11 January 2009

Hot to trot

Mustard and chillis are both hot, but the burning sensation from a chilli stays in the mouth for ages while the sensation from hot mustard disappears in a few seconds. Why is this?

The chemical mainly responsible for the burning spice in chilli peppers is capsaicin, a complicated organic compound that binds to receptors in your mouth and throat, producing the desired (or dreaded) sensation.

Capsaicin is an oil, almost completely insoluble in water. This is why you need a fat-containing substance like milk to wash it away - watery saliva doesn't do the trick.

On the other hand, the compound responsible for the hotness of mustard (as well as horseradish and wasabi) is called allyl isothiocyanate. This chemical is slightly water-soluble, and can be more readily washed away into the stomach by saliva.

Further, the chemical in mustard is more volatile than capsaicin so it evaporates more readily, allowing its fumes to enter the nasal passages (explaining why the burning sensation from mustard is often felt in the nose). These fumes can be easily removed by breathing deeply, a useful strategy if the sensation becomes overwhelming.

Zachary Vernon, Toronto, Canada

Other answers to this question

A Hot Sauce Alternative to Tabasco

Hot Sauce

1 2oz.-pkg of chiles de arbol
3-5 cloves of garlic
2 tsp. salt
½ tsp. ground black pepper
¾ cup distilled white vinegar

1. Remove stems from chiles and place the chiles in a saucepan. Cover with water and bring to a boil. Boil for 10 minutes or until the chiles are very soft.

2. Remove the chiles from saucepan and place in blender or food processor. Let them cool.

3. Add garlic, salt, pepper and about ¼ cup of water and puree.

4. Add vinegar and blend.

The result is a vibrant red sauce studded with seeds.

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D.I.Y. Hot Sauce

When you’ve got 15 spare minutes and the color is where you want it, put on a pair of rubber gloves and get out the blender. After you rinse the chiles, chop the stem off each (I use scissors), get rid of any bad spots, and drop them into the container of the machine. You can core them and clean out the seeds, but why bother? This stuff is going to be hot no matter what you do.

Pour in enough white vinegar to submerge the chiles, along with a handful of salt. Puree until quite smooth. Transfer the sauce to a pot and bring to a boil, stirring once or twice. Seriously: at no time during either of these steps do you want your nose or eyes anywhere near the fumes that waft from these vessels. Funnel the sauce into a clean jar or bottle and cool. Then cover with a cloth napkin and let the mixture sit at room temperature for three days, undisturbed. Carefully pour off all but a thin layer of the vinegar (which true enthusiasts save for another use) and refrigerate.

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