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capsaicin

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Did you know?  Capsaicin is commonly misspelled as capsacin and capsaisin.

Do You Know What Makes Your Chili Hot?

Capsaicin!

Ever wonder why some chili is mild and other chili recipes are so hot that your eyes water and your lips burn?  It all comes down to one specific chemical called capsaicin.

Capsaicin is produced by chili peppers as an irritant to mammals.  The irritant properties of capsaicin cause heightened levels of endorphins in the body which could explain why some humans enjoy the burning sensations that accompany the ingestion of capsaicin.  To further explain, the high levels of endorphins cause a natural high which some people can't seem to get enough of.

Capsaicin is found in the parts of chile peppers that are white and vein like, also known as the placental parts of the chile.  The white covering which holds the seeds in place in the chili peppers has the highest concentration of capsaicin, and the lowest concentration can be found in the fleshy parts of the peppers.

So exactly how hot is capsaicin?  The heat value is usually measured in a somewhat subjective way by Scoville Heat Units.  The method used in determining the heat value involves diluting various amounts of dried chili peppers in sugar water and measuring how hot it is when someone sips the liquid concoction. 

While Scoville Units are still widely used today, more and more scientists are leaning toward high performance liquid chromatography to accurately measure the amount of capsaicin in chili peppers.  While this method is more accurate, you must keep in mind that the levels of capsaicin in certain peppers will vary according to soil, water, and other growing conditions.

The mild bell pepper ranks the lowest on the Scoville scale with habanero and scotch bonnet ranking as two of the hottest peppers.  The Scoville units for habaneros and scotch bonnets range from 100,000 to 500,000.  The more commonly known jalapeno falls in the middle with a range of 2,500 to 8,000 Scoville units.  A more detailed chart of Scoville Heat Units can be found here.

So if you're looking to heat up your chili recipe today, then add a finely chopped habenero to the chili during the cooking process.  If you want a mild chili with just a bit of pepper flavor, then use red, green and yellow bell peppers.  These also add some great color to any chili recipe.

On a final note, there are a few safety issues that you should be aware of when handling the hotter chili peppers.  Capsaicin will burn your eyes (after all it is an irritant and is the main ingredient in police pepper spray).  Capsaicin is not water soluble which means that it will not rinse off with water.  With that said, wear gloves while handling the peppers and keep your hands away from your eyes! 

Written By Danna Vach