Hint: Do not reach for water.
Not all spice is created equal. There's the tingle-your-tongue kind—and then there's the kind that makes you want to drink from a fire hose. (Interesting fact: water is the last thing you want to drink when you've eaten something spicy. See step one.)
Take horseradish, wasabi, Chinese mustard, ginger, onion, garlic, and black pepper, for example. They're spicy spices and condiments, but their hot flavor quickly fades. Mild peppers, such as jalapenos, have a little more kick, but nothing that will knock you out. Now hot chili peppers—think: habanero or scorpion—are really hot. They contain capsaicin, a chemical compound that will basically set your mouth on fire.
Eating capsaicin irritates our mouths, throats, and stomachs; makes us sweat, our eyes water, and our noses run; and, if we touch it to our bare skin, it can even cause rashes and burns. Yet some people, dubbed chili heads, enjoy the blazing experience because exposure to capsaicin also releases endorphins, says Rich Orr, research and development director of Dave's Gourmet, including its fiery foods division.
"They will subject their mouths and bodies to increasing levels of pain," Orr says.
But if this isn't your idea of fun, you might be looking for ways to neutralize the fire that's spreading from your tongue instead. Don't fear: Here's what you need to do.
Step 1: Do not—we repeat, do not—drink water.
You've heard that oil and water don't mix, but maybe what you don't realize is that capsaicin is an oil. "When your mouth is burning, don't reach for the water," advises Sarah Ayala, owner of The Kiwi Importer, which includes a line of hot sauces. "This will just spread the heat around." One exception? If you've got water and vinegar on hand, mix the two together and swish, recommends Thomas Boemer, chef of Revival and Corner Table restaurants in Minneapolis. "It can break down the fats," he says.
Step 2: Do drink a beer (if you're 21 or older, of course).
Unlike water, alcohol is poised to help with your spicy problem or forget it entirely, depending on how much you drink. (Drink responsibly, please.) "The alcohol breaks down the capsaicin, and carbonation and coolness helps ease the heat," Ayala says.
Boemer uses this trick, too, but he takes it one step farther. "My go-to [spice-fighter] is an ice-cold beer with a lime squeezed into it," Boemer says. "The alcohol and the acid from the citrus will break down the fats, and the cold and carbonated liquid relieve the symptoms of the burn." Of course, if a beer isn't in your fridge or on the menu, a shot of whiskey will also do. "It provides a competing burn," laughs Boemer.
Step 3: Eat something that will stop the spiciness.
If you're not yet ready to reach for another bite of curry after you've guzzled a beer, it's time to eat something else entirely. Ayala recommends foods that contain casein, a protein that is found in milk. So grab a glass of two-percent milk—you need the fat in it to beat the heat—or make Greek yogurt or ice cream you dessert of choice. Or, if you really want more curry, add a dollop of sour cream for a similar cooling effect.
You can also nibble on something sugary, such as honey, agave, or even hard candy. "Sugar acts as a balance against heat levels," Orr explains. You can add sugar, honey or agave to your glass of milk, or pop a Jolly Ranchers—or 10—until you feel better.
Step 4: Now you can use water.
Once you've tempered the pain on your tongue, you can use water once more. First, dampen a cool cloth with water and use it to cool down your sweaty face and neck, suggests Ayala. Then, you can drink a bottle. "Resting and hydrating, after the initial mouth burning sensation has gone, will help you completely recover," Ayala says.
Step 5: Take preventative measures for your next spicy experience.
Sure, you could make sure you have a beer and milk on hand every time you order something spicy—or you could learn your limits for next time. "Threshold for pain from spicy food will increase as you eat more of it," says Orr. "Conversely, it will also decrease as your body begins to age. If you've overindulged, try to use the items recommended above. If they do not provide relief, get comfortable and ride it out."
And perhaps most importantly, Orr adds, "remember how you now feel in an effort to deter yourself from making the same mistake again."