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What Makes Ginger Spicy? Its Fiery Flavor Revealed

Ginger is one of the most interesting and exciting ingredients cooks use to spice up everything from sauces and stir-fries to cookies and tea. Originating from South and Southeast Asia, specifically India and China, ginger is a spicy, flowering plant (Zingiber officinale) related to turmeric and cardamom, whose root you can use for cooking and medicine. It was one of the first spices to be exported from Asia to Europe, used by the Greeks and Romans, but why is it so spicy?

Ginger is spicy because of its chemical composition, specifically the compound gingerol, which creates its hot, savory flavor. The spiciness in ginger depends on its state and can increase when dried or decrease when cooked. The science of ginger’s exciting taste and aroma can be a bit complicated.

This article will simplify the complexities of what causes ginger to be spicy and what increases and decreases its heat. We will also explain which forms of ginger are more intense than others. Read on to learn more about this amazing spice and the details behind its unique flavor.  

Photo of whole and sliced ginger set on a wooden table
Photo by Grafvision

What Causes Ginger to Be Spicy?

Ginger’s unique aroma and flavor come from volatile oils, which make up 1-3 percent of the composition of fresh ginger. These oils consist of zingerone, shogaol, and gingerols with gingerol as the main component and most active molecule, lending ginger its distinct pungency. 

Gingerol is a phenol related to capsaicin, which you will find in hot peppers. However, gingerol is quite a bit milder than capsaicin. It is warm and only exists in fresh ginger, not dried or otherwise altered ginger.

The oil is also a cousin of eugenol, which is found in cinnamon and nutmeg, and piperine commonly found in black pepper. The warmth of ginger is different from the spice of chilis because of the gingerol. 

As stated, gingerol is related to capsaicin, which is the compound present in hot peppers, which are both alkaloids. However, the strength of their spice varies greatly. Capsaicin is much spicier than shogaol, the spiciest chemical in ginger.

The taste of ginger is a unique sensation, but it’s not the same as your favorite hot pepper. 

What causes you to experience the spicy flavor of ginger is the gingerol activating or triggering specific spice receptors located on the tongue. Each type of ginger and ginger preparation has a different spice grading, explaining why some forms give off more heat than others. 

Raw ginger is more spicy than cooked ginger because of the chemical process occurring when heat is applied. It also has more health benefits than cooked ginger since cooking breaks down the most healthy compounds naturally found in ginger. 

Is Ginger Supposed to Be Spicy?

Ginger is supposed to be spicy, but its spiciness depends on its state and whether it is dry, fresh, or cooked. These processes change the chemical makeup of the ginger and alter its flavor. Also, older or more mature ginger will tend to be more spicy than young, fresh ginger.

Ginger is a rhizome, which is a rootlike mass that grows and develops under the ground. If left alone a ginger rhizome in the wild will grow into a flowering plant.

When harvested and peeled, ginger emits a strong aroma like citrus and lemongrass.

When you eat fresh ginger, you get a warm, burning sensation in your mouth that is quite unique, although similar to eating black or hot peppers. This sensation is caused by a receptor in our mouths called trpv1, activated by the chemical compounds in ginger, specifically, a compound called gingerol. 

Ginger can be dried to form the powdered spice you taste in ginger cookies and spiced cake. The drying process causes the ginger to lose a water molecule, transforming the gingerol to shogaol, which you will experience as spicier than fresh ginger.

On the other hand, cooking ginger breaks down some gingerol into zingerone, making it less spicy than fresh or dried ginger. 

How to Pick the Spiciest Ginger

If you want a healthy kick of spice in your fresh ginger, you should opt for older, mature ginger rather than the younger version.

The two kinds of ginger look different. Older ginger will have a tough outer skin that appears darker and drier, while you will notice that the skin on the younger ginger has a lighter, thinner, almost transparent skin. 

You should look for ginger with thin, taut skin, not thick and fibrous, and you should be able to nick it with your nail.

Do not choose ginger with soft spots as this means it is no longer good and has been on the shelf for too long. You can also tell if your ginger is fresh and spicy by smelling it and detecting whether it has a pungent odor. 

When you snap off a piece of ginger, it should make a crisp, clean break and not bend. It probably isn’t that fresh if it doesn’t snap off briskly, and you should find another piece. 

Dried and powdered ginger are also more intense forms of the spice.

You can find dried ginger in the form of dried fingers or slices, and most supermarkets carry the powdered form in the spice aisle. It is a spicier type of ginger, as the drying process transforms gingerol to shogaol and doubles the heat and intensity of the flavor. 

Photo of whole and sliced fresh ginger set on a white background
Photo by Atman

How to Make Ginger Spicier or Less Spicy

Ginger’s spiciness changes based on what we do to it and in which state you consume it. Drying or cooking ginger alters the chemical composition, resulting in the spice level changing as well. There are various methods of making ginger more or less spicy, according to your needs and preferences.

Making Ginger More Spicy

Drying out the ginger will make it much more intense than it is in its natural form. When it is dried, the gingerol is converted to shogaol, which contains almost double the spice level of gingerol.

Dried ginger in its powdered form creates the popular spice that we enjoy in many cuisines such as Indian and Chinese food and you can also use it in desserts such as ginger snap cookies and spiced cake.

Both the dried root and the dried powder form will usually be spicier than most other forms of ginger. 

Making Ginger Less Spicy

When heat is applied, as in the cooking process, the gingerol in ginger is transformed or converted into zingerone, which is much less spicy than gingerol. When cooked, the flavor of ginger becomes sweeter and more aromatic as the chemical compound more closely resembles that of vanilla than capsaicin. 

Picking and preserving ginger can also help to make it less hot. Pickled ginger has a sweeter taste than other forms of ginger.

You will sometimes hear it called “sweet pickled ginger.”

The pickling liquid usually contains about 120-150 grams of sugar per cup of vinegar, while the pickling process involves slicing the ginger, boiling it in water for about a minute, draining, and then pickling.

Because of the heat applied to the ginger, it becomes less spicy in the process. 

Which Form of Ginger is the Spiciest?

Dried ginger is the spiciest of all forms of ginger. The reason for this is that when you dry out the ginger root, the process turns gingerol into shogaol. Shogaol is twice as hot as gingerol, which means your dried ginger will taste similar to hot peppers.

Dried Ginger

We’re not talking about the powdered form, but rather, the form that is dried or dehydrated in the shape of the root or a finger shape or slice. You can perform the process of drying ginger without much difficulty at home.

Many recipes call for this ingredient, and you must usually soak it in liquid before cooking with it.

Powdered Ginger

This is the dried and ground root of the ginger plant, which is sold in most supermarkets, and you can use it for sweet dishes and curries. It is also one of the spicier forms of ginger, as it has also undergone the drying process. 

Ground ginger does not need as much prep work as other forms.

You will often find it added to dishes such as gingerbread, pumpkin pie, and lentil dishes like dal, and contains less gingerol than fresh ginger. Since the two contain different flavor compounds, they are not acceptable substitutes for one another. 

Fresh Ginger

Fresh ginger can be found in two forms, young and mature. The mature form of fresh ginger is a spicier form of the root.

Young ginger is also called green or spring ginger, and its skin is thinner and paler than old ginger, and you do not need to peel it before using it. The flavor of young ginger is tender, mild, and pleasant and can often be eaten raw. 

Old or mature ginger has a more rigid outer skin that you must peel before using. Its flesh is more tough and fibrous, and you must chop, grate, or grind it before use.

Fresh ginger will remain good when stored in a cool, dark place with good ventilation.

Freezing is also a suitable method of keeping ginger fresh, as you can remove it and grate or slice it straight from the freezer without thawing it.

Photo of pink pickled ginger placed in a small white bowl with a single green mint leaf
Photo by Olga Kriger

Some Popular Uses for Fresh Ginger

You can use whole and unpeeled fresh ginger to flavor soups and stews.

Mince ginger to add flavor to stir-fries, fried rice, glazes, and marinades for meats.

Many Indian dishes such as chana masala are created using smashed ginger, made into chutney, or combined with garlic. 

Pickled Ginger

Also referred to as gari or beni shoga in Japanese, this ginger is usually a red or pink color. The pickling process is done in sweet vinegar, giving it a milder flavor. You will often find it served with sushi and can be used to refresh the breath. It is often used in Japanese and Indian dishes or as a condiment that you would eat with these types of cuisines.

Found in Asian markets, this form of ginger must be kept refrigerated. 

Preserved Ginger

This is also available at many Asian markets and specialty stores. You can make preserved ginger in a sugar and salt mixture. You will often find it offered in ethnic restaurants and is eaten as a confection or as an addition to a dessert.

Preserved ginger pairs well with melon. 

Candied Ginger

This is made by cooking ginger in a sugar syrup until it becomes soft and covered with sugar, which is a dessert that most folks can make at home. Its flavor is savory with a spicy, sweet punch. Its texture is moist and chewy and is known for its ability to relieve hot flashes. 

Is Old or New Ginger Spicier (and why)?

Old and new ginger are two very different forms of the same spice. If you want heat, you should opt for older ginger as opposed to new ginger. Spiciness or heat increases as ginger ages, so old ginger is more aromatic and spicier than its younger, less mature counterpart.

You will find that you get increasingly spicier ginger in the colder winter months, while the ginger you buy in April and May is younger and less spicy.

The young ginger is mild and soft enough to cut up and add to your summer salads. 

Older and new ginger appear different as well. New ginger has a mild, crisp, and almost floral flavor, and you will often find it on menus in desserts and drinks. It has thinner, transparent skin and is light pink.

Old ginger is spicier, drier, and contains more fiber than young ginger. It is more rigid and more intense, and you would use it in marinades and spicy dishes.   

Closing Thoughts

Ginger is an exotic yet versatile spice and is one of the few spices used frequently in both its fresh and dried forms. From stir-fry to gingersnap cookies, there is a multitude of dishes and recipes that incorporate this exciting ingredient. 

You will find various levels of heat and spiciness in different forms of ginger. Dried and powdered ginger, along with the more mature fresh ginger, will yield a more powerful punch than some other forms. 

Whatever form of ginger you decide to incorporate into your cooking, this spice will undoubtedly add a healthy and delicious kick to your favorite dishes.