Spicy complications

by Karen Weisberg
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Momofuku ssam sauce
Heat is trending and consumers are looking for specific peppers and chile pastes.

Ask five flavor scientists what types of heat set different types of ingredients and sauces apart and you will get a similar answer from each – It’s complicated.

At Kalsec, the Kalamazoo, Mich., spice and herb extractor, Andrea Peterson, market development manager, said her company’s customers use Kalsec’s raw materials as ingredients during the flavor development process. For example, they use capsicum or pepper extracts to create such spicy flavor profiles as harissa, aji or piri piri.

To tackle and clarify the complexity of heat, Kalsec publishes its findings following consumer research.

“We find that 80 percent of those we questioned are eating spicy foods, with one-out-of-two eating them every week,” Peterson said.

Not only are 25 percent of the consumers surveyed eating spicy foods more often than a year ago, but 70 percent are choosing hot and spicy foods when eating at restaurants. Peterson sees the offerings as providing consumers with the opportunity to experiment with new flavor profiles and that especially speaks to millennials’ willingness to try different flavors.

“A piece of that has to do with ethnic flavors including harissa, which is a North African flavor; aji (Peru); piri piri (a marinade from Portugal, South Africa and several other African countries); and gochujang (South Korea).”

In fact, gochujang, which is a hot pepper paste, is “looking to be the next hot trend following sriracha,” according to Peterson. 

sriracha sauce
Sriracha remains on the culinary scene.

That’s not to imply that sriracha is gone from the scene. The iconic Thai pepper sauce from Huey Fong Foods, Irwindale, Calif., ranks 1,000-2,500 heat units on the Scoville scale — above banana pepper but below jalapeño — and other hot sauce formulators continue to tweak founder David Trans’ original formula which, according to the label, includes chile from red jalapeños, sugar, salt, garlic powder, distilled vinegar, potassium sorbate, sodium bisulfite and xanthan gum.

Even McIlhenny & Co., Avery Island, La., has created its own Tabasco sauce version of sriracha.

In response to steadily increasing customer requests for “a lingering heat,” and a more “nasal heat,” Kalsec has developed its HeatSync system that delineates the timing, sensation and heat level.

“Using this system, a manufacturer can standardize and dictate the timing, sensation and heat that they add to develop the desired pepper flavor,” Peterson said.

Since each of the hundreds of peppers out there has its own levels, timing and sensation of heat along with its own inherent flavor, Kalsec’s calibrated system provides insight for product developers.

On balance, from Kalsec’s perspective, using an extract will provide the flavor and heat a manufacturer seeks.

“Peppers, for example, have active ingredients to give the impression of pungency,” Peterson said. For the company’s Szechuan, the active ingredient that gives the impression of pungency is sanchools; for black pepper, it’s piperine; for chile peppers, it’s capsaicin.

Above all else, Peterson underscored the point that consumers are not just seeking heat but looking for specific peppers and chile paste.

“They want it by name because of the flavor as well as the heat level,” she said.

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