What’s Hot in Hot
The ingredients that go into heat and flavor differentiation of hot sauces vary regionally. American sauce-makers reach for Sichuan pepper for its citrusy, tingling and numbing sensations; banana and pepperoncini peppers for their milder taste; and to jalapeño and cayenne peppers for instant peaking and rapid dissipation of heat.
European condiment makers use piquillo, a sweet chili, and cayenne peppers for flavors and color, according to global market researcher Mintel Group Ltd. The sophisticated complexity of the Sichuan pepper experience, markedly different from black, white or chili peppers, is gaining traction not only in traditional Asian hot sauces, but also in Latin and fusion condiments.
Benjamin Stanley, vice president and co-founder of Chicago-based Food Genius, analyzes restaurant menu ingredient and item combinations and notes that, “Hot sauces, curries, jalapeños and the use of the descriptor ‘spicy’ and ‘flaming hot’ and ‘fiery’ have been growing in the past six months, across all menus, restaurant types, segments and cuisines. “Buffalo” sauce, showing the fastest growth, is available in 33% more locations than it was six months ago and is being added to items like chicken wings, sandwiches, wraps, salads and even pizza.”
Peppers, Spices Turn up the Heat
The rise of niche Latin cuisine and Asian fare -- including Korean, Thai, Vietnamese, Malaysian and Indian -- highlights a new love affair with scorching flavors.
The push to grow ever hotter peppers continues to make front-page news, but even the most fringe fire-eaters are being left behind as the capsaicin concentration crosses the barriers of human ability to tolerate them. Peppers are part of a definite trend in seasonings and condiments -- from capsaicin-charged peppers to other botanical bearers of heat -- used to dial up the flavor of meals.
According to the “Packaged Facts Food Shopper Insights Survey” of March 2011, 53% of U.S. grocery shoppers “somewhat” or “strongly” agree they “like hot and spicy foods.” The percentage rises to 58% among adults aged 20-30. And, in 2012, Packaged Facts determined one in five adults “has an interest in new products, ethnic foods and spicy foods.”
The fact that heat is coming in the form of more than just chili peppers shows that the main flavor components require authenticity, as well as a distinguishing burn. Innova Market Insights recently reported that hot sauce product launch activity accounted for 12.9% of launches, overall, in the global condiments market category in 2012.
Hot sauce revenue is growing 9.3% per year and is projected to grow for the next five years at an average annual rate of 4.1%. Hot sauce production is among the top 10 fastest-growing industries in America, coming in at number eight, right above green and sustainable building construction and right below social network game development.
The surge may be attributed to demographic shifts, immigration and the growing popularity of spicier ethnic foods from Asia and Africa. Another explanation is the association of capsaicin with weight management, antimicrobial defense (as a food preservative) and analgesia (pain management); the pain of chilies supposedly can even kill other pain, a concept supported by recent research.
Although the term “condiment” typically applies to sauces, such as mustard, ketchup, mayonnaise and flavored vinegars, or to relishes and other add-ons, it also applies to intensely flavored substances such as salt and spices -- anything added to foods to enhance flavor or accent a dish. From a technical point of formulation, a condiment must have low water activity, usually because of its high content of salt, sugar or other solutes.
The idea is to not only lend the condiments a robust shelflife but also maintain the potent flavor and texture for which they are valued. Well-designed condiments generally do not require refrigeration.
The condiment market is becoming dominated by chili-based products, followed by mustard and ketchup, the latter themselves being increasingly bolstered with a more flavorful and spicier twists.
Formulating the hotter cousins of the original condiments is not, however, simply a matter of just adding spicy ingredients, such as peppers and pepper derivatives, then adjusting the amounts to deliver the mild, medium and hot levels. The interplay between sources of heat, singularly as with chili peppers, or in concert with other heat-generating spices, such as cinnamon, cloves, horseradish or ginger, means finesse and creativity -- plus a bit of food chemistry -- are in order.
Peppers and other hot ingredients tend to be finicky and demand careful handling to ensure flavor without dissipating or changing the original flavor or appearance of the condiment.
“It’s best to add peppers and pepper extracts towards the end of the processing to avoid heat-related dissipation of spiciness,” says David Ashley, president and chief alchemist for Ashley Food Co. in Sudbury, Mass. The company’s Mad Dog 357 Plutonium No. 9 registers 9 million Scoville heat units (SHU). A jalapeño is generally between about 5,000-10,000 SHUs. It is one of the hottest and purest pepper extracts currently available in the world.
Each ounce of the Mad Dog extract is derived from more than 60lb of raw peppers, including Trinidad Scorpion peppers (also called Morugas and Butch Ts). Scorpions currently are ranked as the hottest commercially available peppers in the world, at more than 2 million SHUs. Plutonium No. 9 is reported to be about 800 times hotter than Tabasco brand sauce, which is made from the proprietary Tabasco cayenne pepper.
Extracts such as Mad Dog can be perfect substitutes for chili peppers to help hot sauce manufacturers ensure heat consistency in their products. This is because, being a natural product grown in different regions under different conditions, the heat levels of peppers can vary widely. Even peppers from the same plant can vary in heat level, depending, for example, on which side of the plant got more sunlight.
Plant breeders, in fact, are taking advantage of the variations by selectively breeding heat in and out of spicy botanical ingredients and retaining or even intensifying the flavor. In addition to using this method to manipulate the chemical makeup of peppers, they also are doing the same with ginger, mustard, horseradish and wasabi.
“Chilies are like a canvas,” says Richard Sandoval, chef and owner of Richard Sandoval Restaurants in Denver. “How you process them can create a very different experience of color, flavor and aroma.”
For example, people appreciate chipotle peppers for their aroma and flavor characteristics, created by smoking and drying red jalapeños in open wood-fired ovens. Sandoval uses chipotle peppers to flavor a tamarind gelatin dessert creation. He also adds roasted habanero peppers to Greek yogurt to create a signature dip.
Margit Stöger, president of Stöger Oils AG, uses a cold-press extractor process to isolate spicy oils from the seeds of chili peppers, as well as tomatoes, berries, stone fruits and other sources. She notes an increase in consumers using chili seed oil to rev up the flavor and heat of hot chocolate, ice creams, teas and even lemonade. Just a drop of the concentrated capsaicin helps rev up metabolism, while adding a delightful burn to treats. Similar in practice, just a shake of frozen Daregal Gourmet USA spices allows for the flavor of hot pepper flakes on prepared foods and meats. Freezing helps preserve the volatile oils that carry the heat.
Michael Haracz, culinary development chef at Woodland Foods Inc., Waukegan, Ill., and makers of D’Allessandro brand condiments and spices, reaches for “capsaicin to mask the sour and bitter notes inherent in prepared mustard dressings and spreads.” Haracz cautions about consistency issues when capsaicin, which is hydrophobic, is added to high-water formulations.
Consistency is particularly an issue because, as previously noted, peppers -- and all botanical ingredients—are agricultural crops, and their organoleptic characteristics vary with the slightest changes in environment. They also are more susceptible to handling and exposure to heat, light and other exogenous conditions.
Globe-spanning enterprises that move massive amounts of product, such as Yum Brands Inc., parent corporation of the multinational Taco Bell chain, are constantly on the look-out for ways to ensure consistency in the heat and flavor of their condiments.
Louis Alvarez, CEO of Golden Hill Foods Inc., a Chicago-based blending operation specializing in peppers, remarks, “There is no textbook for making hot pepper sauces commercially; this explains the wide variety of sauces available, as well as their short life cycles. Manufacturers learn by word of mouth and, during their experimentation, fashion sauces from virtually every cultivated chili pepper, while using many different production methods.”
Further helping food makers regulate the heat of capsaicin is the technical expertise of ingredient makers with special skill in the art of extracting and stabilizing volatile oils, precisely standardizing them for their pungency. Pure oleoresin is favored not just for its heat and flavor, but also for its use in providing natural, bright-orange coloring.
Decolorized extracts will provide the same benefits, without the colorant effect. Water-dispersible formats are available for emulsifications requiring a controlled dispersion of both oil- and water-soluble components.
Hitting that magic combination is the key to the success of many spicy foods. Chorizo sausage makers, for example, who vie with each other to make the hottest and spiciest chorizo, guard their spice mixture zealously. Authenticity is a critical component in appealing to their Latino customer base.
Developing hot sauces requires years of experimentation; many recipes have their roots in older recipes, but have to be continually monitored and modified to ensure a desired finished product that consumers remember and prefer.
“Achieving consistency in flavor and heat, however, requires not only a deep understanding of the pepper crop each year but also meticulous attention to how the primary spice compounds interact with other ingredients in the formula,” cautions Alvarez.
Not everyone wants an endorphin-releasing chili hit. For flavor instead of flames, hot sauce makers reduce the pungency and capsaicin content of peppers by treating them with sodium hydroxide before preserving or pickling them in acid brine. The reliance on several potentially hazardous materials requires trained workers and the ability to withstand the pungency in the air.
A downside of hot sauce production is the impact on the environment…as is the case of the sriracha sauce plant closure at Huy Fong Foods Inc., in Irwindale, Calif., last year. The premier “Rooster” brand hot sauce maker was forced to figure out a way to reduce effluents into the atmosphere. It should be noted that the problem became critical as the company expanded production to compensate for the booming demand of the highly trendy condiment composed of chili pepper and garlic.
Sriracha hot sauce has emerged as the new flavor for a number of food products, including Lay’s Sriracha potato chips -- a flavor suggestion by Tyler Raineri, a student at Illinois State University -- and mouth-scorching candy canes from The Oatmeal Co., and even popcorn, as evidenced by J&D’s Foods Inc.’s signature product. The Rooster Sauce-inspired popcorn is made possible with the availability of red chili extract that can be readily blended with dry ingredients to coat the popped corn.
The concept of hot condiments is not new and certainly not limited to chili peppers for the source of heat. People all over the world have used spices such as ginger, mustard and wasabi in a variety of condiments for centuries. (Note: Both mustard and wasabi are in the horseradish family.) There’s a good reason for the enduring appeal of heat and spice. Spices simultaneously rev up appetite in hot climates, while increasing satiety. Most spices, including wasabi and mustard, act as antimicrobials and preservatives. Still, their unique flavor profiles have re-positioned them as star ingredients in condiments today.
Although hot and spicy are catch-all terms used for the burn and pungency one gets from peppercorns, chili peppers, mustard, horseradish, wasabi and ginger, the flavors, intensity and duration of these sensations are distinctly different and unique to each. This is because of their unique “chemesthetic” agents -- compounds that activate pain and touch receptors in the gustatory pathway to elicit tingling and burning sensations.
The pungency, burn and tearing one gets from wasabi, mustard and horseradish are due to allyl isothiocyanate (AITC), which is valued in pickling and sushi for its potent bacteriocidal action. Advances in flavor chemistry have made chemesthesis (the third critical component of flavor, taste and smell being the other two) an important and enjoyable part of dining today. For example, wasabi is traditionally made and served fresh to contain its AITC strength. AITC is highly volatile and disappears with standing and exposure to air.
Microencapsulation traps AITC and allows for critical concentration in wasabi-based condiments for the repeated experience of the burn, tingle, sting and tears that people seek, yet without the labor-intensive process of preparing fresh wasabi each time.
The warm, hot and scorching action of chili peppers and other members of the capsicum family is due to capsaicin and related capsaicinoid compounds. They can produce a range of sensations, from pleasantly hot to scorching pain. Piperine and gingerol are responsible for the heat from black pepper.
Cinnamaldehyde and eugenol do the same in cinnamon and clove, respectively, while hydroxy-alpha-sanshool is responsible for the tingling or paresthesia sensation caused by Sichuan peppercorns (which are not a true pepper).
Gingerol, most commonly associated with ginger, is chemically related to capsaicin and piperine. The effect of these compounds can be changed with processing. For example, drying turns gingerol into shogaol, which is twice as pungent, while cooking converts gingerol into an aromatic and less-pungent zingerone.
Paradoxically, Sichuan peppercorns often are used with chili pepper to help offset the rapid burst of heat from capsaicin and to reduce the heat and burning sensation. The addition of Sichuan peppercorn to honey mustard accentuates the tingling effect of the peppercorn, while softening the mustard pungency and avoiding the need for honey and its accompanying sweetening effect.
Although hot and spicy are big trends in the global marketplace, the once-common descriptors “hot and spicy” have become much more specific and descriptive, giving way on labels to names of popular sauces such “Buffalo sauce,” “chipotle” or “achar” (pickled vegetables popular in Indian cuisine). The actual incorporation of these complex sauce blends, however, requires the engagement of the culinary basics regarding which ingredients work well together and which ones clash.
Understanding the fundamental basics of ingredients containing volatile components, and how they will affect the finished product, involves hands-on knowledge of the chemistry of balance. This means understanding not only how they interact with other fat-soluble components, but with acids and water-soluble and other neutral-pH ingredients.
The recipe-development team must be able to work with an understanding of how piquant ingredients pair with other flavorful ingredients, subtle and bold, while allowing for time- and process-related changes in their functionality. One size does not fit all in hot sauce chemistry, and one has to experiment and test with every ingredient and factor change introduced in the formula.
Another flavorful advantage is that of special cooking techniques, such as grilling, smoking, dry-roasting and charring, to coax out unusual flavors that often become the signature flavor of the dish. Also, dry blanching -- using infrared and microwave radiation -- is a convenient alternative to water or steam blanching to help retain color and more nutrients; reduce solid loss; and eliminate generation of effluence.
Of course, hot sauce formulators also use peppers and hot/spicy ingredients primarily for their flavor contributions. And, the point of boosting heat, whether with chili peppers, ginger, horseradish or exotic spices, is to create a product that resonates with what consumers find irresistible. It doesn’t get much hotter than that.