Capsaicin extracts get a bad rap. You say the words “half a million Scoville units” and people’s eyes cross. With good reason, maybe; that’s pretty damn hot. So hot that a normal person (read: non-chilehead) would just barely detect the heat if one gram was diluted in 500,000 grams of water (that’s about 132 gallons). To a lot of people, that sounds like madness; “There’s no way you could possibly eat anything that hot!” someone told me the other day. “What good is it?”
There is actually a good place for the capsaicin extract in the chilehead’s daily life, but finding it requires understanding what an extract really is. It is not a hot sauce, which is a condiment made from chile peppers and spices that is applied directly to food in order to provide heat and enhance its flavor. An extract is made from capsaicin concentrates produced by extracting capsaicinoids from chile peppers, producing a product that is orders of magnitude hotter than a hot sauce, and is intended to be applied indirectly to food (mixed in during or after preparation) to provide heat. Because of the minute quantities involved, extracts do not have an impact on the flavor of food, and therein lies their utility.
When you put your favorite hot sauce on your eggs at breakfast in the morning, you are doing so in part because you like that flavor and want to incorporate it in your breakfast. There are times when you may not want to change the flavor of the food that you are eating, for example that perfect Beef Stroganoff recipe with the sublime balance between the savory of the beef, the earthiness of the mushrooms and the subtle creamy tang of the sour cream. It would be criminal to disrupt that culinary harmony with outside flavors, but you want to spice it up? Judicious use of an extract is the answer.
Extracts are also handy when you are cooking for people with a range of capsaicin tolerance. You can make a batch of your favorite salsa with a low heat level and split it into portions, adjusting the heat of each portion with an extract, so that you end up with mild, medium, hot, and XXX. Now you’ve got salsa for everyone, without any more work than making a single batch, and you’ve made no change to that great flavor. I do this with chili quite often.
Used correctly, extracts give you fairly precise control over the level of heat that you are adding. “Used correctly” is an important caveat; anything as powerful as a capsaicin extract should be treated with respect. You should always wear rubber gloves when you are handling a bottle of extract, and you should keep the threads and outside of the bottle free of any drips. And, gloves notwithstanding, wash your hands well afterwards.
How do you apply extracts? It depends on the extract, but the basic answer is “a drop at a time”. Some extracts are really thick and on the lower end of the heat spectrum, like Mad Dog .357 (357,000 Scoville Heat Units); with these you can get consistent drops by carefully tipping the bottle to the point where the extract just reaches the lip of the bottle, holding it there rigidly and tapping the neck of the bottle to let a single drop spill over the rim. For higher-end extracts, or thin extracts like Mad Dog’s Revenge (1 million SHU) pouring carefully is not an option. I use a toothpick for these extracts, tipping the bottle if necessary to get extract into the neck where I can reach it. Once I’ve dipped the toothpick in the extract, if I want a single drop I’ll let the excess drain back into the bottle; what clings to the toothpick amounts to about a drop. This is easily mixed into food by stirring the food with the toothpick, then with a spoon. If I want more than one drop, I’ll let the excess drain into the food instead, dropwise, until I’ve added what I want to add. Again, mix the extract in very well after adding it.
How much extract should you use? You’ve got to get to know your extracts, and your tolerance. Start with a single drop of a lower-end extract (250,000-350,000 SHU) and see how that works. You can always add more if it’s not hot enough!
(c) 2018 Old Man Metal