How To Build Your Spicy Food Tolerance The Right Way

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Not everyone grows up eating spicy food from a young age or having the perfect genetics for dealing with the pain. For many, the love of spicy food comes from exposure to new things and a willingness to experiment with the unfamiliar. As with exercise, building a spicy food tolerance involves training your taste buds. In other words, learning to love spicy food takes time and practice. It’s possible if you put both your body and mind into it. Let’s break down how to ramp up your spice tolerance.

Table of Contents

Pay attention to the Scoville Scale

Knowledge is power. The Scoville scale is the most widely recognized tool for measuring the heat of chili peppers. If you’re a  newcomer to the world of spicy foods, you should use it as your guide. When you encounter new peppers or hot sauces, check the Scoville rating to see how hot they are. Use our hot pepper list to see chilies on the pepper scale from mildest to hottest (or hottest to mildest if you prefer). With this knowledge, you can move properly up the heat scale to build your tolerance over time.

Take it easy to start

Start by eating foods that are only mildly hot. As with any situation where you try to get your body accustomed to something new, you should move slowly. Start out with milder peppers or hot sauces, such as those that measure below 500 on the Scoville scale.

Examples of milder peppers include poblanos, cubanelles, and pepperoncini. Mild hot sauces include Frank’s RedHot Cayenne Pepper Sauce and Texas Pete Original Hot Sauce.

–> Learn More: Search our hot sauce rankings by heat level

Build up over time – take baby steps

As you get accustomed to the burning sensation from these mild chilies and sauces, you can try stepping up to slightly hotter options like low-medium heat jalapeño peppers, guajillos, and Fresno peppers. Or, in the world of hot sauces, step-ups include Tabasco Original Red Sauce or Sriracha sauce.

When you’ve reached that comfort zone with your current level, step things up another notch. Take baby steps – as a guideline, until you reach cayenne-level heat (30,000 to 50,000 SHU), choose chilies no more than double their minimum heat for your next tolerance test.

For instance, if you’re comfortable at the fresh jalapeño pepper level (2,500 Scoville heat unit minimum), a good next step would be Hungarian wax peppers (5,000 SHU minimum). And from Hungarian wax, a smart next step is the serrano pepper (10,000 minimum SHU).

Don’t approach each step as “one and done.” Live at your new heat level for an extended period, until the spiciness becomes more like a normal “everyday” experience rather than a surprising shock to the palate. It should still be spicy tasting and potentially challenging, just not intensely uncomfortable.

It’s highly dependent on the peppers/hot sauces you can source – but it’s a good approach as a guideline. Use our hot pepper list to map out your progress.

As you get into upper-medium heat chilies, the doubling strategy becomes less tolerable. After cayenne pepper (30,000 to 50,000 SHU), look for chilies 10,000 to 20,000 hotter if you can with each step up.

Know where to stop

Unless you’re an extreme eater or adrenaline junkie, the super-hot chilies of the Scoville scale (like the ghost chili and the Carolina Reaper) should not be on your radar. Instead, place your goal at the top of what many consider the hottest true culinary chili: the habanero pepper.

Habaneros are the hottest chili that you’ll typically find at supermarkets. They range from 100,000 to 350,000 Scoville heat units, so it’s still an intimidating level of spiciness. Set your goal here at max, as that’ll cover you for nearly any eating experience you’ll encounter.

Use fiery spices and condiments in between training with fresh chilies and hot sauces

This is simply to keep the pressure on, getting used to those pain signals whenever possible. Most common fiery spices (red pepper flakes, paprika) and condiments like spicy ketchup and mustard don’t include details on their Scoville heat rating. So, it isn’t easy to use them as part of any ramp-up training.

Still, adding them to soup, sandwiches, and other meals can only help in the long term. The more practice you get, the higher tolerance you’ll get.

Make sure that you have cooling ingredients at hand

Dairy products are essential if you are trying to get used to spicy foods, especially those that contain capsaicin. Milk and other dairy products are spicy food coolants containing a protein called casein. Capsaicin binds with casein, breaking up in the process so that it can be washed away – essentially lessening the heat.

The effect of casein on capsaicin is similar to the effect of detergents on grease. As you build your tolerance, keep some dairy products nearby if the heat is too much for you to handle.

Consider experimenting with other forms of heat

Consider using products like wasabi or horseradish as your training wheels when entering the world of spice. The heat you get from wasabi is quite different from the heat of chili pepper. The chemical that provides wasabi’s heat is called allyl isothiocyanate, and it is more readily controlled when compared to capsaicin.

Allyl isothiocyanate is more volatile than capsaicin and will evaporate quickly, which means that the heat from wasabi will start to diminish once it is exposed to air. It is also much easier to wash away allyl isothiocyanate with water, tea, or soda than it is to wash away capsaicin.

–> Learn More: Pepper Heat Vs. Horseradish Heat – How Do They Compare?

Protect yourself

If you decide to start out with fresh peppers rather than hot sauces, you will need to wear protective equipment. Capsaicin can burn more than just your tongue; it can affect various sensitive body parts. Gloves are a good idea when you are handling hot peppers. The hotter the pepper, the more crucial they are. And as a preventative measure, learn how to combat chili burn before you even begin.


UPDATE NOTICE: This post was updated on December 4, 2022 to include new content.
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Alex Hortaridis

Sometimes you have to lean in and take the punch. I got walloped last year because I could eat hand fulls of Habanero peppers daily and pull from a freezer full of frozen ghost peppers whenever I wanted. I figured I needed to take that jump and in part felt a little invincible till I ran into the Chocolate Bhutlah. On new years 2 years ago I was gifted 6 Chocolate Bhutlah peppers. I decided I was going to go for it. I ate 3 of the 6 waited the 10 minute burn and proceeded to drink my cherry pepto… Read more »

ImGoingBacon

So going by these recommendations, I should be able to go from the ghost pepper to the Carolina Reaper, once my adjustment to ghost pepper is complete?