Chili: Red-Hot Healer – A Proven Pain Killer, Burning Up Fat and A Heart-Warming Spice

It’s a bit ironic that the hottest spice in the world is called chile. Then there’s the ongoing debate as to its spelling. Is it chile, chilli, or chili? (And why not chilly?)

Self-professed keepers of the flame, so to speak, defer to the Spanish chile, rather than the English chili, or the chilli that is synonymous with Mexican cuisine, so chile it shall be. But it really doesn’t matter how you spell it as long as you know what it means: hot, as in a mouthful of persistent heat that can range from tangy to tongue torching.

Chiles get their trademark fire from capsaicin, an alkaloid concentrated mostly in the interior seeds and membrane. The more capsaicin, the more intense the heat. If there’s no heat, there’s no capsaicin. If there is no capsaicin, it’s not a chile.

Capsaicin is indestructible. Neither cold, nor heat, nor water will douse the fire—a fire so fierce it can incinerate a variety of diseases. And the hotter the chile the more therapeutic it is. But have no fear: you don’t need a high pain threshold to benefit. All chiles have healing properties.

Chile’s healing capsaicin is enhanced by a wealth of antioxidant vitamins. Ounce for ounce, a chile contains nine times more vitamin A than a green pepper, and twice as much vitamin C as an orange. It’s also rich in minerals, including potassium and magnesium.

In the last 20 years, thousands of scientific studies have been published describing the medicinal benefits of chiles. Here’s the “hottest” research.

A Proven Pain Killer

When you bite into a chile, capsaicin triggers the release of a neurotransmitter called substance P, which tells the brain to transmit pain along nerve fibers. Capsaicin, however, builds a tolerance to substance P. As you eat more and more chiles, capsaicin triggers less and less substance P. (At the same time, it also triggers the release of somatostatin, a hormone that cools inflammation.) This is why diehard chileheads can down hotter-than-hot habañero hot sauce that leaves neophytes writhing in agony. In effect, your taste buds become desensitized to the burn.

People with a lot of pain have a lot of substance P, and capsaicin affects it in a similar way. When you rub capsaicin cream into the skin at the source of pain, you feel a warm and burning sensation, a sensitivity caused by substance P. However, repeated use, usually over a period of three days, reduces and eventually blocks substance P, numbing the pain, and releases somatostatin, which promotes the healing process.

Studies have found that capsaicin creams, which are approved by the FDA, can have a dramatic and long-lasting anesthetic effect on a variety of painful conditions. Most studies show that capsaicin cream brings relief to nearly 75 percent of people who use it. It even works for extreme pain. Zostrix, for example, is an FDA-approved prescription capsaicin cream for some of life’s most painful events, such as nerve pain associated with mastectomy or post-operative amputation.

The one downside to capsaicin cream is the initial heat, which can cause skin redness and irritation in some people. However, a study reported in Archives of Internal Medicine reported that capsaicin cream was the preferred treatment of choice among 100 older patients with severe osteoarthritis in the knees.

These are among the most effective uses for capsaicin creams:

Arthritis. Capsaicin not only offers pain relief to people with osteoarthritis. Studies show that it also increases levels of synovial fluid, which lubricates joints and helps prevent the breakdown of cartilage. It all adds up to less pain and increased flexibility.

In a study from researchers at the University of Miami School of Medicine, people with osteoarthritis of the knee applied either a .025% solution of capsaicin or a plain cream to their knees, four times a day. Those who used capsaicin cream had an obvious reduction in pain after two months. By three months, 81 percent reported fewer arthritic symptoms, including morning stiffness. In contrast, only 54 percent of those using the placebo reported feeling better. The study was reported in Seminars in Arthritis and Rheumatism.

Nerve pain. A study at the University of California, San Francisco found that high-dose capsaicin cream significantly reduced chronic, debilitating nerve pain (neuropathy) associated with a range of diseases. Seven out of 10 patients improved by at least 50 percent.

A study of 200 patients with nerve damage, reported in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, found that capsaicin cream “significantly reduced” shooting pain and numbing pins-and-needle-like sensations.

Postherpetic neuralgia (PHN). Shingles (herpes zoster) is a rash-like outbreak of blisters—typically in middle or old age—sparked by the same virus that causes chickenpox in children. In many people with shingles, the reactivated virus damages the nerves, producing an excruciatingly painful condition that can last for weeks (and sometimes years) called postherpetic neuralgia (PHN). The FDA has approved a prescription patch containing pure, concentrated synthetic capsaicin called Qutenza for relief from PHN.

Diabetic neuropathy. In one study researchers randomly assigned either capsaicin cream or a placebo to treat 250 people with painful diabetic neuropathy, a common complication of diabetes in which nerves are damaged, often in the legs and feet. The patients using the capsaicin cream had nearly a 70 percent reduction in symptoms.

“With the exception of initial transient burning, capsaicin offers several advantages over oral analgesics [painkillers],” wrote the researchers in Archives of Internal Medicine. Those advantages included safety, fewer side effects, and fewer drug-drug interactions.

Neck pain. Physicians at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington D.C. treated 23 people with chronic neck pain with a .025% capsaicin cream four times a day. After one month, the doctors asked a number of questions, including: “If your pain returns and you were given a choice, would you choose to use the cream again?” A total of 75 percent said they would. The study was reported in theAmerican Journal of Physical Medicine &Rehabilitation.

Headaches. Capsaicin used nasally greatly reduced symptoms among 52 people suffering from one-sided cluster headaches. The researchers, reporting in the journal Pain, found 70 percent of the patients benefited when the capsaicin was applied to the nostril on the same side as the headache.

Burning Up Fat

Fiery capsaicin raises your body heat, increases perspiration, and boosts your metabolic rate—an effect that has helped people lose weight and prevented others from gaining it. Eating chiles can benefit weight loss in several ways:

Increases metabolism. Several studies show that eating chiles increases the rate at which you burn calories. The effect can last for 20 minutes to six hours.

Decreases appetite. In a study by Dutch researchers, people who took a capsaicin supplement before meals ate less fat and fewer calories. The findings were in the International Journal of Obesity.

In another study, in the British Journal of Nutrition, people who ate chiles at breakfast were less hungry and ate less at lunch, and people who ate chiles as part of a dinner appetizer ate fewer calories and fat for the remainder of the meal.

Increases fat burn during exercise. Taking a capsaicin supplement one hour before aerobic exercise increased fat burn, reported a Japanese study in the Journal of Nutritional Science and Vitaminology.

Dissolves fat cells. In animal research, eating chiles reduced the number of fat cells and helped prevent new fat cells from forming—even in animals fed a high-fat diet.

Prevent the complications of obesity. Researchers found that capsaicin can reduce insulin resistance and prevent fatty liver disease in animals—two prediabetic conditions common in Americans who eat a high-fat, high-sugar diet.

A Heart-Warming Spice

Population studies conducted around the world show that people living in chile-eating nations have lower rates of cardiovascular disease than people living in nations where the cuisine is bland. Studies show eating more chiles can help:

Prevent blood clots. When scientists looked at medical records in chile-eating countries, they found a much lower incidence of embolisms, or potentially dangerous blood clots, which can lead to a heart attack or stroke. Studies show that capsaicin works like an anticoagulant drug by helping the body dissolve fibrin, a substance that causes the formation of blood clots.

Improve cholesterol. Australian researchers found that healthy adults who added an ounce of chiles to their daily diet increased their resistance to the oxidized blood fats that coat and thicken artery walls, according to a study in the British Journal of Nutrition. And a study reported in Phytotherapy Research found that capsaicin supplements reduced dangerous LDL cholesterol and increased protective HDL cholesterol in test animals.

A Passion for Pain

It’s the rare person who can down ribs and chicken doused in 10-alarm chile sauce and go back for seconds, or bite into the hottest of the hots—a naga jolokia—and keep on grinning.

Chile is said to be an acquired taste, and possessing the tenacity to test the temperature and turn up the heat is like an addiction. There are thousands of chile fans who challenge themselves and one another to keep turning it up a notch as if it were a quest to conquer Mount Everest. There is even a scientific method of keeping score called the Scoville heat scale.

The Scoville heat scale measures the levels of capsaicin in a pepper by the amount of sweetened water it takes to dilute it to the heatless state of a bell pepper. One million drops of water moves the index up 1.5 units. This puts bell peppers at 0 units and 100 percent capsaicin at 16 million units. Searing starts at 100,000 units and goes up to 750,000. A jalapeño, for example, ranges from 2,500 to 8,000 units. The Tabasco chile (with a sauce by the same name) and the cayenne range from 30,000 to 50,000 units. (The cayenne is the chile used in most medical research.)

The Scotch bonnet chile, which is used in Jamaican jerk dishes, ranges from 150,000 to 325,000 units. Tiny bird’s eye chiles, used to make Portugal’s piri-piri sauce and Tunisia’s harissacomes in at 100,000 to 225,000 units.

The hottest chile is believed to be the naga jolokia from India, which hits the scale at over 1 million Scoville units. Of the chiles we’re most likely to encounter, the orange habañero is one of the hottest at 150,000 to 325,000 units. However, a few years ago, a hybrid called red savina habañero was designed that tops out at over 500,000 units, one of the highest on record!

Reduce heart rate. Healthy men who ate an ounce of chiles a day for a month had a lower resting heart rate (a sign of a stronger, healthier heart) than men who ate a bland diet, according to a study in theEuropean Journal of Clinical Nutrition. They also performed better in a stress test that measures heart muscle function.

Prevent arrhythmias. Animal studies found capsaicin reduced ventricular tachycardia and ventricular fibrillation, two serious and life-threatening types of irregular heartbeat. According to the studies, reported in the European Journal of Pharmacology, capsaicin worked like calcium blockers, prescription medication used to treat the conditions.

Reduce damage after a heart attack. In an animal experiment, researchers found that capsaicin reduced the damage to heart cells after a heart attack. The researchers, reporting in the journal Circulation, believe the capsaicin protected the heart by stimulating nerves in the spinal cord, which in turn activated survival-oriented nerves in the heart muscle.

Capsaicin and Cancer Prevention

Dozens of studies, including those in my laboratory at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, have found that capsaicin causes death to tumor cells in test animals and human cell cultures. Earlier studies on cancer and chiles, however, had produced conflicting results, with some suggesting that eating chiles causes certain cancers, including colon cancer. However, there is evidence that the commercial capsaicin used in the earlier studies may have been mixed with potentially carcinogenic impurities, whereas recent and current research uses pure capsaicin.

Another conflict arose when researchers at the University of Utah found a correlation between eating chiles and a high incidence of stomach cancer among Mexican-Americans and US Cajun and Creole populations. However, this isn’t the case for all chile-eating nations, which makes me (as well as many other scientists) believe that something else may be going on in the diet that is raising the cancer risk. Plus, as you’re about to read, chiles are actually kind to the stomach.

Truth is, over the last decade, close to 100 test tube and animal studies have found a strong correlation between eating chiles and cancer prevention, including cancers of the breast, esophagus, stomach, liver, prostate, and brain, and leukemia. Some of the most promising and extensive research to date has been with prostate cancer.

Prostate cancer. Researchers at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles found that capsaicin killed 80 percent of cancer cells in test animals medically induced with prostate cancer. Remaining tumors were about one-fifth the size of those in untreated mice. Capsaicin also reduced prostate-specific antigen (PSA), a biomarker that can signal the presence of cancer in men. Dr. H. Phillip Koeffler, director of hematology and oncology at Cedars-Sinai, said it’s possible that capsaicin someday may be used to prevent the return of prostate cancer in men treated for the disease.

Breast cancer. Cedars-Sinai is finding similar success with breast cancer. According to the journal Oncogene, capsaicin blocked human breast cancer cells in the test tube and decreased the size of tumors by 50 percent in test animals. Capsaicin has “a potential role in the treatment and prevention of human breast cancer,” the researchers reported.

How to Put Out the Fire

Grabbing a glass of water is the worst thing you can do for “chile mouth.” This is because chile is not water soluble—in fact, it can make the flame glow even more.

Fat and alcohol are the only substances that can reduce the burn, though they are only mildly effective. Beer, milk, yogurt, peanut butter, and ice cream work the best.

Never rub your eyes or face after handling chiles, as the oil is an irritant and will burn, even hours afterward. If you get chile burn in your eyes, rinse repeatedly with cool water or saline solution until the sting begins to wane.

If your skin burns or is irritated from contact with chile, wash it off with soap and water, or rub it with alcohol, and then dab it with whole-fat milk.

Good for the Stomach

Chiles have a bad—and mistaken—reputation for creating the same fire down below that they do in the mouth. Studies have proven otherwise: they cause neither ulcers nor hemorrhoids. Here’s what we know:

Ulcers. Surprise! Not only don’t chiles cause ulcers, they actually might prevent them.

“Investigations carried out in recent years have revealed that chile and its [active ingredient] capsaicin is not the cause for ulcer formation but a benefactor,” Indian researchers reported in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition. “Capsaicin does not stimulate but inhibits acid secretion, stimulates alkali, mucus secretions and particularly gastric mucosal blood flow, which help in prevention and healing of ulcers.”

Ulcer-free people eat 2.6 times more chiles than people who come down with ulcers, Malaysian researchers noted in Digestive Diseases and Sciences. Researchers in Korea found that capsaicin is even potent enough to kill H. pylori, the bacteria that are the leading cause of stomach ulcers.

Animal research in Singapore found that doses similar to typical human chile consumption protected the gastric lining from alcohol-related damage. Another study found the same results on stomach problems related to excess use of aspirin.

Researchers in Singapore found that long-term chile intake protected animals from acute stress ulceration, a serious complication in severely ill patients that often causes stomach hemorrhage, according to a study in the Journal of Gastroenterology and Hepatology.

Indigestion. Italian researchers, reporting in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that 2.5 g of red chili powder a day reduced symptoms in people with functional dyspepsia, a chronic digestive disorder of no known origin with symptoms similar to indigestion. By the third week of treatment, those with dyspepsia reported a 60 percent improvement in their symptoms.

More Hot Discoveries

Psoriasis. Several studies have found that capsaicin cream can help reduce the redness and itching in people with psoriasis, a chronic inflammatory skin condition for which there is no known cure.

In one study, people with moderate to severe psoriasis applied a capsaicin cream containing either .01 or .025% capsaicin to one side of their bodies several times a day and a placebo cream on the other. After six weeks, the capsaicin cream resulted in a 68 percent reduction in scaling, redness, and swelling, compared to 44 percent for the placebo cream. The study was reported in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology.

Type 2 diabetes. The amount of insulin required to lower blood sugar after a meal was lower in people who ate a meal containing chiles than in people who ate a bland meal, according to an Australian study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Getting to Know Chile

Chiles are the most widely consumed spice. Worldwide, we eat 20 times more chiles than any other spice!

Millions of people are so passionate about eating fire that there are hundreds of clubs and Web sites for diehards to share their burning desires and recipes, at least two consumer magazines that write about nothing but chiles, a mini-industry of hot sauce products dead set on turning the mouth on fire, and even an international non-profit institute dedicated to preserving the genetic codes of all species while trying to produce even hotter varieties. It’s mind-boggling to fathom, but there are more than 3,000 varieties of chiles!

There are more than 3,000 varieties of chiles—and the smaller and redder the chile, the hotter it is.

It is so hard to imagine Indian cuisine without chiles that it is commonly believed that they originated in India. Chiles, however, are from the Americas. Christopher Columbus “discovered” them on his secret route that landed him in the Americas on his quest to find the source of black pepper, which the Arabs had been keeping secret from the Europeans for centuries. He didn’t find black pepper (it was 5,000 miles away in India), but he found “red pepper”—the chile. Columbus took chiles back to Spain where they became an immediate sensation as “poor man’s pepper.” It may be one of the best gifts the New World ever gave to the Old!

By the 17th century, chiles were known around the globe. Today they play a key role in the cuisines of India, Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Mexico, Central America, and the US South and Southwest. Chiles put heat in South Indian curries, Jamaican jerks, Mexican salsas and moles, Malaysian sambals, Korean kimchi, Indonesian rendangs, Thailand’s nam prik, North African harissa, and Portuguese piri piri. They also go in spice blends, relishes, and pastes.

Cajuns, Creoles, and Jamaicans (as well as many others) go to literally painful lengths to see who can create the most searing hell-fire hot sauce. They come in hundreds of different varieties and ranges of heat and are used as condiments all over the Caribbean and America’s South, from Louisiana to Arizona.

Mexico is best known for its chile cuisine and rightly so. Mexico is the most advanced chile culture, and Mexicans are said to have the most refined palates in the world for developing chile recipes. Mexicans are masters at using an extraordinary variety of fresh and dried chiles to achieve characteristic flavor, aromas, mouth feel, color, and bite to a whole spectrum of dishes. Mexico alone is home to more than 150 different varieties of chiles. (And thanks to the proliferation of Mexican restaurants in the US, salsa surpassed ketchup in the 1980s as America’s favorite condiment.)

India has an infinite variety of chiles, each with its own distinct aroma, flavor, and pungency. Mildly hot green chiles are cooked in butter with tomatoes, molasses, and other spices for a mouth-watering delicacy called mirchi ki bhaji. Chiles are stuffed with roasted spices and pickled in mustard oil to make mirch ka achar, an all-time favorite eaten with fried bread. The black curries of Sri Lanka contain “bird peppers,” possibly the hottest on earth, and red-hot cayenne. Indians temper the fire with cooling side dishes called raitas, which often include cucumber and yogurt, and with rice dishes.

Chiles put the heat in China’s Sichuan and Hunan cuisines. One of the hottest dishes is Kung pao chicken, which contains enough fiery hot chiles in a bean sauce to challenge the taste buds of even the most jaded chile eaters.

Chiles are important in the Caribbean because they add character to otherwise bland starchy staples, such as peas and rice, beans, grains, and yucca. Chiles also produce a sweat, which works like a natural air conditioner in the relentless hot sun.

How to Buy Chile

Chiles are pods with a thick shiny skin covering a hollow that hides a lining of membranes filled with seeds. Chile pods come in an assortment of shapes, colors, and heat levels. They range in size from less than an inch to eight inches or more. But here’s the important fact: the smaller and redder the chile, the hotter it is.

Chile may help prevent and/or treat:

Arthritis, osteo-

Blood clots

Cancer

Cholesterol problems
(high “bad” LDL cholesterol, low “good” HDL cholesterol)

Diabetes, type 2

Diabetic neuropathy

Headache, tension

Heart attack

Heart disease

Indigestion

Neck pain

Nerve pain
(neuropathy)

Overweight

Postherpetic neuralgia

Psoriasis

Stroke

Ulcer

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Chile pairs well with these spices:

Allspice

Amchur

Cardamom

Cocoa

Coconut

Cumin

Fenugreek seed

Galangal

Garlic

Ginger

Kokum

Onion

Pumpkin seed

Turmeric

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and complements recipes featuring:

Pickles

Relishes

Salsas

Sauces

Chiles are available fresh, whole dried, crushed (flakes), powdered, canned or jarred, and pickled. You can find many varieties at the market. And what you find—either fresh or dried—depends on your locale, your market, and your area’s ethnic population.

Fresh chiles are green until they ripen, after which they turn red, yellow, brown, purple, or black. When buying fresh chiles, look for pods that are firm and have a smooth, glossy outer skin with good color. Chiles should be dry and heavy, not limp, dull, or discolored. Wrinkled skin indicates they have started to dry or may not have ripened on the bush, which is undesirable.

Other recipes containing chile:

Adobo

Ajowan Parathas

All-American Chili con Carne

Basic Barbecue Rub

Berbere

Black Mango Chutney

Black Pepper Rice with Almonds

Bloody Mary Soup with Jumbo Lump Crabmeat

By-the-Bay Fisherman’s Chowder

Caribbean Curry Paste

Chaat Masala

Chesapeake Bay Seafood Seasoning

Chimichurri Sauce

Cocoa Rub

Garbanzo Beans with Mushrooms and Toasted Almonds

Green Pumpkin Seed Sauce

Grilled Lamb Patty Pockets with Cucumber Mint Sauce

Hot Curry Powder

Jamaican Jerk Marinade

Madras Curry Paste

Madras Curry Powder

Onion and Tomato Chutney

Pickling Spice

Pomegranate Guacamole

Potato Cauliflower Curry

Prawns with Almond Hot Pepper Sauce

Ras-el-hanout

Sambaar Masala

Sesame Seared Tuna with Pickled Ginger and Vanilla Slaw

Sol Kadhi

Spiced Vegetable Fritters

Spicy Hash Brown Potatoes

Tabil

Tamarind Sauce

Thai Coconut Chicken Soup

Thai Red Curry Paste

Vindaloo Curry Paste

Fresh chiles can be stored loosely in the refrigerator for about two weeks. Wrap them in a paper towel or put them in a plastic bag and leave it partially open. Fresh chiles also freeze well in a sealed freezer bag.

If possible, buy the type of chile called for in the recipe. Though it’s always okay to substitute one type of chile for another, remember each has a distinct flavor that can be recognized in the final result.

Most importantly, there is a huge flavor difference between a dried and fresh chile, though the heat is the same. Some have likened it to the difference between a fresh and a sun-dried tomato. Drying caramelizes the sugars and other chemicals in the chile, so a dried chile develops a more complex flavor. If you substitute dry for fresh or vice versa when cooking, expect a very different taste.

Mexico considers this taste difference so important it has given different names to the same chile fresh and dried. For example, a poblano chile is called an ancho when dried, and a smoke-dried jalapeño is called a chipotle.

You’re most likely to come upon more variety by buying dried chiles. Many well-stocked markets carry an infinite variety in cellophane bags. You might even find a garland of dried whole chiles called aristra still hanging from the line on which they were dried. Dried chiles vary in appearance according to the variety. Look for ones that are still vivid in color. If they’ve lost their color, it’s a sign that they have probably lost some of their flavor as well. Dried chiles will keep indefinitely in a dry, dark storage area.

Ground chile is manufactured mainly for using in spice mixes and as a convenience at the stove. In the supermarket it comes in two varieties: chili (not chile) powder or cayenne.

Grilled Pork Chile Adobo

This is one of Mexico’s numerous adobos, a vinegar-based all-purpose seasoning designed to give grilled meats a kick. This one is hot, though not fiery, and can be used with any cut of pork. It is traditionally served with guacamole, salsa, and tortilla chips.

¼ cup chili powder

½ cup white vinegar

4 garlic cloves

1 teaspoon dried oregano, preferably Mexican

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

½ teaspoon ground cloves

½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

4 thick loin pork chops

½ cup chopped cilantro

1. Combine the chili powder, vinegar, garlic, oregano, salt, pepper, cloves, and cinnamon in a blender and process until it becomes a smooth wet paste.

2. Put the pork chops in one layer into a glass or ceramic dish. Spread the marinade on top and refrigerate for at least eight hours, turning every few hours.

3. Remove from the marinade and grill the chops over medium-high heat, three to four minutes on each side. Sprinkle with cilantro and serve.

Makes 4 servings.

Generic chili powder is not pure chile but is made with ground chiles mixed with other spices, such as cumin, oregano, and salt. It’s most noted for adding heat to chili con carne. Do not assume it is pure chile unless the label says so.

Cayenne powder is pure chile, ground from the long, red cayenne chile. It is also fiery hot. It can be found in the spice aisle of any supermarket. Many specialty markets carry other pure chile powders in a range of heats. Ground ancho chile powder, for example, is milder than cayenne and is popular in Mexican cooking. The temperature of chile powder ranges in heat according to the ratio of seeds used when the chiles are ground. The hotter varieties are more orange, rather than red. Asian, Indian, and Latin markets sell specialty chile powders by the bag.

You can find virtually any type of dried chile online. Check the “Buyer’s Guide” for online sources.

Chiles are grown all over the world but the principal growing plantations are found in Mexico, California, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Thailand, India, the Caribbean, Africa, and Asia. (India is estimated to be the largest producer of chiles in the world.) In addition to the jalapeño, ancho chiles from Mexico and Anaheim chiles from New Mexico and California are the most commonly used in the US.

In the Kitchen with Chile

Despite all the hullabaloo about heat, chiles add an important flavor to food. However, it should never be used alone as a spice. Rather, use it as background to other spices. It goes with virtually any assortment of spices.

You can’t take away a chile’s heat but you can turn it down by discarding the seeds and cutting away the membrane, the two places where the heat resides. There is more heat in the membrane than the seeds and there’s more membrane in the stem, which is why it’s the hottest part of the chile. For milder flavor, wash and dry the chile, remove the stem, and slice it lengthwise with a small sharp paring knife under running water.

Dried chiles should be soaked, covered in warm water, for about 20 minutes or until soft and pliable, then chop and use as directed. You can remove the seeds from a dried chile by breaking it and knocking out the seeds by tapping it on its side.

Be forewarned! Capsaicin is volatile and can burn on contact. Always wear plastic or rubber gloves when handing any chile and make sure to keep your hands clear of your skin and eyes. The heat from a habañero, for example, is so intense it has been known to cause blisters in the skin of sensitive individuals. Also, avoid breathing the fumes.

Ideally, you should have a special cutting board and knife to work with chiles. Even after washing, capsaicin residue will remain on the surface of your tools. If disposing of chile seeds and remnants in the garbage disposal, make sure to run the disposal with very cold water. Hot water will give you a backlash as the heat diffuses into the air. (This is why capsaicin is an ingredient in pepper spray.)

If you’re tentative about cooking with chiles, always start with a little less. You can always add more heat, but it’s hard (though not impossible) to take it out. If a dish tastes too hot, add a little sugar, milk, or cream. An old wife’s tale says adding a whole potato to the pot for a half hour will draw out some of the heat.

Dried chiles can be added whole to slow-cooked foods, as the heat will slowly seep out and blend into the dish. You can also soak a chile in hot water to soften it and pierce it with a sharp knife before adding.

To intensify the flavor of dried chiles, dry roast them using the method described before soaking. You can get the same effect by running them under a broiler.

To add mild heat to simmering dishes, cut a few slits in a whole fresh chile and add it to the dish while cooking. Remove and discard the chile before serving.

There is no boredom factor when it comes to experimenting with culinary chile creations. With so many different varieties, chiles offer an endless adventure in eating.

About the author

Many tips are based on recent research, while others were known in ancient times. But they have all been proven to be effective. So keep this website close at hand and make the advice it offers a part of your daily life.