“It tastes like burning!” How (and why) chili brings the heat

Written by: Captain Skellett // December 21st, 2009 // How Things Work, Poisons, Science at Home

Capsaicin Necklace

Last night I made spicy Dhall for dinner, because lentils and peas may be high in protein, but they’re also really lame. I used a recipe from an old English cookbook from the 70’s with all pounds and ounces. Couldn’t be bothered converting stuff, so I made it up along the way. Hell, that’s the only way to cook. Here’s a quick recipe.

Hypothesis:
That this will make a vegetarian high protein meal that doesn’t taste like boredom.

Method:
1. Boil lentils or split peas or whatever in water until soft.
2. Melt 50 g of butter and cook an onion, a chili and some cumin, coriandar and cinnamon in a separate pan.
3. Combine the shizz in both the pans together with a can o’ tomatoes and add spices till it tastes good.

Discussion:
It took a bit of experimenting spice-wise to get it nummy, but the final result supported my hypothesis. There was much noms.

During the cooking process I had to remove the chili seeds and membranes ‘cos that’s the done thing, and the whole “delicately extract with a knife” thing really wasn’t working for me (I prefer the roughly stabbing kind of knifery) so I just took it out with my fingers. Big mistake. They were burning all night. As I laid in my bed and cried “WHY?” I wondered “why?” What’s the SCIENCE?

The one responsible for the ouchy-pain is a long guy called capsaicin (and a few of his brothers), mainly found in the membranes around the seeds. It’s flavourless and works by activating pain receptors in nerves, specifically the receptor TRPV1 which usually opens at temperatures above 43 C. Opening causes positive ions to enter en masse, causing the membrane to depolarise and the neuron to fire, discussed here in Frankensteiny detail. There are loads of different pain receptors in your body – each one triggers at a different temperature or pressure. Some are linked directly to motor nerves, so you can react to a hot pan by pulling your hand away faster than you’re brain can say “Ow!”. When you have some chili (or get it all over your skin like I did) your nerve cells actually think you’re on fire.

Making big molecules like capsaicin is a pain in the ass, so there has to be a butt-kicking reason to do it or plants wouldn’t bother. Even if they liked it spicy like Cartmans hand.

My name is Jennifer Lopez I eat tacos y burritos
Spicier!

The heat of a hot chili doesn’t stop humans eating it (quite the contrary), but a mouse or a cow might be less inclined to munch a bunch once they’d tried some. That’s good, because herbivores are fond of chewing things which destroys the seeds. Birds are unaffected by capsaicin and can happily eat chili peppers all the time, good for the plant again – birds aren’t great at chewing, but they are VERY good at flying around and crapping out seeds.

Capsaicin is also an antifungal and antibacterial, and protects the plant with it’s awesome microbe fighting power. It also protects your curry from the evils of mould and might even impart some health benefits. The molecule keeps shape at high temperatures, which is why you can cook the hell out of a curry and it will still taste spicy. It doesn’t dissolve in water, so you’re better off drinking milk if you feel the burn, casein protein acts like a detergent and captures the chili into small ineffective globs. I guess drinking soap would work too, but milk is probably tastier. Ever tried soap? (Some smell so good I can’t resist. You’d think I would know better by now.)

This post would not be complete without a plea for someone to send me chili chocolate icecream. I had it once and I must have it again! The search will never cease until I am in it’s hot chocolatey frozen embrace once again. Seriously, have you ever tried it? It’s the spiciest thing I’ve ever had and paradox in a waffle cone.

Captain Skellett

I be Captain Skellett. Me blog started in April 2009 when I was working full time and didn’t get a chance to talk science. Now I have changed jobs and talk science all the time, but that doesn’t stop me blogging. More About Captain Skellett   Google

   

2 Responses to ““It tastes like burning!” How (and why) chili brings the heat”

  1. Tayschrenn says:

    “This post would not be complete without a plea for someone to send me chili chocolate icecream. I had it once and I must have it again! The search will never cease until I am in it’s hot chocolatey frozen embrace once again. Seriously, have you ever tried it? It’s the spiciest thing I’ve ever had and paradox in a waffle cone”

    Er …..are you dropping a delicate hint to someone?

  2. Nate says:

    Love the Simpsons reference, that poor Ralph

    Right now we have 100mg of >97% capsaicin in our lab fridge. Some post-doc was working with it last year but she is gone. It sits there and mocks me to toy with it. I’m terrified of it and intrigued at the same time. I may or may not end up putting it in my soup one day.






Buy me a Beer!
    If you don't want me to mention your donation just check the box above.
  • $ 0.00
Twittarrr
Follow @CaptainSkellett (561 followers)
Find Me Writin’s