Talk about the point of no return: You've put too much chili pepper in the chili.
The pain blazes through your mouth like wildfire until it feels as though your head will explode.
Don't reach for water; instead, try milk.
Dairy products are the best treatment for a mouth afire, says Albuquerque, N.M., chili expert Dave DeWitt. That's why you find side dishes containing yogurt in Indian cuisine, creamy iced coffee in Thai restaurants and sour cream on your enchiladas.
"There are two factors that control the amount of heat," Mr. DeWitt says. "They are the type or variety of peppers you select to use in the food, because they have varying heat scales, and then what we call the dilution factor."
Hope in dilution
The dilution factor is your only hope once you've prepared a dish. Mr. DeWitt explains it thus: Imagine how hot a cup of soup would be with a whole jalapeno. Now imagine the same jalapeno flavoring a quart of soup.
Diluting the heat in some dishes is as easy as adding more water, sauce or stock. Tomato products or pureed bell peppers also help cool a spicy recipe.
"But if you have finished food, like a casserole or a roasted chicken that's been basted in hot sauce, there's little you can do except serve something on the side that will cut the heat," says Mr. DeWitt, who has written several books on chilies and is editor of Chile Pepper Magazine.
You know you've really overdone it, Mr. DeWitt says, if you start to hiccup.
Besides dairy products, he suggests a bite of bread or plain rice -- "anything that would absorb and take the chemical away from the inside of the mouth."
No hope in ice water
Chef Nancy Beckham says most people go for ice water when they get a mouthful of something hot. She suggests instead a bite of bread or tortilla, or maybe some cool fruit.
William D. Willis of the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, agrees that water won't help because the heat-producing compound capsaicin is more fat-soluble than water-soluble. Thus, water will spread the pain, but something with fat helps dissipate the capsaicin.
Dr. Willis is studying capsaicin as part of the Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. pain research program.
Capsaicin works, he says, by activating nerve fibers in the mouth that carry pain messages to the brain.
Dr. Willis has good news for chiliheads-in-training: Eat enough hot peppers on a regular basis, and you'll destroy the nerve endings, allowing you to progress to hotter and hotter chilies.
Stop eating them, though, and eventually you'll redevelop the sensitivity. It's back to being a pepper wimp.
"People are getting much more adventurous in their eating habits," Mr. DeWitt says. "It's not only hot and spicy food, it's the expansion of regional U.S. cuisines, like Cajun and Southwestern, and the profusion of hot and spicy cuisines that ++ have come into the United States."
In fact, other countries have given us the peppers billed as the hottest in the world: the Scotch bonnet, which comes from the Caribbean, and the habanero, which comes from the Yucatan peninsula.
Ms. Beckham, who uses both peppers, says they're strains of the same pepper. Although Mr. DeWitt calls the habanero "the chili of choice in the U.S. among knowledgeable pepperheads," Ms. Beckham prefers the Scotch bonnet.
"I think that in the warmer climate, it gets a little sweeter," she says. "It's the kind of heat that hits you way down inside," leaving "a glow that . . . goes right to the top of your head."
How hot the habanero?
The habanero is the most readily available of the two peppers since Frieda's, a California specialty produce supplier, starting selling both fresh and dried two years ago.
How hot is it?
Although there are more scientific means of measuring capsaicin, the Scoville heat scale is the classic ranking of peppers by heat level.
Bell peppers have zero Scoville units and a rating of zero. Jalapenos are farther up the scale, with 2,500 to 5,000 Scoville units and a rating of five.
Sitting squarely atop the scale are habanero and Bahamian peppers, at 100,000 to 300,000 Scoville units and a rating of 10.
Frieda's president, Karen Caplan, says that when the first batch of habaneros arrived two years ago, the staff handled them not with kid gloves but with tongs. Consumers were afraid of the peppers, too, but the company's consumer education has helped make the habanero a success.
The company has even gotten letters complaining that the habaneros aren't hot enough, she says.
Ms. Caplan describes the burn from the habanero as "a slow, smooth sensation in the back of your throat." Mr. DeWitt likes them in a fresh pico de gallo, with tomatoes and onions.
"The habanero has a real interesting, fruity, apricot-like aroma and taste," he says. "Once you've smelled it, you never forget it. . . . It adds a really neat flavor and a high pungency to these salsas." Enough pungency, he says, to give him the hiccups.
Here are some methods for keeping chilies' heat under control in the kitchen.
First rule: Always wear rubber gloves when working with any chili, Ms. Caplan says, even if you don't think it's that hot.
Choose the right kind of chili for a dish. Don't use the incendiary habanero in place of a jalapeno unless you know you can handle it.
Remove the seeds and membranes of the pepper. Don't touch your face or eyes until after you've removed the gloves and washed your hands well.
Mr. DeWitt says that capsaicin is concentrated in the placenta, which is the membrane around the seeds.
"The seeds themselves are not hot, but they do, during processing, absorb the capsaicin," he says. "If you carefully open a pepper, even a very hot one, and pull out the seeds, there will be little heat in it."
If you're dealing with very hot peppers, start with the flesh away from the stem; Mr. DeWitt says the heat is more intense near the stem.
Pay attention to the dilution factor, too.
Mr. DeWitt explains that a sauce made entirely with a mild pepper can wind up hotter than one that uses just a little bit of a very hot pepper.
"You don't have to use a whole chili," Ms. Caplan says. "You don't have to burn your throat."
Start small, she says, and add more chili until you get the flavor the way you want it.
Shrimp in spicy sauce
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
(Heat scale: 7 out of 10)
4 teaspoons serrano or jalapeno chilies, seeds removed, chopped fine
1/2 cup onions, chopped fine
1/2 cup celery, chopped fine
2 tablespoons oil
4 tomatoes, peeled and chopped
1 bay leaf
1 tablespoon parsley, chopped fine
1 teaspoon sugar
salt and pepper to taste
2 pounds raw shrimp, peeled and deveined
hot cooked rice
grated Parmesan cheese
Saute the chilies, onions and celery in oil until the onions are soft. Add the tomatoes, bay leaf, parsley, sugar, salt and pepper and cook until most of the liquid has evaporated and the sauce is quite thick.
Reduce the heat, add shrimp, cover and simmer for about 10 minutes, being careful not to overcook. Serve over rice, with Parmesan cheese.
Per serving: calories, 172; fat, 7 grams; cholesterol, 133 milligrams; sodium, 702 milligrams; percent calories from fat, 37 percent.
Source: "Hot Stuff"