Burn, burn, burn


I’m borrowing Scott Adams’ expression–definitely not stealing it since he still has the full use and enjoyment of it–because I know of no standard way of rendering the noise someone makes when unsuspectingly biting into an unexpectedly spicy-hot brownie offered by an alleged friend at a dinner party. I know of no other expression that adequately captures that moment when the heat hits your tongue–hot HOT HOT!!!–but you can’t spit out the offending morsel. Snork it is.

Sadly, even as the baker and provider of said brownies, I too was looking for just the right word as well as for a place to ditch the remainder of my brownie. How the heck did we get here? Let’s recap.

We were joining some friends-&-relations for dinner and I had offered to bring a pan of so-called Mexican brownies, enlivened with bittersweet chocolate, cinnamon, and cayenne. I’d made them a few times and the singular qualm I had about the recipe was related to uneven baking (dry at the edges before clearly set in the centre), and I believed I had the answer to a perfect product this time: a proper heat-transferring metal cake pan instead of an unevenly cooking glass dish. I gave no thought to the spices. None, nada, zilch. In my experience, the cinnamon and cayenne were just enough to flavour the whole with the barest whisper of the exotic.

But, there’s always a but. In this case, I had neglected to bring my usual jar of cayenne with me, so I rummaged through the spices in the house we’re renting. Aha!

Or more like Oops!

Several days later, still looking for an explanation for the dramatic change I had inadvertently effected and unfortunately tasted, I made a seemingly casual Google enquiry. Never let Google know you really care.

Um, is there any chance that cayenne powder
varies in heat levels?
Asking for a friend.

Um, yes. But first we start with some words of reassurance.

This is typically a medium-hot chili (30,000 to 50,000 Scoville heat units [SHU, Ed.]), fitting neatly between the serrano and the Thai pepper. In terms of our jalapeño reference point, on average it is around 12 times hotter than a jalapeño. It has a bit of zing to its flavor, but the cayenne pepper is still a ways away from habaneros and the hottest end of the chili pepper spectrum.
Cayenne Pepper Guide

“A bit of zing”: That doesn’t sound too alarming, does it? Read on.

Though, there are varieties of cayenne that eclipse this level of spiciness. Some generically labeled cayenne, and others like the Charleston Hot, reach 100,000 SHU and beyond. If you don’t see a range on the label, it’s likely the typical American “spice-rack ready” cayenne ranging from 30,000 to 50,000 SHU.

Something seen-and-half-remembered went click in my brain. The resident jar of cayenne did give an SHU range on its label. What was it, again?

Aha! Now I understand the oops. At 75,000+ Scoville heat units, this cayenne is anywhere from “half again as hot” to “more than twice as hot” as the garden-variety cayenne I use at home, even ignoring other factors such as freshness (a quality most spices in my cupboard do not suffer from).

And thus does a whisper of heat become a shout of fire. Consider yourself warned.

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10 Responses to Burn, burn, burn

  1. Jim Taylor says:

    The Editors’ Association had its own definition for “snork” — actually “gsnork” — as the effect of having a mouth full of still-unswallowed coffee when something really funny comes up on your screen.

    It is taken for granted that a “gsnork” will be followed immediately by cleaning the screen and keyboard.

    Jim T

  2. Judith Umbach says:

    Always good to try something new. “Try” being the operative word.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Judith – “Try” in a tiny does/sample, perhaps, before spicing an otherwise wonderful pan of brownies. 🙂

  3. I have never understood, less appreciated, the competitive spirit that informs some consumers of spicy hot foods. I think certain cuisines that rely heavily on the chilies account for digestive damage, not to mention seared taste buds. However, I have a recipe for gingerbread that calls for a pinch of cayenne along with ginger and cinnamon that gives a pleasant zing to the cookies. I can imagine that pinch might translate happily into brownies. How good to be forewarned before I venture in that direction!

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Laurna – 🙂 I’m with you re the misplaced competitiveness. I’ve developed a healthy caution re using cayenne, although I’ll probably do so again when I have access to my usual stash. Maybe even in brownies.

  4. barbara carlson says:

    Maybe a pitch of MJ would have helped…

  5. barbara says:

    Sorry, make that pinch !!

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