The flavor of heat

Published 8:43 pm Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Mild at work, chef breaks out the chilis at home

For Ed Beardsley, spicy food should be about more than just the heat. Hot is important to a guy who grows his own peppers, but by the same token, it’s harder to impress that kind of person with a simple grab-your-tongue-and-don’t-let-go spiciness.

For Beardsley, who owns and operates The Plaid Turnip on North Main Street in downtown Suffolk, it’s also got to be about taste.

“I do like spicy food,” he said Tuesday. “Heat is good, but there’s got to be some kind of underlying flavor, as well.”

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Beardsley admits he sometimes gets a craving for something that’s just red-faced, teary-eyed, runny-nose hot, like extra-spicy buffalo wings. And he has experienced some of the hottest peppers known to man. Of the Bhut Jolokia, or ghost pepper, which rates 1,067,286 on the Scoville Heat Unit scale, he said simply, “They’ll do the trick.”

But what he finds he enjoys the most is spicy food that sneaks up on him, especially in Thai, Indian and other Asian dishes.

“I like the way the flavors blend together very well,” he said. Some of his favorite Thai dishes, for example, are sweet at first, and only after eating a few bites does the diner begin to notice the heat, which then continues to increase throughout the meal.

Asian recipes, he explained, “use hot as an additive to food, rather than a challenge like we do here in America.”

At his restaurant, Beardsley has to be somewhat conservative with the application of spices.

“You aim for kind of the middle of the road at the restaurant,” he said. “I have to kind of stay away from the really hot stuff.”

But when he gets home, Beardsley is likely to break out the habañeros and the jalapeños. Or maybe some Asian hot oils.

“I love cooking with hot peppers and hot oil,” he said. “That’s awesome stuff to play around with.”

One recipe he’s been playing around with lately is one for Asian Drunken Noodles. There’s no better plate to give a diner a taste of spicy Thai food.

Measuring the heat

In the world of hot peppers, it’s all about the Scoville units.

When aficionados compare their pepper adventures, there has to be a way to take what is an unmistakably subjective experience and measure it somewhat objectively.

In 1912, while working for the Parke-Davis pharmaceutical company, Wilbur Scoville developed the test — and the grading scale — that would be used for most of the following century to answer the question, “Which pepper is hotter?”

The Scoville organoleptic test was the first test developed to measure the level of heat-inducing capsaicin in a pepper. The test involves taking a solution of the pepper extract and diluting it in sugar water until the heat is no longer noticeable by a panel of five tasters.

The higher the degree of dilution necessary to counteract the effects of the capsaicin, the higher the number of Scoville Heat Units that would be attributed to a particular pepper, with pure capsaicin registering between 15 million and 16 million units.

Today, the “pungency” of chili peppers often is measured using high-performance liquid chromatography. But the results that come from those tests still are converted into Scoville Units, making it possible to compare the newest pepper breeds — like the Naga Viper, a homegrown hybrid pepper that rates an incredible 1,359,000 on the Scoville scale — with any others.

The Viper, for instance, is more than 270 times hotter than the hottest jalapeño pepper, which comes in at a wimpy 2,500 to 5,000 on the Scoville scale.

But don’t expect the Naga Viper to find its way into any city-sponsored pepper-eating contest. News reports indicate that the newly developed pepper, which was created by an English pepper grower from a hybrid of three of the hottest peppers known to man, can cause severe pain and even sickness for the inexperienced pepper eaters.