The flavor profiles of many traditional and ethnic foods often appeal because, while being simple in construction, they are full of flavor. In many cases, and many cultures, that fullness of flavor comes from the introduction of piquancy. The cuisine styles associated with the current trend embracing global flavors have brought with them not only an escalation in the heat – hot foods are getting hotter– but a greater variety of sources from which to draw the heat.

The number of chili peppers and pepper sauces continues to multiply and proliferate, with some becoming mainstream. The past decade has seen sriracha become nearly as ubiquitous as ketchup, and superhot peppers, specifically ghost peppers, Carolina Reapers, and scorpion peppers have become mainstream. And peppercorns (white, black, and green) and horseradish (both standard and wasabi) are more in the limelight than ever.

A Different Heat

While chili peppers—fresh, dried, powdered, or in sauces—are the common turn-to when it comes to adding heat, you can’t go wrong with classics like peppercorns, mustard, or horseradish. Horseradish (either standard or wasabi) and ginger are two roots that pack a serious punch when incorporated into a formulation either freshly grated or at most only slightly cooked. The same is true of horseradish’s Brassicae family cousin, mustard.

True mustard, as a seed or powder, adds a welcome burn that also helps carry savory and salty flavor notes in a formulation. Other spices, specifically cinnamon and clove, are known for a lighting a good burn and, unlike horseradish and ginger, the longer they steep in a recipe, the more heat they can give. Even garlic, when raw and crushed, will provide a delightful sting.

“There is no doubt that there is a growing demand for spicy foods,” acknowledges Bob Okura, VP of Culinary Development for the Cheesecake Factory, Inc. “But spicy menu categories no longer are dominated by chicken wings, curries, fire-roasted salsa, etc.” Okura cites as example one of the chain’s recent salads of greens tossed with a Calabrian-style chili pepper and Parmesan vinaigrette. “The combination creates a new and intriguing flavor profile unlike any other for a dish like this, and the consumer response has been very positive.”

Flavor Balance

Incorporating heat into prepared foods relies on a mindful balance based on training as well as trial and error. Pushing the limits and boundaries of flavor profiles usually come about through repetition and making small adjustments while applying feedback from the development team and consumers (e.g. through focus groups).

This approach allowed for successful creation of a complex tuna tartar of Bluefin tuna with pickled ginger, chili pepper sauce, yuzu (zest and juice), house made seven-spice blend shichimi togarashi, and tempura-fried nori chips garnish. The different types of heat presented by the chili peppers and the ginger helped to marry the multifaceted array of flavors perfectly.

A more classic example of such interplay between heat, sweet, and savory is the Hunan-American dish of Orange Peel Beef. It typically incorporates seared dried hot chili peppers, orange peels, garlic, ginger, and scallions to create a powerfully flavored oil-based sauce to which sweet mild chili pepper sauce is added to pull together all the more intense flavors.

“When developing heat sensation food items, look at heat as a sensation that blends all of the elements of the key flavor points in a preparation,” explains Walter Zuromski, Culinary Director for Chefs Services Group, Inc. “The key to using heat as a product developer is to make it subtle or pronounced according to the application. Work with the other ingredients to determine how the flavor profiles interplay with each other. While adjusting the combination of spicy, sweet, sour, savory in different percentages to produce different combinations.”

Whereas spicy foods typically are associated with cuisines from warmer climes, consulting chef Mark Adair discovered its universality during his apprenticeship years in France and Switzerland. “The executive chefs I worked under drilled into me that heat and spice play a key role in every dish, with balance and restraint being the hallmarks of culinary artistry,” he notes. “Often, all a dish required was a little white pepper or freshly grated ginger to complete.”

Yet such subtlety seems to have been flipped upside-down in the past decade. Big, bold flavors are proving the more successful ones. Examples in food service abound, with such popular items as hamburgers with shaved habaneros and serrano chili peppers, ghost pepper-topped pizzas, and Habanero-flecked mac-n-cheese. Chili peppers now have a global understanding and popularity, and consumers continue to seek out spicier and bolder foods. They also want transparency; they want to know what’s bringing the heat, where and how the ingredients are grown or produced, and exactly how hot the dish will be.

With Condiments

The explosion of popularity experienced by gochujang chili pepper sauce demonstrated that going big with heat has become a truly approachable formula for winning over consumers. As a tabletop condiment, gochujang has been used to complement not only Asian foods but wings, fried chicken, and fish.

A condiment in Cantonese cuisine, jiāng cōng yóu, has been climbing the trend ladder recently. Usually served with poached chicken, it incorporates very finely minced raw ginger, scallions, and hot toasted sesame oil. Both the ginger and scallion bring the heat, tempered by the sesame oil. “Whatever form of heat you reach for in your product development,” stresses Zuromski, “remember that it’s all about balance and sensation. Allowing all the flavors to work in unison to deliver a great sensory experience of truly enjoyable heat.”

With nearly 20 years of experience in the restaurant business and an educational background from the New York Institute of Technology’s Culinary Arts Program, Paul Muller has worked for the Waldorf-Astoria in Manhattan and was Executive Chef of the Old Ebbitt Grill in Washington, DC. As a seasoned culinary operations leader and research chef, Muller led the culinary teams of P. F. Chang’s China Bistro, Pei Wei Asian Diner, and Paul Martin’s American Bistro. He also was Director of Culinary R&D for the Cheesecake Factory and Chief Culinary Officer for Lazy Dog Restaurants, LLC. Reach him at

Heat, Plus

Heat is not always left standing alone. Various combinations of spicy, sweet, sour, briny, and bitter also are trending. Menus are ramping up clams, shrimp, and oysters with spicy and lemony cocktail sauce, and meats and poultry being accompanied by hotter versions of chutney or grated horseradish combined with dried fruit. These combinations are especially effective with horseradish, helping to elevate its flavor and which, without the balancing and sweet effect of dried fruit, tomato, citrus, or root vegetables (such as carrots or beets), can be overly pungent or bitter.

Piccante Bello!

Italian cuisine, more often associated with sweet tomato sauces, has its heat-generating traditions. It’s not uncommon to find, in Southern Italian and Sardinian cuisines, chili peppers often join garlic and black pepper to ignite tomato sauces to next-level flavor.

Hot Beverages

Mocktails have been a big trend in the beverage industry, and many concoctions are incorporating heat to substitute for the missing sting of alcohol. But a spicy cocktail is nothing new. Think of the classic Bloody Mary. The play of horseradish, black pepper, Worcestershire sauce, tomato juice, citrus, celery, and—more often than not—a dash of Tabasco sauce harmonize together in the right ratios. Adjust the ratios, change the main component from red tomato to a tomatillo and cilantro juice, and add an extra pinch of heat such as from Ghost or Scorpion pepper and the result is a modern, more vibrant version.