Controlling Capsaicin Pungency

Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

  • About
The pungency of any dish that contains chillis is influenced by four main factors: the variety of chilli used, the amount of chilli added, the presence or absence of the capsaicin-rich tissues, and the length of time that the chilli is in contact with the other ingredients. The cook can reduce the pungency of chillis substantially by cutting them in half and carefully dissecting and removing the spongy placental tissue and the seeds.
What about quenching the burn once the mouth is already on fire? The two surest remedies—though they’re only temporary—are to get something ice-cold into the mouth, or something solid and rough, rice or crackers or a spoonful of sugar. Cold liquid or ice cools the receptors down below the temperature at which they are activated, and the rough food distracts the nerves with a different kind of signal. Though capsaicin is more soluble in alcohol and oil than it is in water, alcoholic drinks and fatty foods appear to be no more effective than cold or sweetened water at relieving the burn (carbonation adds to the irritation). If all else fails, take comfort in the fact that capsaicin pain generally fades within 15 minutes.