Mouth burning with pain from eating too much hot sauce or some seriously "spicy" food? Well, ignore your first instinct and steer clear of that cup of cold water — it won't help. Instead, reach for a glass of milk, a lemon slice, a spoonful of sugar, or some starchy bread to dilute the painful heat on your tongue.
Milk is particularly good at soothing a mouth on fire, as it contains the protein casein, an effective neutralizer of the capsaicin compound — the source of the burning sensation. The same goes for other dairy products, so if you don't have any milk in the fridge, sour cream, ice cream, butter, yogurt, or cheese will do; All of these dairy products will help alleviate the pungency of comida picante.
But wait, why doesn't cold water work? Water extinguishes fire, so it sounds like it would work just fine. However, when it comes to capsaicin, this is not the case. As said, capsaicin is a chemical compound, one found in chili peppers. It's also consequently what sounds the alarm in your mouth that a certain food is hot. How it works is the capsaicin binds with the pain receptors in your mouth, the very same ones that detect heat, and voilà, your neurons get the urgent message that something's burning: your mouth!
Now, the reason why cold water isn't an effective remedy is that capsaicin is fat-soluble, and thus, repels water. As the folks over at PepperScale explain, capsaicin's oil-like qualities make it a polar opposite of water. And while the cold water will temporarily relieve your mouth of burning by forcing your brain to register the sudden "cold" sensation, the fire will return soon after. What's more, you may feel it's even worse! This is because the water has done nothing to douse the flame, but rather, has spread it across the surface of your mouth.
However, if you do try water, make sure it's a warm temperature. Some people swear that by gargling warm water in their mouth and spitting it out in the sink, they dilute and remove the spices coating their tongue.
As noted earlier, milk is your go-to beverage to quiet the flames of spicy foods. Unlike water, which is made up of polar molecules, casein is nonpolar, just like capsaicin is. As a result, rather than repel, it binds with the capsaicin and in doing so prevents it from reaching the mouth's pain receptors. In a test of seven possible remedies, Bon Appétit found yogurt to be quite effective, coating the mouth like a cool, creamy fire blanket.
Speaking of Bon Appétit, the winner of their test was actually a few spoons of rice, which acts in much the same way as a slice of bread does. The starch in the rice (as well as in tortillas and potatoes) helps create a barrier between your mouth's pain receptors and the capsaicin. Like an absorbent buffer, the rice blocks the capsaicin from setting off the pain-receptor bell. Think about it: spicy foods are often served with rice.
In addition to dairy and starchy products, you can also try sugar, citrus, or more oil. As with the plate of rice, we can take a look at the science of cooking and how the kick of chili is often neutralized with a dash of sugar, a squeeze of lemon (or lime), or a bit of peanut butter. The same can be done for a burning mouth.
- Sugar: A teaspoon will do. Take a small spoonful of sugar and let the granules sit for a bit in the mouth. This will help lessen the reach of the capsaicin.
- Lemon or lime: A slice of either citrus fruit will help neutralize the capsaicin by binding with them, similar to what dairy can do.
- Peanut butter: As said, capsaicin has oil-like qualities and thus will bind with other oil-based items, such as olive oil or peanut butter. You can also combine two of the remedies and eat a piece of buttered bread (dairy/oil + starch).
As you can see, you have a number of options when it comes to countering the pungency or heat of chili and/or spicy foods. When your mouth is on fire, you'll be looking for a fast remedy, so that baked potato might not be your first option. But remember, neither should that cold water!