What Makes Food Spicy? The Scientific Reason Why You Can't Get Enough Of Foods That Burn

No matter how much it burns, there is just something about spicy food that makes me always come back for more — and judging from the escalating Sriracha obsession, I'm going to safely assume that the masses are finally beginning to echo my fiery sentiments. When it comes to spice, some just like it hot — extra hot, and science is here to explain why. What makes food spicy, and why do we like it so much? Before we delve into the specifics, let's start with the basics, and address these burning questions on everyone's minds.

Even though we often say that something tastes spicy, the spiciness we're experiencing isn't actually a taste at all. Sweet, salty, bitter, sour, umami — these are tastes. Spiciness? That's a different beast. You see, the spicy sensation you feel on your tongue actually comes from capsaicin, the molecule that gives hot peppers their heat. When eaten, capsaicin binds to receptors on your tongue that detect extreme temperature and pain. These receptors then carry a message to your brain saying that a.) your tongue is burning, and b.) it hurts. Your tongue feels like it's on fire, because your brain actually thinks it's on fire.

At this point you're probably thinking, "Great. Self-inflicted tongue burns all around! But why is this not a one-time thing? Why do we voluntarily do this to ourselves, time and time again?" Well, here's where the science gets good. Once you start feeling that intense heat and subsequent pain, your brain then responds by releasing endorphins, which help block the pain, and dopamine, which triggers a sense of euphoria similar to that feeling of "runner's high." So habanero-eating masochists like me tolerate the pain knowing that the feel-good dopamine release is imminent. Essentially, we're addicted to the spicy high.

But don't get me wrong, I'm not only about the high. I truly enjoy the flavor of spicy foods, especially hot sauce. It is an enduring love that brought me to Noah Chaimberg, owner of Heatonist, New York's very own hot sauce specialty store. As Heatonist's in-house hot sauce sommelier, Chaimberg knows how to strike that delicate balance between flavor and heat. Chaimberg says, "It’s not just about being hot. This is food that goes on food. People always ask about my favorite hot sauce. It really does depend on what I'm eating. That’s the fun part, to get really interesting and creative combinations, like this new jalapeño maple sauce with lots of cilantro that I’ve been using on kale salads."

My sentiments exactly. If you're also into food that goes on food, here are five interesting and creative spicy recipes you can make in the comfort of your own home. And when you're in need of more small-batch, all-natural hot sauce, plan your pilgrimage to Heatonist, or check their Twitter feed for upcoming in-store events.

1. Spicy Thai-Style Pumpkin And Butternut Ramen

Sliced Fresno chiles are the perfect complement to this curry-based chicken and pumpkin soup. Add extra chilis to taste. Get the step-by-step recipe from Cooking for Keeps.

2. Chicken Shawarma Gratin With Jalapeño Mint Yogurt

Take Sunday night supper to the next level with jalapeño mint yogurt, courtesy of Climbing Grier Mountain.

3. Bacon And Sriracha Deviled Eggs

What makes deviled eggs good? Bacon. What makes deviled eggs great? Bacon and Sriracha. Get the super simple 10-minute recipe from Back to Her Roots.

4. Sichuan Wontons

Mimic street heat at home with these Sichuan wontons, courtesy of The Crepes of Wrath.

5. Buffalo Chicken Grilled Cheese

Let's be honest. It wouldn't be a true recipe list without a solid grilled cheese nod. Bring your grilled sammie to an epic new level with hot sauce, jalapeño bread, and blue cheese crumbles. You can thank Foodie Crush for the divine intervention.

Images: Steven Depolo/Flickr; Cooking For Keeps; Climbing Grier Mountain; Back to Her Roots; The Crepes of Wrath; Foodie Crush; Giphy