Sunday, June 9, 2013
Avoiding Chili Burns
In my last recipe (Vegetarian Chile and Polenta) I neglected to warn readers about handling hot chilis. Capsaicin is the chemical in chilis that is responsible for the heat that you feel on your skin and tongue. It triggers a pain response. Some people, including the Love Of My Life (LOML) really enjoy eating hot food; it is known to induce the production of endorphins in your brain. Endorphins not only block feelings of pain but they are also responsible for our feelings of pleasure – ever heard of “runners high”? Yes, it is endorphins at work. I believe that there is also a “chili high”. I don’t call the LOML “hot lips” without reason. He puts chilis on everything I serve him even before taking a taste (bugs the hell out of me. I swear that someday I will make a dish hot enough to wilt even the LOML).
Let’s return to the real issue at hand: how to avoid pain when dealing with hot chilis. Personally, I have never felt pain on my hands when working with chilis. But it sure stings like crazy when I rub my eyes, even after having washed my hands with soap and water. So the first word of advice when handling any type of chili, do not rub your eyes! In fact, don’t rub any part of your body until you have neutralized your hands. Please note that even “mild” chilis such as Anaheims still contain capsicum and can still burn sensitive areas of the skin (lips and eyes and other delicate skin areas).
The easiest way to prevent chili burn is to wear disposable gloves when handling chilis. When you are finished handling the chilis, peel off those gloves and proceed cooking. Be sure that you are really done handling the chilis before removing the gloves (for instance, you have finished chopping the chilis but they still need to be transferred to the cooking pot). And, if you used a knife to dice chilis, thoroughly wash the knife (including the handle).
Forgot to put on the gloves? A solution of 1/8 teaspoon of baking soda mixed with 1 tablespoon of water and 1 tablespoon of hydrogen peroxide used to wash the affected area of the skin or as a mouthwash (swish vigorously for 30 seconds) will tone a stinging burn to a mild warmth. This mixture cannot be used near or on your eyes. (This remedy is untried by me but comes from Cooks Illustrated, July/August 2013, #123, page 3. How timely were they on this issue?)
No neutralizing concoction? I usually rely on washing my hands multiple times with lots of soap and hot water. Capsicum is an oil and it is hard to get off your hands. Some people claim that washing your hands in milk or sour cream produces good results.
Mouth burning from too much hot sauce? Try drinking some milk – might not be as effective as the above mentioned wash but tastier. Rice and bread are also good calming agents. I know for certain that carbonated drinks and water do not help neutralize the heat in the mouth – they just spread the “joy”. And after all these years cooking for the LOML, I have ramped up my capsicum tolerance level to what some might call ‘high’ but the LOML calls ‘medium’. Hot is spicy – enjoy. Just be careful!