We’ve all suffered through it: An unexpected pepper, too much wasabi on the sushi, a spicy dish that’s about 100 times hotter than you were expecting. Result: You have a mouth full of fire, with no relief in sight. What’s the best way to get rid of the heat as soon as possible?
We’ve heard tons of ideas: milk, sugar, yogurt, cream, rice, bread. Often we instinctively reach for the water glass, but all that seems to do is spread the spice around. So we turned to some experts—people who sell hot sauces, grow peppers, and Rick Bayless himself—to give us the quickest path to a cooler mouth.
The Hippy Seed Company breeds and sells some of the hottest chilli plants, seeds and powders around the world from Fennell Bay in New South Wales, Australia, a place synonymous with daredevils. So it’s not surprising that proprietors Neil and Charlotte Smith wrote us back to suggest, “have a hot one for a dare.” They offer suggest a fatty food to counteract the burn: “Capsaicin is an oil, so by sipping on milk, the oil binds to the fats and dissipates, depending on how much you are burning, you may have to sip for a while. Water, beer, or soft drinks don’t help, and in fact can move the oil around the mouth making the burn worse. If you’re lactose intolerant—or vegan like us—and don’t do dairy, then soy milk will do the trick.”
Two more slingers of spice, Dylan Keenen and Becky Gibbons, opened artisanal hot sauce company Heat Hot Sauce in Berkeley, California, about a year ago. Keenen tells us, “The hottest thing we have is called Pure Evil 13 Million SHU, which, as the name suggests, is 13 Million Scoville Heat Units, which is 2,600 times hotter than a jalapeno. In terms of tastings, we’ve had people running out of our shop because they asked for our hottest sauce but then couldn’t handle it. We’ve had milk and soy milk on sale—we’ve often joked we could charge $50 for a glass of milk to our most desperate customers—and also a big jug of water,” which Keenen confirms “doesn’t really make it better, it just spreads the pain around.”
So, like his fellow heated-minded colleagues halfway around the word, Keenen says that fat is the way to go. “In terms of the science, there are two reasons milk works well. One is the fat content—capsaicin is soluble in fat but not water, so it can bind to the milk fat. The other is the casein, a milk protein which has a detergent effect that dislodges the capsaicin from your heat receptors.” He says yogurt and kefir are especially high in casein, which makes them an even better choice than milk. (This also explains why we scarcely ever have nachos without sour cream on the side.)
We also turned to celebrity chef Rick Bayless, known for his Mexican cuisine, who suggested a variety of options. He begins, “So, if you’re hiccuping, you have to try to stop the hiccups while at the same time managing the burn. Holding your breath while sucking an ice cube is usually my strategy.” But if you’re not hiccuping, just regretting that bite of chili, he has a few methods: Treat it like a burn and ice it; scrub it off by eating something rough (crusty bread, for instance); or eat something that will create lots of saliva (salt, sugar) to protect the tongue (fat can help do the same). His pick? “Ice cream combines two of those strategies.”
Bayless has a fellow proponent on Team Ice Cream: John Simmons, head of agriculture at Tabasco-makers McIlhenny Company and a sixth-generation McIlhenny family member. He tells us: “My go-to is to follow spice with plain vanilla ice cream. Not only does the fat in the ice cream release the capsaicin in your mouth, it also gives a delicious cooling effect. In fact, one of my favorite desserts is vanilla ice cream topped with Tabasco Habanero Sauce, one of our hottest sauces available.”
So if we walk away with one lesson from this short survey, it’s that fatty dairy is the quickest way to save your burning mouth. But Bayless says that no matter what, the damage from your too-hot morsel will fade with time. “Though these all work to a certain extent, I think mostly you’re just trying to distract yourself until the burn goes away. Which it always does.” We will try to remember that the next time we get zapped by a hidden habanero, as we frantically try to find some nearby high-fat yogurt or vanilla ice cream.