Wednesday, January 22, 2020

The Pungency of Peppers

While some people love adding “heat” to everything that they eat, January 22 has been designated as “Hot Sauce Day.” Hot sauce is made by crushing or pureeing raw, cooked, smoked, or pickled chili peppers with spices. The heat of a pepper derives from chemical compounds called capsaicinoids. While a heat index relates to the weather outside, the pungency of peppers is measured in the Scoville Scale: the higher the rating, the greater the heat.

Pungency of vegetables has halachic (Jewish legal) ramifications as well, which are most appropriate to be reviewed on “Hot Sauce Day.” According to Jewish law, the ta'am (literally, flavor or taste) of a food (milk and meat, kosher and non-kosher) is transferred through heat, with heat meaning a high temperature above 110 degrees Fahrenheit. However, transference can also take place where foods have a certain level of natural heat (spicy, pungent or sharp foods).

Heat causes transfer: For instance, if one melts a stick of butter in a new pan, that pan becomes dairy because of the hot butter. Similarly, a bowl that contains hot clam chowder cannot be used to serve kosher food without first being made kosher. So while a pot used for meat may be scrubbed clean from any meat residue, be’liyot (the absorbed flavor of meat) still remain within the walls of the utensil for 24 hours after the meat was heated above a temperature where one would reflexively remove their hand from the heat. Since heat plays a role in the transfer of the ta'am (taste), heat is also necessary for the kashering process. In fact, the rule is that an item is kashered by the same process by which it absorbs. Thus, a pot that was used to cook non-kosher liquids can be kashered by boiling it in water.

If one cut a carrot (a non-davar charif – an item that is not considered spicy or sharp) with a meat knife that had cut extremely hot meat within 24 hours, the carrot does not absorb by the ta’am of meat. While Ashkenazic Jews would not eat that carrot together with diary, all Ashkenazim would agree that the carrot remains pareve. One would not need to endure the waiting period between eating meat and dairy after eating that carrot. Sephardic Jews would eat that “meat-flavored” carrot even with dairy.

Pungent and spicy foods are the equivalent to hot. Using an onion as the paradigmatic davar charif, a meat knife that was used to cut extremely hot meat within 24 hours was used when cold to cut an onion, that onion becomes imbued with the ta’am of meat and is considered a meat onion. Eating that onion with milk products would thus violate the prohibition of mixing meat and milk. The reason this onion becomes meat while the carrot does not (despite rabbinic stringencies among Ashkenazim) is because the pungency of the onion absorbs the meat ta’am (flavor) from the cold knife. Although the cold knife cut a cold onion, the heat of pungency transfers the meat ta’am from within the onion.

So enjoy “Hot Sauce Day” and keep in mind the power of heat!

NOTE: As with all Treats dealing with issues of halacha (points of Jewish law), one should consult one's local rabbi for practical application.

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