The Heat of Chili Peppers

THE VARIED WORLD OF THE CAPSICUMS

Chili peppers are a member of nightshade family (solanaceae) in the capsicum genus. There are various types of capsicum that all have their own distinctive qualities and varied heat level. Generally speaking there are two separate types of pepper – sweet and hot.

HOW DOES CHILI DEVELOP ITS PIQUANCE

Capsaicin is a lipophilic chemical that creates a strong burning sensation when in contact with mucous membranes. The chili pepper family are the only plants capable of producing this irritable chemical.

The acid is produced in a ball of tissue that grows under the stem inside each chili pepper. The seeds and veins are attached. The hottest parts are found around the tissue especially in the top inch of each chili pepper so to reduce the strength it is advisable to remove all the inner tissue, seeds and veins.

It’s hot or spicy intensity comes from capsaicin and several related chemicals called capsaicinoids. They bind with pain receptors in the mouth and throat. As a result the body responds by raising heart rate, increased sweating and releasing endorphins.

WHAT CHILI PEPPERS AND CHOCOLATE SHARE

It is well known that capsaicin causes an endorphin reaction. Besides the chili pepper the only other ingredient that can do the same is chocolate.

When released in the body by vertebrates, endorphins serve various purposes other than giving a natural high. They are said to be painkillers, assist memory and reduce ageing. Chilis also encourage the appetite producing a craving to eat.

WHAT IS SCOVILLE SCALE?

Capsaicin is an oil-born acid that is quantifiable. The scoville scale is widely regarded as the definitive standard of Chili Peppers comparing. Basically it measures the pungency of chili peppers in SHU (scoville units) by taking an alcohol extract with capsaicin oil which has a mixture of sugar and water added to it. When there is no detectable chili this is the value given to each test. A main criticism of the scale is that it is totally subjective however it is still a good benchmark for how chili peppers compare.

 

Maximising the Flavour of a steak

Flavour generation is maximised only when a piece of meat reaches over 140°c and Maillard Reactions occur. As temperatures reach 160°c the meat begins to caramelise and subsequently at 200°c it starts to burn.
Skill is involved to manage to fully develop the potential flavours of the meat without reaching pyrolysis. Some charring is desired and popular but can easily lead to a burnt unappetising steak.

MAILLARD REACTION
A chemical process between amino acids and reducing sugars that gives browned food its desirable flavour.

1. The carbonyl group on a sugar reacts with a protein or amino acid’s group – produces glycosylamine.
2. The glycosylamine isomeries to give a ketosamine.
3. The ketosamine reacts to produce a range of different products.

In simplistic terms: Heat + Sugars + Proteins = Best flavour

To achieve the development of complex flavours that we all find delicious, the steak should be able to reach the optimal temperature during cooking. In the case of steaks they need to be cooked on a very high heat for a short time in order to allow the surface to go above 140°c and start to brown. Without this the end result can be bland and largely tasteless.

How Caramelization works

THE IMPORTANCE OF FORMING NATURAL CARAMELIZATION

Caramelisation is defined as the process of heating and cooking sugars until its browns and forms new flavour compounds’. A complex mix of flavour compounds develops when sugar oxidizes. The flavour profile that results is one of rich nuttiness, caramel sweetness and an intense brown colour.

 

Essentially the reaction relies on the removal of water through steam and the breakdown of the sugar. Caramelization is a non-enzymatic browning reaction. Caramelization occurs during dry heating and sustained temperatures to ensure the breakdown of sugars and the formation of new flavour compounds.

ALL ABOUT SUGARS

There are several types of sugar found naturally in ingredients. They include fructose, galatose, glucose, maltose and sucrose. Often when learning to cook, people are led to believe that caramelization depends on the addition of table sugar (sucrose) to an ingredient in order to encourage or instigate the process of caramelization. Luckily this is not the case as a huge range of ingredients contain some form of natural sugar that has the potential to caramelize.


  • Sucrose | 160° C, 320° F – Caramelization temperature

Sucrose is the most important sugar in plants. The most common way to extract it is from sugar cane or sugar beet. The final product goes through a process of purification and then crystallization.

Initially when sucrose starts to heat it will reach a stage of foaming or boiling. It begins to decompose into fructose and glucose resulting in water loss of individual sugar components. This sets off a series of new reactions that produce hundreds of new aromatic compounds that ultimately create the desired complex flavour profile known as caramelization.

  • Fructose | 110° C, 230° F

Found naturally in honey, berries, melons, sugar beet, sweet potato, parsnip and onion normally in combination with sucrose and glucose. Fructose is the sweetest sugar in nature (around twice as much as sucrose).

  • Glucose | 160° C, 320° F

A simple sugar found in plants. Along with fructose and galactose, it is among the 3 dietary monosaccharides absorbed directly into the bloodstream through digestion.

  • Galactose | 160° C, 320° F

Less sweet than fructose and glucose, Galactose is found in dairy products, sugar beet, gums and plant mucilage.

  • Maltose | 180° C, 356° F

It is the least common sugar found in nature. Maltose is usually found in germinating seeds.


FOODS THAT CARAMELIZE

Despite other ingredients like carrots and beets containing the highest concentration of natural sugars, the onion is the most common ingredient to be caramelized. The reason for this being the speed at which it can be heated, browned and plated. Within 5-10mins you can produce perfectly caramelized onions.

Ingredients that are high in sugar content but also high in water are usually not the best for caramelization as it is a dry heating process that benefits from a greater ratio of sugar over water content.

  • Carrots (sugar 5% | water 87%) and Beets (sugar 7% | water 55-65%)

Among vegetables these two ingredients contain the highest amount of natural sugar. They are excellent to use for caramelization as well as creating flavour compounds through the Maillard reaction.

  • Potatoes (sugar 1% | water 79%)

The golden brown colouration seen when potatoes are roasted is caused by caramelization.

  • The Alliums (Onion family) – Onions (sugar 5% | water 86%) and shallots (sugar 8% | water 80%)

As they are heated the strong pungent sulphur compounds dissolve allowing new sweeter flavour compounds develop and replace the bitterness.

  • The Brassicas (Cabbage family) – Brussel sprouts (sugar 2% | water 87%) and cauliflower (sugar 2% | water 92%)

Very popular caramelized. The sprouts benefit as they develop a greater sweetness that overwrites the often disliked bitter taste when boiled.

In addition apples (sugar 10% | water 84%), bananas (sugar 12% | water 83%), pears (sugar 10% | water 84%) and Plantain (sugar 15% | water 65%) are all very good when caramelized.

caramelization

THE FLAVOUR CARAMEL

Several compounds have been identified that give the distinctive caramel aroma and flavour.

Diacetyl ( 2,3-butanedione) – Buttery or butterscotch flavour.
Esters and lactones – Alcoholic rum like flavour.
Furans – Nutty flavour.
Maltol – Toasty flavour.

Although these are some of the most important, over 100 flavour compounds have been identified that produce the characteristic caramel profile.

DANGERS OF TOO MUCH HEAT

If sugars continue beyond their caramelization point it can lead to an eventual destruction and a burnt and bitter horrible result.

CARAMELIZATION OR MAILLARD REACTION?

A lot of cooks confuse the two chemical processes. Simply put the Maillard reaction occurs when sugar breakdown and reacts with amino acids (proteins) such as the process of baking bread, cakes etc as well as cooking meat, whereas caramelization involves purely sugar. More often than not both reactions work in tandum and it becomes difficult to really establish the distinction when cooking many ingredients.

Ice Cream or Gelato?

ICE CREAM

Creating ice cream or gelato involves the fine balance of fat content, the amount of air and temperature. The vast majority of ice cream is actually water which form ice crystals as the temperature of the mixture drops. We have all tried low quality ice cream where the ice crystals have not been minimised leaving an unpleasant crunchy cold surprise. What sets the best ice cream from the mediocre is a rich blend of fat and ice crystals that are as small as possible.

Essentially ice cream is the mix of emulsifying fats that surround and stick to water molecules preventing the formation of large ice crystals. Combined with this the addition of sugar also hinders crystallisation.

A water/sugar solution forms a syrup that has a lower freezing point than water on its own. 

This base forms the initial part of the process. The incorporation of air during the churning process creates a final product that is well aerated, light and creamy.

Ice cream stored at a lower temperature will be more solid. Ever opened an ice cream tub to find it a soft unappetising mess? Just take of the lid and leave it in the freezer to harden up.

The fundamental difference between ice cream and gelato is that the former has a higher fat content and more aeration during the freezing process. 


GELATO

Gelato is actually the italian word for ice cream. This does lead to some confusion how to separate it from what we consider ice cream. Gelato often has milk rather than cream added as well as a lesser amount of egg yolks. To get the familiar and much loved ‘lightness’ of ice cream the churning process is pretty fast compared to that of making gelato. In contrast, Gelato is churned slowly creating a denser result than ice cream. Rather than being served a brick of gelato, temperature control allows for an elastic soft texture. Gelato is stored at a warmer temperature than ice cream. Usually around -12c while ice cream is stored as low as -20c.

So Ice cream or gelato?

The reality is that both can give as much pleasure as the other. Sugar content varies in both, some ice creams are richer than gelato, while others are the total opposite. Gelato has the reputation to be fresher, greater attention to its ingredients and usually more artesanal but excellent ice cream is readily available just as much as gelato.