A bit of chili pepper and off you go: this is all you need to add loads of flavour to any dish. However, not everyone likes piquancy or, should we say, not everyone likes the idea of having to down a glass of water with each mouthful, so we are often in search of ways to mitigate this effect.
One of the most popular methods is that of deseeding chilies, because it is widely believed that this reduces the heat. But is this really the case? To find out, we need to study how chili peppers affect our palate.
Why Pepper Seeds are Hot
What you need to know is that the characteristic pungency of chili peppers first originated as a deterrent.
Chilies, which in actual fact are fruits, do NOT want to be eaten at all. Or, at least, not by everyone. This phenomenon, which was discovered in the 60’s, is dubbed “directed deterrence” and indicates the capacity of some plants to select the animals they want their fruits to be eaten by so that the seeds can be scattered on the ground. And what other animal could be better at doing this than birds?
This is exactly why chilies have developed a content of capsaicin, a molecule that is detected by mammals. Once on the palate, it is detected by the vanilloid receptors, which provokes the sensation of piquancy we are all familiar with. If you guess that the idea that piquancy originally served as a deterrent because it is basically a sensation of pain, you are quite right. Chilies are hot because they do not want to be eaten by you!
Conversely, birds have no vanilloid receptors and experience no “unpleasant” sensation, but simply enjoy eating these little fruits and, since they do not digest the seeds… well let’s just say that they contribute to scattering them from a height.
According to the variety
According to the variety of chilli we are using, we come across different types of capsaicin. The most common type is the purest, capsaicin in fact, which has an astounding pungency level of 16 million of the Scoville scale.
Dihydrocapsaicin has a comparable level of pungency, while at a level of 9.2 million we find Nonivamide and at 9.1 million Nordihydrocapsaicin.
Fine, so we now know that capsaicin is responsible for that delicious “tingling” sensation. All we need to discover now is the exact amount of this substance in the chilli pepper.
Many studies have been carried out on the concentration of this molecule in the fruit and today the experts agree to the fact that it is accumulated in the so-called “placenta”, in other words the whitish parts the seeds are attached to. The seeds, owing to their conformation, are unlikely to absorb capsaicin, so their removal from the fruit does not mitigate the heat. The myth derives from the fact that when we deseed the chilli with a knife, we often remove part of the placenta as well.
How to dose chili peppers in dishes
So, this is how we can dose the concentration of capsaicin in our dishes. And what if we removed all of it? The internal surface of the fruit, unlike the seeds, tends to absorb a small amount of the substance and so the chilli pepper would retain part of its pungency. But only a bit, which leads us to the conclusion that it would be senseless to use excellent fresh chilli pepper without its placenta.
If you have some very hot chilies and wish to dose their effect in your food, you can make some aromatized oil. Pound the chilies using a mortar and pestle, transfer them to a bottle and fill it with oil. Leave to infuse for at least one week, shaking the bottle from time to time.