Mellencamp could have been talking about chilies when he sang the chorus to “Hurts So Good.” Chilies are painful to eat. The relentless burn on your tongue, stinging lips, and the immediate perspiration that forms on your face are all signs that you’ve eaten something hot. For those of us who like spicy foods though, it’s hard to resist that second, third, and fourth bite.
I’ll keep him nameless, but someone who I love dearly is the perfect example of this love/hate relationship. He adores spicy foods, but his body would prefer he left them alone. A meal of heated indulgence equals digestive torture the next day (he once even had to leave work he was in so much pain after a basket full of nuclear wings the night before). Yet this doesn’t stop him from shaking on the Tabasco or asking for extra spice when we go out to eat. The pleasures of that spicy burn far outweighs the subsequent pain in his mind.
What makes chilies so hard to resist? It all comes down to capsaicin. This fiery oil is the reason chilies are hot. Capsaicin is found primarily in the membrane and seeds and the more capsaicin a chili has the hotter it is. The Scoville scale, invented by Wilbur Scoville in 1912, measures the heat intensity of a chili by how much capsaicin it has per dry mass. Anaheim chilies have anywhere from 500 to 2,000 Scoville units while the notorious Bhut Jolokia chili, aka the ghost pepper, has over 1,000,000. When you eat a chili, the capsaicin, as well as causing the symptoms mentioned above, also causes your brain to release endorphins that make you feel good. In short, chilies really do hurt so good.
It’s a common misconception that the capsaicin in chilies only extends its wrath when eaten. A jalapeño, which clocks in at a relatively low 2,500 to 5,000 units, is a great example of this. When I teach cooking classes, I always tell participants to wear latex gloves when preparing jalapeños or any other hot pepper . I’m usually met with skeptical looks.
Unless you are extremely sensitive to capsaicin, you can usually handle mild peppers, even the jalapeño, without any problem. Then you rub your eyes and find that you have a far worse problem than a little itch or you wash your hands under hot water only to find that they start burning.
My least favorite reminder of the power of capsaicin is putting in contacts the morning after working with chilies. The night before, when I pulled them out, I didn’t have any problems, but my fingers left a little oil on the lens and it’s a serious wake-up the next morning. Men, you are always rolling your eyes when I urge caution around chilies, but sensitive skin is extremely susceptible and I’d be careful when using the restroom if you passed on gloves.
If you roast, wash, or blend (as in this recipe) peppers, you can also feel the effects of capsaicin. The oil gets into the air and can cause anything from a mild itch in the back of your throat to a full-blown coughing fit. In preparation for a large Mexican dinner one night, I roasted handfuls of dried chipotle and guajillo peppers on a griddle. I should have known we had a problem when poor Lady, our yellow lab, started hacking.
Despite the pain, this hot sauce, made with dried chiles de árbol (15,000 to 30,000 Scoville units), will deliver plenty of gustatory pleasure. It holds its own against Tabasco and is easy to make. If you made my recipe for turkey carnitas, it’s also a good use of the remaining chilies that you probably have in your pantry. Happy cooking!
Árbol Chili Hot Sauce – Printer Friendly Recipe
Makes about 1 1/2 cups of hot sauce
I adapted this recipe from Rick Bayless’ “Chili de Árbol Hot Sauce” recipe from his cookbook Authentic Mexican. Bayless calls for pumpkin seeds in his recipe, but I did not have them in my pantry and compensated by increasing the amount of sesame seeds used in the recipe. This hot sauce improves with time and will keep for weeks in the fridge.
1 ¼ ounces dried chiles de árbol
3 tablespoons sesame seeds
generous ¼ teaspoon ground cumin
1/8 teaspoon ground allspice
big pinch of ground cloves
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
¾ cup apple cider vinegar
¾ cup water
Wearing gloves, remove the stems from the chiles de árbol. Rub the chiles de árbol between your fingers to loosen the seeds then break in half and shake out as many seeds as you can. Discard the seeds and stems and place the chilies in the blender.
Heat a medium skillet over medium-high heat and add the sesame seeds. Toast, shaking often, until golden brown. Remove the skillet from the heat and immediately add the toasted seeds to the blender as well.
Add the ground cumin, allspice, cloves, salt, garlic, and apple cider vinegar to the blender. Puree for several minutes, scraping down the blender, as needed until a smooth paste forms.
Scrape the paste into a fine mesh strainer over a bowl and use a rubber spatula to press the liquid through it. Continue until all of the liquid has been pressed through the strainer and discard the chili skins, seeds, and other solids left in the strainer.
Add ¾ cup water to the chili liquid and stir to combine. Store in a mason jar or glass bottle in the refrigerator. Let the flavors meld for at least 24 hours before serving. Add with caution to your food; this sauce is spicy!