If what’s “hottest” is synonymous with what’s trendiest, then Naga Bhut Jolokia, also known as the Ghost Pepper, may be at the forefront. Measured at 330,000 to 1,000,000 Scoville Heat Units, it’s more or less tied with the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion pepper for top honors. But, like most trends, it may be here today and gone tomorrow, according to Seattle, Wash.-based Barbara Zatto, director of culinary for Mizkan Americas, Inc. with headquarters in Mt. Prospect, Ill.

From her perspective, “Ghost Pepper is so hot it really becomes difficult for people to use it though they are making sauces with it,” she said. “Here, in the Northwest, Ghost Pepper was ‘in’ last year in fine dining, now it’s ‘out,’ it’s done, although it remains a buzzword for chains.”

Ms. Zatto, a Culinary Institute of America (CIA) graduate from the Hyde Park, NY, campus, and Research Chefs Association regional key contact for the Pacific Northwest, sees people looking for “authentic ethnic” culinary adventure, not only in restaurants but at home. She’s seeing an interest in regional South American flavors as well as Korean, Vietnamese, Indian, Moroccan and Middle Eastern cuisines.

“We saw it in very fine dining restaurants in 2000, but now authentic ethnic cuisine is more accessible to everyone,” she said. “In building flavor, you need various levels of heat. If you’re going to use a red chili (sweet heat), for example, juxtapose it with acid — to bring everything up — with vinegar, lime, wine, sometimes all three. Then, you need some toasted garlic, toasted onion, toasted shallot for a sweet undertone, plus lemon for ‘fragrant and fruity.’”

In an effort to create more interesting products, perhaps while reducing salt or fat, Ms. Zatto suggests layering flavors.

“In some ways (this) is getting back to culinary basics and using more exciting ingredients in pastes and rubs to help replace salt,” she said. “Of course, you almost always need an acid to bring out flavors.”

Pushing the Pepper Envelope

As corporate chef and manager of culinary research and development for Wixon, Inc., St. Francis, Wis., Mathew Freistadt is a proponent of chili peppers. He does the majority of chili pepper matching and blending projects for the seasoning and flavors manufacturer and is endowed with a uniquely high tolerance for heat.

“I’m able to go get past the heat to where I can taste the profile of the chili pepper,” he said. “For blending projects, it all comes down to the tongue, then using chili to the best of its possibility; that is, putting it in the right food.”

By blending various chili peppers, Mr. Freistadt is able to deliver different levels of heat. He said different peppers have different heat levels measured in Scoville units.

“The Scoville Index is the heat index of capsicum; it measures the amount of capsicum in the pepper and that’s what your body reacts to,” he said. “We blend at specific levels tuned to what people will respond to as enjoyable; we’re not just aiming to get you hot, hot, hot.”

He said individual peppers — say for example, a selection of habaneros — may have a range of heat depending upon where each is grown.

Noting that seasoned salt is on trend, as is the Ghost Pepper, Mr. Freistadt has created a seasoned salt that plays to the demand for each. A “salt,” by his definition, is a blend that contains at least 80% salt and 20% other seasonings such as chili peppers, and is used in a different manner than a rub.

“Since it’s a seasoned salt, there’s more salt than spice,” he said.

In the seasoned salt, Mr. Freistadt has combined five chili peppers, including habanero and Ghost. Those two are the ‘heroes.’ The other heat sources are Tabasco, green chili and cayenne.

“They’re all fine-tuned based on my experience with each to deliver a unique heat profile that comes through blending the various chilies,” Mr. Freistadt said.

His challenge is to use the profiles to deliver different heat and different flavor; the earthy, fruity, sweet, dark roasted characteristics of the chilies must be at “proper levels to enhance the product,” he said. “If I’m making a barbecue sauce, for example, I tune the spice to different levels since ‘heat’ reacts differently in different finished products. If I put Ghost Pepper in a margarita mix with alcohol it will burn your tongue, but it won’t impact your tongue the same way in a sweet barbecue sauce.”

While Mr. Freistadt continues to fine tune his usage of Ghost Pepper in different applications, he refers to a couple of other favorites of the moment.

“Two or three years ago, it was all about jalapeno and chipotle,” he said. “Now, in 2013, it’s a lot more common to see aji panca and aji amarillo.”

He’s a particular fan of aji panca, appreciating its short finish and its other attributes.

“I use it at specifically tuned levels depending upon the application and what intensity of heat I want to deliver,” he said. “The heat doesn’t linger and almost disappears on your tongue, plus there’s a slightly sweet/fruity aroma profile.”

Mr. Freistadt chooses aji panca whenever he wants to deliver heat to a topical seasoning, in a protein rub, sauces or marinades.

It is no surprise hot food is very much in the forefront of the snack arena, said Mr. Freistadt. He added that chili peppers are what manufacturers are marketing as they target the 18-to-35 year-old male consumer.

Jud McLester, corporate executive chef and ingredients sales manager for the McIlhenny Co.’s TABASCO Brand Products, concurs. “From my perspective, ‘heat’ is trending, especially among the 18-to-35 year olds — but also among older folks who may be losing their sense of taste as well as those watching their diet and aiming to remove added salt and fat by using spicy-type sauces like Tabasco,” he said.

From the seed up

While McIlhenny has been growing its own seed stock at Avery Island, La., since the 1860s, the peppers grown for all of their products are raised on farms of one-to-10 acres all over the world from seed provided by the company. Mr. McLester said the company is constantly looking for different peppers from its farmers for the R&D group to experiment with in formulating different sauces.

“Jolokia, the Ghost Pepper, is now taking off, but there’s also an interest in the Peruvian aji amarillo and aji panca,” he said. “Both are trendy and people are looking at them for different flavor.”

In fact, Mr. McLester, also a Hyde Park, NY, CIA graduate, has been developing an aji amarillo sauce but has been disappointed to find “it won’t stay yellow once we turn it into a sauce combined with other spices and seasonings plus vinegar; it needs to have shelf-life with the color,” he said.

Overall, the “trend” is heat from various peppers, “so we’re always looking to create the next hot sauce,” he said.

At the fast casual restaurant chain Red Robin Gourmet Burgers, chef Scott Weaver said “it’s both a blessing and a curse to continually keep on top of the latest trends.”

As director of culinary in charge of food and beverage for the 470+ store system that currently has a presence in 42 states, Mr. Weaver is proud of the two dozen unique burgers presently on the menu and envisions the next introduction as being a Spicy Asian burger, probably as a limited time offer next spring.

“We’re using a Korean chili powder that’s only mildly spicy — a wonderful chili flavor with a hint of heat,” he said.

Red Robin plans to also make changes to its Burning Love Burger that will give the entrée even more heat.

“This burger is currently served with five slices of breaded and deep fried jalapenos sandwiched between two layers of meat,” Mr. Weaver said. “This July, the Burning Love Burger — that’s about six- or seven-inches high — will be garnished with a whole fried jalapeno on top of the bun so guests can elect to kick up the heat if they want it.”

While others may debate the flavor pros and cons, as well as procurement challenges of Ghost Pepper, the R&D folks at Red Robin have turned it into a ketchup to spread on the buns of its Fiery Ghost Burger that was introduced earlier this year.

“I believe we’re the first large burger chain using Ghost Chili,” Mr. Weaver said. “The ketchup has a wonderful heat and spicy notes; with spicy onion strings on top of the patty, it’s a memorable tavern burger with a lot of kick.”

Always seeking the next new trend, Mr. Weaver recently sent one member of his Greenleaf Village, Colo.-based team to San Antonio to attend the CIA’s annual Latin Flavors/American Kitchens Symposium in search of more information about Peruvian cuisine.

“It’s very exciting and we’re still working on product development; it will be fun to see how Americans embrace it,” he said.

Understanding heat management

Heat management is a focal point for Kalsec Inc. The company’s heat management innovations include Szechuan pepper extract, ClearCap Super Soluble capsicum, encapsulated extracts and a line of specialty peppers that includes ancho, chipotle, guajillo, habanero and jalapeno. Aiming to monitor consumer demand for spicy foods accurately, the Kalamazoo, Mich.-based company recently developed two indexes for the US and European markets. The Kalsec HeatSync Heat Indexes are resources that are based on market data culled from Mintel International’s Menu Insights and the Global New Products Database to “provide another dimension to understanding the consumers’ continued desire for hot and spicy foods and beverages,” said Gary Augustine, Kalsec’s executive director of market development.

According to the most recent Kalsec HeatSync Heat Index, habanero pepper continued to grow in popularity with above average index gains both in the European Union and US markets during 2012; jalapeno and poblano peppers showed strong growth in the US, while products with cayenne pepper increased in Europe. Snack foods showed the strongest category growth for hot and spicy foods in both the US and European markets.

The HeatSync Heat Index is named after the recently developed Kalsec HeatSync Systems, designed to control the timing, intensity and location on the palate of heat (i.e., pungency) for specific application requirements.

Mr. Augustine said that understanding the product developer’s project and desired intensity profile is the first step in selecting the proper source of pungency.

“When trying to select the right pungency for an application, there are a few things to consider including when the heat should be registered — immediately, building during chewing, or after swallowing," he said. "If a heat that responds immediately and slowly fades is desired, capsicum is likely the best choice. If a heat that hits the back of the throat and strengthens after swallowing is needed, black pepper would be preferred. If a heat that is tantalizing to the sinuses, responds fast and fades immediately is needed, then the best choice is horseradish or mustard. Options exist in natural pungent extracts through a range of quick intense heat to slow gradual heat.”

The Szechuan pepper phenomenon seems poised to take off with its almost eerie “electrical” effect of heat plus a numbing sensation. Kalsec has developed a product that doesn’t bring the flavor note, but rather just the numbing and tingling note.

“Think of that in a chewing gum/snack food, while being authentically Szechuan,” Mr. Augustine said. “With the HeatSync System, we can control the timing — it’s a fine tuning of the heat for the customer; it’s kind of an evolution versus providing a standard product.”

Certainly, “evolution” and “innovation” are keys to staying in front of the trends.

Beverage prototypes with a kick

To demonstrate how his product may be used in beverage applications, Chef Jud McLester, corporate executive chef and ingredients sales manager for the McIlhenny Co., brews beer with Tabasco.

“It complements a beer with a bit of color or citrus notes,” he said. “I boil hops and yeast, then add Tabasco paste (without vinegar) at the end of the boil. It ferments — I let it sit for a few weeks — then it’s ready to go. I’m showing it to a couple of beer companies and a few smaller microbreweries.”

In an on-going effort to suggest how to use Tabasco in ways manufacturers haven’t considered, Mr. McLester has added it to root beer as well as to Dr Pepper.

“At the recently held RCA conference, I did Tabasco-spiked Sweet Tea and I’ve done Avery Island Irish Red Ale spiked with Tabasco,” Mr. McLester said.

Chef Mathew Freistadt, who loves to deliver heat at Wixon, sees hot pepper in beverages — though not yet trendy on a large scale — in fine dining restaurants as spiced chili peppers in a Margarita or daiquiri (as in strawberry daiquiri, so it’s gin, plus fruit, plus jalapenos).

“Any of the basic bar beverages can be enhanced with chili peppers, whether muddled or as a smoked salt with guajillo chili pepper for a Bloody Mary rimmer,” he said.

So, it’s not yet in the forefront of trends, Mr. Freistadt admits, “but for people who make flavor systems for the beverage industry — that’s where you’ll see experimentation with chili peppers for beverages.”

At Red Robin Gourmet Burgers, Chef Scott Weaver is “very excited” about his chain’s Spicy Margaritas, slated to debut this summer.

“America loves spicy and there will be three new ones to come out in August that will span three different cuisines,” Mr. Weaver said.