CHICAGO — Heat and sweet have been attracted to each other since the beginning of time. In the United States, this has traditionally been on an individual basis — a sprinkling of red pepper flakes here and a dash of hot sauce there. But as borders continue to blur, either by real travel or social media, Americans increasingly are craving food adventure. What a better way to surprise them then to marry two very opposite flavor profiles into one culinary sensation?

In many dishes, when spicy ingredients are paired with sweet flavors the heat is mitigated. This enables complex, bold tastes to be enjoyed without burning the taste buds. It is an interesting sensory experience that emerged with the chicken wing category, an American phenomenon.

“Particularly popular is pairing sweet and bold ingredients to create a harmonious balance between opposing flavors,” said Laura McGuire, director, Technomic Inc., Chicago. “Chicken wings were one of the first foods to showcase sweet and bold flavor combinations because the protein pairs well with a variety of tastes.”

A trend-setting combination of sweet and heat is chipotle barbecue sauce, which is often used on wings. The sweetness of the barbecue sauce allows the smoky heat of the chipotle pepper to saunter through the profile without being too hot, said Christopher Warsow, corporate executive chef, Bell Flavors & Fragrances, Northbrook, Ill.

“When you pair sweetness with peppers, even the hottest peppers become palatable,” he said. “Habanero mango is a popular combination across many product sectors. The habanero pepper is quite flavorful, if you can get over the heat. Adding a dimension of sweetness helps accentuate the citrus notes of the pepper while the sulfurous notes of the mango play out.”

An example is the Screaming Mango Wings from the national chain Old Chicago Pizza & Taproom. These are twice-cooked wings with a sweet mango sauce, habanero and jalapeño.

“While some like food to be spicy, there are many Americans not quite ready for intense heat,” said Felicia Berger, culinary blogger and founder of The Starving Chef, Akron, Ohio. “They find when heat comes with something sweet, the overall taste of the food is much more pleasant.”

Berger, too, finds that mango pairs well with habanero, especially in her mango salsa.

“When you put these two together, something magical happens,” she said. “With your first bite you are met with a tender sweetness, followed quickly by the fierce spiciness of habanero.”

Endless possibilities

In many regions of the world, sweet with heat is a natural combination.

“A large influence in this pairing comes from Caribbean and Latin America regions,” said Garth Vdoviak, product development manager, Mizkan Americas, Mount Prospect, Ill. “People in these regions eat what is indigenous to the area, and that would be tropical fruits and hot chilies.”

Today the regional specialties have been introduced to Americans via cooking shows and social media.
“Consumers live in a world with no borders,” said Steven Haughie, corporate chef, Gold Key-PHR Hotels & Resorts, Virginia Beach, Va. “They view foods from around the world and then want to experiment with those flavors … which frequently involves opposite flavors that attract.

“You can take something as simple as french fries and add a twist.”

For example, fry sweet potatoes, then sprinkle them with cinnamon, sugar and chipotle or ghost pepper powder. Sweet fruits may be a carrier for heat as well.

“Ground chilies such as cayenne or paprika are a great platform to layer onto tropical fruit such as pineapple to be included in a stir fry or rice dish,” said Jud McLester, executive chef and ingredient sales manager, McIlhenny Co., Avery Island, La. “Another great combination is prepared curry powder and the inclusion of sweet components.”

Charlie Baggs, executive chef, Charlie Baggs Inc., Chicago, has some favorite heat and sweet combinations.

“Sriracha goes great with honey as a chicken glaze, on wings, on breasts, on a whole rotisserie chicken,” he said. “It’s delicious and craveable and our customers cannot get enough of it. Italian red pepper chili flakes add kick to sweet marinara classic Italian sauce Diablo. The heat and sweet sort of cancel each other to deliver a balanced, bold-flavored sauce.”

Dipping sauces are key accompaniments to many small plates and appetizers, which allow consumers to explore new foods without risking their entire entrée. Consumers expect small plates to deliver as much flavor as an entrée.

“Sauces can deliver sweetness in different ways.” Warsow said. “For example, honey has a very sharp onset of sweetness, whereas molasses has delayed sweetness. You can pair the pepper with the sweetener. Something that has a late burn, like ancho or chipotle, goes well with molasses or cane sugar. Peppers with upfront heat, such as habanero or aji rocoto, pair well with a sweetener that has a lot of fructose in it, such as honey.”