I wish I could go back in time and tell myself to stop stressing over every seed in the pile of minced jalapeño: Because, no matter what you've been told at cocktail parties and by television hosts, it's the white membrane (also referred to as the pith, the ribs, or the placental tissue) that is the real source of a pepper's heat.
This means that no matter how diligent you are about fishing out the seeds, if you've left in the white ribs, you're going to get a whole lot of heat. (For those of you who have grown up with the Great Seed Conspiracy like I did, hearing that might feel like learning that the Berenstain Bears did not spell their last name Berenstein.)
What's that you felt? The earth shaking beneath your feet?
I personally can't remember when I first started to believe the Great Seed Heat Conspiracy. Perhaps a friendly Food Network host instructed that, for a less spicy salsa, I could leave out the seeds. I do know that over years of reading so many recipes that told me to remove the seeds (here and here and here), or, on the flip-side, to specifically leave them in, that implication turned to (false) fact: By controlling the number of seeds, I thought, you could also control the heat of the dish. (Goodness knows how many people I have spread this lie to over the years.)
And no matter how many times this myth has been debunked—
- on our Hotline,
- or on the Kitchn,
- or on Epicurious,
- or by Harold McGee (who reports that there are 100 parts capsaicin—that's the heat-responsible chemical compound—in the ribs compared to 6 parts in the flesh and 4 parts in the seeds),
- or by our very own Kristen Miglore
—it seems to have a life of its own. An extremely informal survey of a few friends ("If you had to name the spiciest part of a chile, what would you say?") yielded "seeds" as the first answer. (It was followed immediately by "Maybe it is the stem! That would be a twist." Sorry to disappoint—it is not the stem.)
And a poll of our Twitter audience showed that 70% of the 420 respondents had been misled, too!
Now it's not entirely false that the seeds are fiery: Nestled among the membranes, they'll carry some of its capsaicin around. But, as Kristen summarized, if you're including the ribs, "your pile [of chiles] will be spicy whether you leave all the seeds behind or not."
But I set out to see if I could taste a difference, seeds versus no seeds. We made three batches of Roberto Santibanez's Genius Classic Guacamole:
- Whole serrano (as instructed in the recipe)
- No seeds, membrane included
- No seeds, no membrane
If the seeds were really the source of fire, as so many recipes imply, then guacamole number 2 (seedless) should have had the same heat level as guacamole number 3 (also seedless).
Such was not the case! In our office taste-test, guacamole number 2 (seedless!) was actually voted as far and away the hottest. (It should, in theory, not have been any hotter than number 1, as both included the membrane, but the heat level can vary between peppers.)
What have we learned here? For heat considerations, spend less time stressing about the seeds—and more time focused on the white membrane. And when a recipe says to "seed," it's likely that the writer intended you to "core"—to take out all of the spongy flesh in the middle, too. (But if it's the texture of the seeds, not the fire of the dish, that's the focus, that's a different matter.)
If the chile is too hot for your taste, even with its membrane removed, you'll have to resort to other methods for neutralizing its burn—though you're likely to encounter a whole additional set of myths. And that's before you start with the shenanigans for how to relieve a mouth on fire.
On those topics, more testing is definitely necessary. (But I cannot volunteer as a tester.)
Is this news to you, or is it not a surprise at all? Tell us in the comments below!