Cayenne pepper flakes
Cayenne pepper is the top trending spice today, over caraway, saffron, horseradish and turmeric.

Spicy vs. hot

The descriptor “spicy” as it relates to “hot” climbed 8% between the third quarters of 2015 and 2016, according to Mintel. What is key to note is that the word spicy is used rather than hot, because heat is not the focus. It is often the flavors combined with the heat that differentiate the menu item from similar products in the market.

This is what appears in the many variations of barbecue found around the world. In the United States, barbecue in the Carolinas skews tangy and spicy. This comes from the use of vinegar, cayenne, black pepper, crushed red pepper, hot sauce and yellow mustard. St. Louis barbecue, on the other hand, tends to be quite sweet with a bit of acid. This comes from a heavy tomato base blended with the flavors of apple cider vinegar, honey, and some onion and garlic. Not too far away, Kansas City barbecue uses a similar base but adds more layers of flavor with smoke and molasses. In the Southwest, Texans favor spice and heat, with just a hint of sweetness. Here you will find tomato-based sauces infused with an array of dried peppers, along with some onion and Worcestershire.

Around the world, barbecue gets bolder. In Latin America it’s all about red chilis and cilantro, while in Korea, black and chili peppers combine with the Asian flavors of soy sauce, sesame and ginger. The Middle East tends to be more fragrant than spicy heat, relying on the flavors of cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, cumin and garlic.

“We have gone beyond sweet heat barbecue to provide unique flavor profiles that perform well with varied meats,” said Lisa Stern, vice-president of sales and marketing for Life Spice Ingredients. “For example, fermented chili butter provides the tang of fermentation, the smokiness of chilis and the creaminess of butter. We also have a red pepper honey and tamarind barbecue.”

Aspen Burkhardt, regional sales manager at Life Spice Ingredients, said, “Hot honey is trending. The honey is familiar, while the heat level can vary by target market and application. It works well on pork and chicken.”

Popeyes Hot Honey Crunch Tenders
Hot honey is trending and works well on chicken.

There are many varied ways to add heat and spice to meat and poultry. Deciding on the approach depends on the desired timing for the consumer taste experience.

“The easiest way to develop a good hot spicy note to meat products is to use the three-pepper combination of black, red and white,” said Bruce Armstrong, research and development manager of proteins at Life Spice Ingredients. “The properly blended combination will give a burst of spice on the tip of the tongue with the black pepper, then carry the heat through the mouth with the white pepper and finally leave the throat with a mild to hard hit of heat from the red pepper.”

Megan Trent, marketing representative for Gold Coast Ingredients, Commerce, said, “Flavors that replicate the taste of spices help with flavor enhancement and flavor stability. Utilizing flavors can also help companies innovate within the hot and spicy trend with rare flavor profiles, while also reducing costs incurred by using scarce or relatively expensive raw ingredients.”

Form matters, too.

“If you desire a bold, up-front flavor, rubs, seasonings and finishing sauces hit the palate first,” said Judson McLester, executive chef and ingredient sales manager for McIlhenny Co. “It’s the delivery method with the largest impact, the lowest usage and the least effect on the protein. In contrast, marinating or brining with spicy flavors lends a milder initial impact but is longer lasting and can be a lingering taste after consumption, creating come back appeal. Spicy flavor combinations, like all external seasonings, can generate some deficiencies if not thoughtfully considered. First and foremost is the risk of consumer alienation. While growing in appeal for the last few years, spicy is still not a universal desire. Other concerns are partial product coloration, textural modification and decreased shelf life. These are all easily addressed via proper formulating techniques, balance and changing the location of the heat. For example, if the type of spicy flavor you’d like to use has a low pH that could negatively affect the protein, then raise the pH slightly with complementary ingredients and do so on the exterior, not the interior.”

Chipotle dry powder spray
McIlhenny's chipotle spray dry flavoring is crafted from smoked red jalapeño peppers, distilled vinegar and a blend of spices.

To assist, the company is rolling out Tabasco brand chipotle spray dry flavoring, which is a full-bodied flavor enhancer that delivers the popular, smoky taste of Tabasco brand chipotle pepper sauce in a convenient dry format. Crafted from smoked red jalapeño peppers, distilled vinegar and a blend of spices, the dry format adds balanced flavor to a wide variety of applications without adding moisture. This includes rubs and marinades.

“It’s ideal for Latin-inspired cuisine,” Mr. McLester said. “First you taste the flavors of slow-smoked red jalapeños with hints of onion, garlic and a subtle sweetness. That follows with a perfectly balanced complex heat.”

Kikkoman now offers a preservative-free poke sauce, which, according to Mr. Hunter, exemplifies “Hot and Spicy 3.0.” The sauce features a rich, savory blend of authentic flavors through the combination of soy sauce, sriracha hot chili sauce, sesame oil, sugar and spices.

“Delivering a multi-dimensional, balanced flavor profile, it is an ideal marinade for poultry, pork or beef,” he said.

Sunsweet Growers Inc. is rolling out chef-inspired, no-added-sugar industrial sauces that have application in heat-and-eat meat and poultry products, as well as jerky and other protein snacks. Dried plums serve as a key ingredient in these gluten-free sauces that are made with non-G.M.O. ingredients and no artificial ingredients or preservatives.

“The dried plums enhance flavor and sweetness, enabling the sauces to be produced without the addition of sugar and less sodium,” said Kim Kennedy, business development.

This, along with the clean label formula, may improve the nutrition profile and label of the protein. Varieties include red chili, smoky chipotle pepper and tomatillo lime.

“We have a flavor we call maple mirch,” Mr. Lane said. “It’s a sweet and spicy flavor that cashes in on the Indian flavors trend, while also touching on the fusion of sweet and heat. It’s perfect in a wing sauce application because it puts a twist on the classic of chicken and waffles by taking it to a more global flavor profile. Going forward, as consumers become more globally connected, I think there will be an even greater emphasis on hyper-regional chilis. There are literally hundreds of different chilis around the world and many of them provide not just heat, but a really interesting bouquet of different flavor notes. Face burning heat is fun, but consumers are more sophisticated and want something else too. These globally inspired chilis fit the bill perfectly.”

Mr. Armstrong added, “More importantly, the combination of flavorful heat paired with complementary cooling from fruit or other sweet flavors presents a two-prong flavor of heat and cool that drives many new flavors.”

He offered the example of spicy mustard with apricot brats. The mustard is a sharp hot flavor that pairs with the cooling apricot. 

Harissa paste
Harissa offers a complex spicy flavor profile.

“Our culinary team recently developed harissa turkey meatballs and chermoula chicken with our Moroccan harissa chili blend,” said Jean Shieh, marketing manager for Sensient Natural Ingredients. “Harissa is a trendy sauce now in the culinary world because of its complex spicy flavor profile. Our harissa dry chili blend can be added to processed meat formulations without introducing additional moisture.”

One of the best ways to add heat into meat items is through ethnic profiles, according to Dax Schaefer, chief executive chef of Asenzya.

He provided the example of sambal oelek, an Indonesian hot sauce that has long been on tables at Vietnamese and Korean restaurants.

“It’s that little jar of chilis and vinegar,” Mr. Schaefer said. “It has recently gained a lot of attention with mainstream consumers because of its approachable ethnicity.”

Peri-peri is another. With roots in Portuguese and Northern Africa cuisines, this sauce combines heat with citrus notes. It is gaining traction as a marinade for chicken and pork.

“Shichimi togarashi is showing signs of being a new hot and spicy player,” said Christopher Warsow, manager of culinary applications for Bell Flavors and Fragrances. “It is a Japanese pepper seasoning blend that is a combination of ground red pepper, sansho peppers and roasted orange peel. This gives the blend a delightful heat and tingling from the sansho pepper. It holds up well to frying applications where it is in the breading. Yemini S’hug sauce is an interesting newcomer. With the growing popularity of Arab and Mediterranean cuisine, it is showing up on more menus. Think of it as salsa and chimichurri in one. It goes great with all types of grilled meats.”

The trend to spicy is not going away anytime soon. It continues to flourish.

“Rising consumer demand is pushing the industry towards distinct ethnic variations of heat,” Mr. McLester said. “In the near future, an array of proteins, from bacon to deli meat to butcher department raw offerings, will all have distinctive, complex and spicy iterations.”