I hate to ruin a good chili with excess cheese just because I'm too weak for it!
January 26, 2006 12:06 PM   Subscribe

Is there an easy yardstick for judging spiciness pre-cooking? Especially re: chili recipes

I'm working on developing my own chili but every time I try I wind up with a dish that's too hot for me. I'm a beginning cook and there a lot of ingredients that I just don't have a good feel for yet. I know the best way to get that is to keep experimenting and trying different variations, but there's so many recipes out there!

I am somewhat of a wimp about these things (I like chorizo sausage but andouille kicks my ass; generic "hot" Italian sausage from the grocery store is okay for spaghetti but only with a tall glass of milk; I can only eat Thai if they're kind enough to make it "mild" or maybe "mild-plus" for me, etc.) I have had a look at some of the other chili threads and am intrigued by the Cincinnati chili and this Texas-style chili with beer, but, again, how hot on a scale of spicy are these likely to be?
posted by e^2 to Food & Drink (18 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Different people have vastly different threshold levels for what is "too hot". I couldn't imagine there could be any yardstick that would work for everyone. Not to mention that everyone uses different types of chili powder all of which can be differently spicy. You will have to use your best judgement of what you like. The best way is to add to the pot a small amount at a time and keep taste-testing until you are happy. Do it in increments of 1/4 teaspoon and keep count.
posted by JJ86 at 12:40 PM on January 26, 2006

Best answer: Here's Wikipedia's entry on the Scoville scale of hotness and the relative heat of common chile peppers. It doesn't completely answer your question, but gives you a point of reference.

That Cincinnatic chili recipe contains no chiles, only "chili powder", which is mostly paprika with a little cayenne. It is not very spicy (if by "spicy" you mean "hot"). The Texas chile has several different chiles in it and is likely to be quite hot.
posted by briank at 12:43 PM on January 26, 2006

Cincinnati person here. Cincinnati chilli doesn't have any heat at all (or at least that I can tell).

Definitely concur with JJ86 suggestion. Make a batch with just a mild chili like a New Mexico. Then the next batch try a New Mexico and a Serrano and then so on. You'll eventually find the right blend of taste and spicyness that is appropriate for you.
posted by mmascolino at 12:51 PM on January 26, 2006

McCormick ground Chipotle Chile is your friend. It can be found in most grocery stores.

It is quite hot, but but adds nice flavor and heat AND doesn't require much cooking in time.

So, make a big batch of mildest chili then heat up a serving worth with a little added chipotle. I get the impression that you might tolerate 1/16 to 1/8 teaspoon per serving.
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 1:04 PM on January 26, 2006 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Well the Cincinnati chilli calls for 2 tsp of cayenne pepper. That's going to make it VERY hot, probably. This could depend on batch of cayenne you have. When I make Cajun for myself, I usually use 1/2 to 1 tsp cayenne in a gumbo or whatever. Cooking for others, I'll cut that back to 1/4 tsp. For you, I'd recommend no cayenne and just use chilli powder. If you want the red color cayenne will give, use paprika. Paprika, except Hungarian, doesn't have much heat.

I'd also skip the jalapenos in the Texas chill. I've found they are a pretty variable in their heat and it sounds like you don't like stuff to be very hot at all. You could substitute maybe three jalepenos with one poblano (also called pasilla). Poblanos are usually quite mild. Anaheim and ancho or also less hot than jalapeno. When substituting, try and keep size in mind so the approximate physical amount of pepper is the same, which is why I suggested maybe one poblano for three jalapenos.

Here's a page on pepper heat. You should stay towards the top of the chart, at least to begin with. Figuring out how much makes a dish so hot comes with time. I like hot foods and I'm not all the way there yet. I have a pretty hard time judging how hot to make something for other people and have ended up with dishes others could hardly eat.

Also, things like andouille and chorizo widely vary in heat, depending on the brand. I've had super mild andouille and very hot chorizo. If you have a recipe calling for andouille, feel free to substitute with a good pure pork kielbasa.

One final note. The dried variety of a pepper will be hotter than the fresh. Dried, ground jalapeno will be very hot. Not cayenne hot but still pretty hot.
posted by 6550 at 1:05 PM on January 26, 2006

I had a chance to judge a chili competition and got to watch a lot of the contestants make their chilis. Many of them added spices at various intervals during the cooking. Some even had baggies that said "2 hours," "1 hour" and so on. This adds complexity to the chili and helps layer the heat.

If you find a recipe you like, put all the spices in a bag and add a teaspoon or so at a time while the chili's cooking. This will give you the flavor you want and you'll have more control over the heat than if you added 2 tablespoons/a cup/whatever you measure with at once. If it's getting too hot but you still want more of a smoky, chili flavor add some ancho or generic chili powder.
posted by Atom12 at 1:11 PM on January 26, 2006 [1 favorite]

Besides all this excellent advice, focus on balancing the heat against other ingredients. For example, add a cheese or sour cream topping to the chili, for example, to lessen the bite.
posted by frogan at 1:25 PM on January 26, 2006

Scrape out the seeds and cartelidge from the fresh chiles (which is where most of the heat lives), even those destined for roasting in the Texas recipe. This will give you flavor without much burn. Also, when selecting chiles, pick the larger specimens of the variety, which are less hot than the little guys.
posted by desuetude at 1:26 PM on January 26, 2006 [1 favorite]

And remember, a lot of heat will get more intense over the cooking process. So, look out. Go easy to begin with, then add in small increments.
posted by generichuman at 1:51 PM on January 26, 2006 [1 favorite]

And remember, a lot of heat will get more intense over the cooking process. So, look out. Go easy to begin with, then add in small increments.

generichuman - That totally goes against everything I have learned about chili & chili peppers. For example, if I make a batch with, say ground cayenne, 10 jalapenos and 1 habenero, it is HOT. But if it simmers for 3-4 hours, the heat is reduced significantly. And I don't think it's my taste buds getting acclimated - friends who don't do hot, can eat my chili with no problems.
posted by ObscureReferenceMan at 2:06 PM on January 26, 2006

Best answer: The South Devon Chilli Farm explains (pretty well, considering they are growing peppers in the UK!). And here's a page from fiery-foods.com with some interesting particulars.

Basically, capsaicin is the substance responsible for the sensation of "heat" in most food and spices. Judging its concentration in produce items like raw and dried chiles, dried spices, and sauces and preserves is kind of a hit or miss proposition in my experience, and delivering a consistent outcome from recipes which call for such ingredients is an acquired art. But, to facilitate your experiments, here are some personal suggestions:

1) Like salt, capsaicin can be easily added near the end of a cooking process, more accurately than overdoses can be "fixed." For this reason, as a beginning cook, quality pepper sauces are your friend. Their consistency in Scoville unit heat ratings makes it fairly easy to predictably adjust the amount of heat in your concoctions with nothing more than a set of measuring spoons. That may be heresy to aficionados of hot chili cooking, but getting to the point of being able to consistently replicate your favorite recipes and adjust them easily for the preferences of various meal partners, without making yourself or guests cry, or throwing out batches of food as inedible has great value, IMHO.

2) In the case of getting a dish a little too "hot," I think you will find that adding a small amount of sugar may "tame" it to an acceptable level. Up to a couple of tablespoons of sugar, or a tablespoon of honey or real maple syrup can make an unpleasantly "hot" batch of chili edible, although it will have an effect on the "saltiness" of the mix as well. Still a better "fix," IMHO, than watering the batch down to achieve dilution, because to "water" a typical 2 quart small batch of chili enough to "cool" it, you'd have to add several cups of water, changing the whole balance and consistency of the dish.

3) If you do really "overdo" a dish, and want to try to save it by dilution, MSG (monosodium glutamate) can come to
your rescue. The basic problems with adding a bunch of liquid to a dish like chili, to dilute an excess of capsaicin, is that it not only changes the consistency of the dish, but vastly dilutes the umami sensation. Making a simple gravy of a couple of tablespoons of flour stirred into 3 or 4 tablespoons of melted butter, to which is added a 14 oz. can of beef broth over low heat until thickened to an appropriate consistency, and adding 1/2 teaspoon of MSG powder during thickening, will give you a dilution "sauce" that you could add to most reasonably sized batches of chili with less sense of "watering" than just adding water or other liquid itself. Your dish will still taste "meaty," but you may need to also adjust the salt level of the final dish after diluting it.

4) Capsaicin is also somewhat self-desensitizing, as described in some links I included above. You can take advantage of this, by serving some appetizer which is a little "spicy" in advance of presenting a "hot" batch of chili. If your salsa has a little "heat," your guests may tolerate it, and be less sensitive to the "heat" of your main dish, assuming they actually eat enough of the appetizer to get the full "mouth" effect of the capsaicin in the appetizer. No good for those who don't like "heat" anyway, and only take a tiny bite of the appetizer, but you've no business trying to talk such people into eating some too hot for them, as you yourself certainly know.

Good luck with your experiments, and enjoy your cooking. Remember that every cook has some "seasoning disaster" story, but don't let that stop you!
posted by paulsc at 2:34 PM on January 26, 2006

Another thing to try is adding fresh diced hot peppers at serving time.

Hot peppers that have been in the pot for an hour will difuse their flavor into everything. If there is too much this can lead to a slowly growing burn in your mouth that can sneak up on you.

A finely diced, say red jalapeno, added at serving time tastes and acts much differently. It tasts fresher and fruiter than the long cooked and when you bite into a dice you get a quick flash of hot that doesn't build up.

Note that other food moderates the sensation of a jalapeno. Often when I dice one up, I taste a dice and say "wow that is kinda hot" - and add what I think might a sensible amount to a serving. Then I taste the dish and find that the jalapeno accent has been damped down and I wind up adding 3 times my starting amount.
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 2:57 PM on January 26, 2006

Well the Cincinnati chilli calls for 2 tsp of cayenne pepper. That's going to make it VERY hot, probably.

Wow, I didn't notice that (because I was looking for chile peppers in the dish, I guess). Two teaspoons of cayenne would be WAAAAAAAY too much unless you are a heat freak.
posted by briank at 4:42 PM on January 26, 2006

Yeah, I like hot stuff but even I wouldn't start with 2 teaspoons of cayenne. It's a lot easier to make a hotter than it it is to reduce the heat.
posted by 6550 at 10:53 PM on January 26, 2006

Am I crazy or is there no beer in that recipe?
posted by allen.spaulding at 6:43 AM on January 27, 2006

The key to great chili is masa (or masa harina--a thicker kind of corn dough that is used to make tamales) What you want to do is cook chili for around 45 minutes (or, if you are one of those people who want to do an all-day thing, that is fine), and then add 2-3 tbsp. of masa to 1/4-1/3 cup of hot water to make like a paste. You then add that to your chili and let it cook for about another 20-30 minutes.

The masa mixture does 2 things: it gives the chili that perfect velvet-y texture; and it can bring the flavor together. So right before you add the masa, you should taste the chili. If it is is not spicy enough, you can add more red pepper of your choice for that last cooking time. If it is just about right, the masa will finish it off perfectly. If it is too spicy, the masa will help take the edge off, but you might want to add some salt or a little more of the masa mixture. You don't want to add just liquid because you lose the consistency. The masa will take off the edge, but it gives it that thick velvet-y texture that makes chili sublime.

Another thing to consider is that the longer you cook the spices, the stronger the flavor you are going to get. So, if there is a 1 tsp. of cayenne added to your chili, the effect can vary depending on when you add it. If you add it at the beginning and cook it for an hour and a half, it will have a spicy-er flavor than if you add it at the last 15 minutes.
posted by dios at 7:36 AM on January 27, 2006 [1 favorite]

I like to start with either half a small can of chipotles, or several dried Anchos. Chipotles are not nearly as hot as, say, jalapenos, and they add a good smokiness to the chili. Anchos are not very hot and, like Poblanos, give a lot of chili-pepper flavor. You can then spike it before serving to get the heat you want.

Also, in my experience, chili is better re-heated than fresh. The effect dios talks about has the added benefit of marrying the flavors more with a little time.

(FWIW, I don't bother mixing up a paste, though that's surely the "right" way to do it. I just sprinkle in pinches of masa or yellow grits, waiting a few minutes between each sprinkling.)
posted by lodurr at 12:39 PM on January 29, 2006 [1 favorite]

Potato will soak up heat, I think it's the starch. You can add it later in the cooking if you think you have overdone it.
Indian food is often served with lassi, which is yoghurt and water. This will temper the chilli effect due to the fat which soaks up the heat.
Drinking water or beer will not effect the heat in your mouth at all. In fact there are some people who argue that the carbon dioxide bubbles in beer will pop in the mouth and agitate the already tender tongue.

There are different kinds of chilli sensation in my experience, harisa is at the front of the mouth, like cayenne and paprika (you should stick to these if you are not a chilli fan). Fresh chilli and chilli powder fill the whole mouth and throat, as does sambal olek and chilli sauce made from fresh chillis.

These differences could be just down to the amount of Scovilles in the chilli substances, but I think there is more to it than that.

Chilli is sensed in the mouth, throat, stomach and anus, depending on how strong it is.
posted by asok at 3:03 PM on January 29, 2006

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