Mild vs. Medium: Which is Hotter?

If you’ve ever scanned through a menu at a restaurant, you’ve probably come across dishes listed as “mild” or “medium.” You may wonder how these words differ and when is the right time to use “mild” and “medium” in any given context.

We use the adjectival form of “mild” to refer to something that is gentler or less severe, such as a mild curry. We use the adjectival term “medium” to describe something between the two extremes. “Mild” and “Medium” are terms English speakers use to discuss the severity of something, such as the flavor of certain foods.

While “mild” and “medium” may seem closely related, they do have their differences. English speakers use both words in the contexts of flavor and cooking, but we shouldn’t really use one in the place of the other. To see why we can examine the two words and how they work together but separately in the English language.

The Difference between Mild and Medium Is Important

Knowing the difference between when to use “mild” and “medium” is important because it will allow you to express your likes and dislikes, especially when it comes to food and its flavors.

Food and flavors are universal concepts that both English and non-English speakers can appreciate, so knowing how to adequately express how you like your steak and how hot you like your curries will see you in good stead as an English speaker.

While ordering a “medium curry” may not turn any heads, going into a restaurant and ordering a mild steak will, without a doubt, leave your waitron looking a little puzzled. That’s why it’s good to add these small distinctions to your English arsenal. 

Distinguishing Mild vs. Medium

Loosely defined, the term “mild” is an adjective that refers to something as not severe or strong. This can relate to a number of things, including the flavor or food or the seriousness of an illness or crime (source).

“Medium” refers to the “middle.” English speakers use the word “medium” to refer to something between two extremes. We can use “Medium” to refer to the size of a person, such as medium height, or two describe a style of cooking, such as medium-rare.

Origin and Meaning of Mild

The etymology of the word “mild” comes from the Middle English expression, milde. The word referred to someone who exhibited characteristics such as gentleness or someone good-tempered and possessing a soft nature (source).

In the 14th century, meteorological and medical circles adopted the term to refer to the weather and certain types of conditions or treatments. 

Today, English speakers use the term “mild” in a number of different contexts. As we examine the word “mild,” you will see how its definition changes based on how people choose to use it. Let’s look at the word mild in three separate contexts: food, medical, and meteorological. 

Food Context

In a food context, English speakers use “mild” as an adjective that refers to something that is not hot, strong, or sharp in its flavoring.

Examples:

I much prefer a mild curry.

The flavor of this stew is quite mild.

Interestingly, the British use the term “mild” as a noun that refers to a type of alcoholic beer that doesn’t have a strong taste of hops.

Medical Context

In a medical context, English speakers use the term “mild” as an adjective to refer to an illness that is not severe or a medication that acts gently.

Examples:

The doctor gave the patient a mild sedative to relax.

Luckily, her condition is mild.

Meteorological Context

When talking about the meteorological context, we are referring to those who deal with the weather. They use the term “mild” as an adjective when discussing weather that is less cold than expected.

Examples:

This winter was mild compared to last winter.

The weather today was quite mild, especially for November.

Origin and Meaning of Medium

English speakers first used the term “medium” as a noun in the 1580s to describe the state of being in the middle.

Over the years, they used it in a number of additional contexts. The media industry adopted the word in 1795, and then, in 1853, English speakers used it to refer to a person who claimed the ability to converse with spirits.

The adjective “medium” first emerged in the 1660s to refer to an average or middling, which came directly from its noun form. In 1711, it became a recognized designation to refer to length, weight, and size.

It was only in 1931 that English applied the term “medium” to refer to cooked meat. However, the expression “medium-rare” dates as far back as 1881.

Today, the term “medium,” as with the phrase “mild,” also has a number of different definitions depending on the context in which we use the word. We can examine the following contexts, namely computing, biology, supernatural, and art.

Biological Context

In a biological context, the term “medium” is a noun that describes a particular substance where an organism is cultured or where it lives.

Examples:

Penicillin grows well in a damp, warm medium.

Potting soil is the perfect medium for growing vegetables.

Computing Contexts

In computers, a “medium” is a noun that describes a place for storing files.

Examples:

The disks are stored on the computer’s medium.

A computer’s medium is a critical component for storing information.

Supernatural or Occult Context

The term “medium” is a noun that describes someone who had the ability to talk to ghosts or supernatural entities.

Example:

They believed a departed spirit haunted the house, so they hired a medium.

I visited a medium after my mother died.

Art Context

In art, “medium” is a term that refers to a specific technique that painters, musicians, and writers use.

Example:

Oil painting is a popular medium for artists.

My favorite medium for sculpture is bronze.

Room for Confusion

All of the above definitions show us that the term “medium” as a noun is not related to the word “mild” in any context. However, if we consider the term in its adjectival form, we can see how people may confuse them.

As an adjective, “medium” functions to describe someone being “in the middle” (source).

Examples:

That boy is of medium height 

My stand mixer has three settings: low, medium, and high.

Make sure to simmer the sauce over medium heat.

In its adjectival form, “medium” denotes a style of cooking meat, and this is where many often confuse the terms “medium” and “mild.”

“Medium” in cooking refers to a way of cooking meat. It largely applies to meats such as steak, lamb, or fish. When someone asks to have their meat cooked “medium,” they want it to be cooked in the middle between rare and well-done.

When using the term “medium” in the context of cooking meat, the term also refers to a way to cook meat or fish so that it is cooked in the middle. Here, we use “medium” as a measure of “doneness” rather than of flavor.

Examples:

Do you like your steak rare, medium, or well-done?

I prefer my steak to be medium.

cooked foods on white ceramic plate
Image by Igor Flek on Unsplash

So Which Is Hotter: “Mild” or “Medium”?

In English, the terms “mild” and “medium,” in their adjectival forms, also refer to the level of spiciness of a particular dish. 

We generally consider spicy dishes to be things such as curries, salsas, sauces, soups, and stir-fries. Cooks make them using a combination of chilies, peppers, and other spices, which give them their distinct heat.

Countries such as Thailand in Southeast Asia and South Korea in East Asia have a reputation for some of the spiciest food, while many recognize that, traditionally, Mexico and India also have spicier foods than most Western countries. 

The problem with the varying degrees of spiciness is that taste is very subjective. Every person has a different definition of what they consider “mild,” “medium,” and “hot.” Luckily, the general convention in English is that the term “medium” is hotter than “mild.” 

Scale of Hotness

When examining the scale of hotness of any given dish, it is safe to assume that it runs from mild to medium to hot. 

Examples:

Korma and Pasanda are mild curries.

Tikka Masala and Briyani are medium curries. 

Phaal and Vindaloo curries are the hottest curries in the world.

How this hotness scale came about is a rather spicy story that dates back over 100 years.

In 1912, a pharmacologist by the name of Wilbur Scoville, who had a particular fondness for peppers and chilies, came up with a system of measuring their ferocity known as the Scoville Scale (source).

He used the capsaicin content of the chilies and peppers to create a solution, which he then tested on five people. He developed a calculation that ranked the chilies and peppers based on their Scoville Heats per Unit (SHU) as well as their degree of spice.

Scoville developed the following pungency table.

Above 80,000 SHUVery highly pungent   
25,000 to 70,000 SHUHighly pungent    Bird Eye Chilli
3,000 to 25,000 SHUModerately pungent    Cayenne pepper
700 to 3,000 SHUMildly pungent    Jalapeño pepper
0 to 700Non-pungent    Bell peppers, Pimento

The Remaining Subjective Element

We can break down the above table into even more detail. However, what is important to take from this is the use of the terms “mildly” and “moderately.” The adjective “moderately” is a synonym for the adjective “medium,” and from this, we can see that “medium” is hotter on the Scoville scale than “mild.”

Undoubtedly, levels of spiciness will always be up for debate as everyone handles heat differently. For some, a 0 on the Scoville scale will be considered “mild,” while, for others, a score between 500 and 3000 will be more of a “mild flavor.”

The level of heat that any given person can tolerate depends on the amount of spicy food in their diet. 

When a person eats spicy foods, which contain the chemical capsaicin, it activates the TRPV1 receptor in their mouths. The more capsaicin that a person eats, the less sensitive they become to it, so it takes more capsaicin in order to feel the effect (source). 

So it pretty much becomes a catch 22. The more spicy food you eat, the more you can handle. That is why the terms “mild” and “medium” are subjective. 

What is good to remember is that many consider  “medium” to be the middle of the road when it comes to spiciness. Anything below that, most consider mild, and anything above is hot.

stainless steel bowls
Image by Jason Leung on Unsplash

Say Cheese

A good way to illustrate the differences between “mild” and “medium” is to look at cheese as an example. When we talk about cheeses, we can use the term “mild” to describe their flavor.

Example:

I much prefer a mild gouda to a mature cheddar.

We can also use the term “medium” when talking about cheese. However, it is not standard practice to use the term when talking about flavor. Instead, we use it to talk about consistency or the make-up of the cheese.

Example:

This cottage cheese is medium-fat.

We can see how the two terms word together to describe the cheeses. However, they both work on different descriptive areas and, as such, are not interchangeable. This article was written for strategiesforparents.com.

If you are interested in how words work together, check out this article on “preternatural” vs. “supernatural.”

Final Thoughts

In their adjectival forms, the words “mild” and “medium” can work together in order to describe certain qualities of food. However, they are not interchangeable, so you should not use them as such. 

In the cases where we can use the two words to describe the level of spiciness, the term “mild” represents a much gentler flavor than “medium,” which most consider a moderate level of heat.

Dr. Patrick Capriola

Dr. Patrick Capriola is the founder of strategiesforparents.com. He is an expert in parenting, social-emotional development, academic growth, dropout prevention, educator professional development, and navigating the school system. He earned his Doctorate in Educational Leadership from the University of Florida in 2014. His professional experience includes serving as a classroom teacher, a student behavior specialist, a school administrator, and an educational trainer - providing professional development to school administrators and teachers, helping them learn to meet the academic and social-emotional needs of students. He is focused on growing strategiesforparents.com into a leading source for high-quality research-based content to help parents work through the challenges of raising a family and progressing through the school system.

Recent Posts