Since the Heck Sauce project, a lot of people have been asking me how to extract pure capsaicin from hot peppers.
WARNING: You can find the process on the Internet in a lot of places, so it’s not a secret, but please be aware that this is dangerous! You can injure yourself or others. It can make you dead. Pure capsaicin can injure or even kill a person. By reading the rest of this you are agreeing to hold me harmless of any outcome.
When I made this, I chose to go with the slow, “high potency” method that does everything at room temperature, so this is the process I’m describing here. Although I took months to do this, the process can be significantly shortened if you pay attention. I wasn’t in a rush, so a couple of the steps I just ignored for a month at a time.
There is a faster heat-based method, but capsaicin starts to break down when it gets hot, so the result wouldn’t have been the maximum heat I was after. There is also lab equipment could do this whole process very quickly if are lucky enough to have access to a food-grade laboratory. I’m not that lucky.
Step 1: Choosing Peppers
You can use any kind of hot pepper, from mild California Peppers or jalapeno, all the way up to the current Guinness world record holder, the Carolina Reaper. The end result will be the same. The benefit of choosing hotter peppers is you will get more capsaicin for the amount of peppers you start with. If you choose mild peppers, you will need hundreds of pounds of peppers to get a cup of capsaicin.
You can also purchase dry peppers and even powdered dry peppers, which will save a lot of time and effort during Step 2. Beware that sometimes they use a high-heat method of drying peppers, which can damage the capsaicin and yield a reduced-potency result.
Step 2: Dry and Powder
First you have to remove everything that might contaminate the process. In this case remove the stems of the peppers. Don’t discard the seeds. Then you need to dry them until they are hard and brittle. I live in a very dry climate, so I spread them on cookie sheets and covered them with a gas permeable cloth (like a flour sack towel) to prevent dust from settling on them, and I left them in a dry place for about three weeks. You can also use a food dryer, but the fumes would be toxic, and some food dryers use heat which would reduce the end result’s potency.
Once dry, I used a spice grinder (similar to a coffee grinder) to turn all of the peppers into a very fine powder. I used a toxic fumes breather to prevent lung damage.
Step 3: Ethanol
I combined the pepper powder with an equal amount of food-grade, anhydrous ethanol. It has to be anhydrous (100%, no water added) or it won’t work. Water in any amount will block the extraction of capsaicin.
I put this in mason jars and let them all sit in a room-temperature storage room for about a month.
Step 4: Filter and Evaporate
Once again using a breather and eye protection, I poured all of the ethanol-pepper mixture through coffee filters to remove all of the pepper powder, then discarded the solids. Now all that remains is to allow the ethanol to evaporate, and what is left behind is pure capsaicin. So I poured the liquid on cookie sheets about 1/8″ deep, put a screen over each cookie sheet and covered the screen with a gas permeable cloth (e.g. flour sack towels) and let them evaporate. It didn’t take long– about three days. The smell of this was pretty strong and would make me cough, so I ran a charcoal filter in the room, which prevented the fumes from going very far.
Step 5: Capturing the Capsaicin
The final product was dark-colored and stuck to the pans, and more than 98% pure capsaicin. I added a bit of white vinegar to loosen it from the pans and a rubber spatula to scrape it to a corner where I tipped the stuff into a mason jar.
At this point water doesn’t hurt it, because the capsaicin has been extracted and is ready to be used.
I take no responsibility for your misuse of this process.
Updates October 3, 2017:
Frequently asked question: Pure capsaicin is clear or transparent, so this stuff can’t be pure. Correct. This is about 98% pure. This process doesn’t create laboratory-grade capsaicin. It just eliminates most of the pepper plant surrounding it. Some of the chemicals are much more difficult to remove, such as the pigments. The peppers I started out with were a mixture of green, red and orange, so you can imagine if I mixed all of those colors together in a condensed form, the result would be a dark brown like you see in the bottle.
Does the 2% of impurity matter? No, not really. It has been determined that the human tongue/mouth is incapable of distinguishing between 100% capsaicin and 20% capsaicin. (It might make a difference to the human anus after a day or so, but I have found no information on this.) The color does have an impact on the final product, however, making it a darker color.
Update Jan 12, 2018:
Heck Sauce has gone commercial. Our project caught the attention of a retail tycoon who is working to take it to store shelves. It has an improved recipe (thicker, but the same heat and taste), produced in a commercial kitchen and packaging facility, and has awesome new branding. You can buy it on Amazon, and eventually you’ll find it on store shelves.