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Feeling spicy: Our love affair with capsaicin

As you may have guessed from my recent do-it-yourself feature, I have a lot of jalapenos to process.

I used the USDA canning recipe book to calculate how many I would want to pickle and can to last me a year, plus I wanted to ferment slices and salsa and incorporate those into tomato recipes.

All in all, I thought I’d need a full bushel of jalapenos to reach all my goals, and so ordered one from a local farm. With the bushel sitting in my kitchen, I suspect I might have overestimated slightly.

But, now that I have them, I need to preserve them for the rest of the year. I’ve done a few little things with them, but still face a big push. I’m dragging my feet on it remembering the last time my mother and I processed a large quantity of jalapenos.

What sticks out most in memory is how the air in my kitchen became spicy. Even though I was extremely careful not to touch my face while handling the peppers, my eyes still burned. The heat was palpable in the air.

I noticed this again when my sister visited for Labor Day and sliced some jalapenos and set them to ferment. I assume she, who is a scientist, has the answers to any science-y questions.

So I asked her, can the capsaicin in the peppers become airborne — is that why the air gets hot when I cut up a gazillion hot peppers?

Since her area of expertise is microbiology, she didn’t know. My question sparked her curiosity, so while I wrote about ways to process jalapenos, my sister started reading about molecules that create the sensation of heat.

Trying to focus on writing, I kept hearing, “oh, interesting …”

Not great at multi-tasking, I couldn’t ask her too much about what she was finding. I followed up later.

“The capsaicin that is in the hot peppers that we are most familiar with gives us the flavor and heat by binding our nerves,” my sister explained to me. The nerves it binds with are those that react to burns — this is why it works on any tissue, not just our tongues.

An example is cayenne pepper for pain relief. “It short circuits the pain at the right dosage,” my sister said, adding, “cayenne is considered a medical pant.” It also increases circulation, which can help healing.

From what she read online, capsaicin isn’t supposed to be volatile. She didn’t find any information about some other compound in peppers that might cause the air to burn (as I’d experienced).

Wasabi and horseradish have a volatile spicy molecule. This is why they cause a different sensation if you accidentally inhale with them in your mouth. It goes up your nose with the air, and binds with those nerves as well.

Szechuan peppers have a different heat and pain-inducing molecule than jalapenos and cayenne. It binds with additional receptors, causing tingling and numbness in addition to burning.

Black pepper also has yet a different molecule — it too interacts with the pain receptors, but differently.

My sister has noticed the various differing sensations caused by different spicy cuisines, and this has been a casual interest of hers.

“It’s supposed to be telling your body to get away, because it’s burning. But here we are, eating them for pleasure,” my sister laughed.

Not only are we eating them, we are preserving entire bushels of pain-inducing food.

ALDONA BIRD is a journalist, previously writing for The Dominion Post. She uses experience gained working on organic farms in Europe to help her explore possibilities of local productivity and sustainable living in Preston County. Email