how hot your pepper is expected to be.  Pepper heat is measured on a scale called the Scoville scale.  Bell Peppers measure 0, while pure capsaicin, the stuff that make peppers hot, is about 15 to 16 million.

Capsaicin  is the active component of chili peppers. It is an irritant for mammals, including humans, and produces a sensation of burning in any tissue with which it comes into contact. Capsaicin and several related compounds are called capsaicinoids and are produced as secondary metabolites by chili peppers, probably as deterrents against certain mammals and fungi.

Here's how some fairly common peppers fit onto the Scoville scale:

So what happens if you touch capsaicin?  The result appears to be that capsaicin mimics a burning sensation, the nerves are overwhelmed by the influx, and are unable to report pain for an extended period of time.

Which means?  It feels as if you have burnt your hand (or your eye, or whatever you happen to touch....).

The best way to avoid this is avoid touching peppers that will cause this for you.

For me - I can handle jalapenos and habaneros without much problem.  My hands don't burn, but I do need to take care not to rub my eyes.  When I cut up 10 pounds of jalapenos last summer for pickling, I did notice my hands were burning for some time afterwards.  And because jalapenos tend not to bother me much, it took me a while to figure out what the problem was!  So, if I were going to cut large quantities of these, I'd consider wearing latex gloves.

Ghost and scorpion peppers, on the other hand, are a LOT hotter and require me to take more care.  With these, I handle only the outside generally, and use my mini-food chopper to do all the cutting.  I like these to be cut quite finely in any case, so that the heat can be distributed throughout the dish.  While these peppers do not cause burning on my hands, are extremely hot if I touch my eyes or mouth.

But let's say, you don't have latex gloves, or just decide to live on the wild side and forgo them entirely.  And now your hands are burning or you can't keep from rubbing your eyes.  What do you do now?

For external exposure, covering the surfaces that have contacted capsaicin with oily compounds such as vegetable oil, paraffin oil, petroleum jelly (Vaseline), creams, or polyethylene glycol is the most effective way to attenuate the associated discomfort; since oil and capsaicin are both hydrophobic hydrocarbons the capsaicin which has not already been absorbed into tissues will be picked up into solution and easily removed.

Capsaicin can also be washed off the skin using soap, shampoo, or other detergents, though generally not as effectively. Plain water is ineffective at removing capsaicin, as are vinegar, bleach, and topical antacid suspensions.

What happens if your mouth you've accidentally (or on purpose even) eaten something so hot your mouth is "on fire"?

Ice cream sandwich!  Seriously!  Additionally, cold milk is an pretty good way to treat the burning sensation and room temperature sugar solution (10% sugar to 90% water)  is almost as effective.

Note:  the cooling sensation may however only have a temporary effect, while drinking any beverage will enhance the burning sensation by spreading the Capsaicin throughout the mouth and maximizing receptors' exposure to it, making bread or white rice a better alternative. The burning sensation will slowly fade away over several minutes to hours if no actions are taken.

Burning and pain symptoms can also be relieved by cooling, such as from ice, cold water, cold bottles, cold surfaces, or a flow of air from wind or a fan.

So to summarize:
  • know your "heat" tolerance
  • minimize your exposure to peppers that are above your heat tolerance by wearing gloves or not touching the insides of the peppers
  • use oil or vaseline to remove the heat from your hands
  • eat an ice cream sandwich or drink a glass of milk if you've eaten something too hot
Also good to know - the heat won't last forever and there won't be lasting damage.  So maybe try something a little hotter next time.  You may find yourself working your way up to the super hots!

zentMRS - Love in the Kitchen
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