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.

|||Read more: Layering and fusion|||
Layering and fusion

Gallon Tabasco jugs
Millennials and Baby Boomers are embracing spicy foods.

If creating marinades and sauces was only about heat and how hot and spicy a product may be made, Garth Vdoviak would probably have lost his enthusiasm for what he does now. Having sold his own sauce and marinade company, World Harbors, in 2000, he is now immersed in product ideation and flavor development as product development manager for Mizkan Americas Inc., which is based in Mt. Prospect, Ill.

Layering flavors, fusion and an explosion of ethnic styles are various elements of food science that get his creative juices flowing and heat is a key driver.

“When you talk about ‘heat,’ most people think pepper and chile,” he said. “In addition, there are black peppercorns, white, pink (a fruit), ginger, turmeric, cinnamon, cumin, horseradish, wasabi, mustard powder, Worcestershire, garlic and onions.”

Reveling in the similarities of sauce ingredients found in various ethnic cuisines, such as the use of lime juice and garlic in both Mexican and Thai sauces, Vdoviak is proud of a sriracha marinade he recently formulated.

“There’s the umami of soy sauce; the heat of the garlic; plus pepper, ginger, a very little bit of 5 Spice, lime juice, as well as toasted sesame oil; that brought sriracha to a different level.”

Now he is working on identifying the next trending spice blend or compound.

Vdoviak sees harissa showing up on a lot of menus as a sauce, a paste or a rub. Often it is without caraway but some varieties are smoked with paprika. Given its role in Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and African cuisine, it’s a multi-ethnic favorite.

“I think gochujang is ready for the retail marketplace,” he said. “Made from red chiles, glutinous rice and fermented soy beans, I definitely think it can debut as a sauce. Americans are looking for a flavor adventure. Before, everything was in degrees of heat which tends to overshadow other flavors such as the acid from tomatoes, etc.”

On balance, if it’s just hot, it makes your face numb, “and your receptors are going wild, but it’s of no value if you can’t taste anything,” Vdoviak said.

Heat is trending, according to Jud McLester, corporate executive chef and ingredients sales manager for McIlhenny Co., owner of Tabasco brand products. And the trend is not only among the 18-to-35 year old demographic; older adults who may be losing some of their taste buds, as well as those who are aiming to reduce consumption of sodium and fat by using spicy sauces to compensate, are also interested.

Getting straight to the point, McLester said heat is a product of peppers — at least for the most part and depending upon the flavor profile of heat of the dish that determines which pepper a consumer would choose.

“For a Thai dish, for example, you’re probably going to use a hotter pepper; since capsaicin raises the body temperature, people in hot climates would find it makes them feel more in tune with the climate so [relatively] they don’t feel so hot,” he said.

If you’re using a chipotle, the heat will be less.

As noted earlier, Tabasco has introduced its own sriracha sauce — a blend of peppers and garlic that’s thicker than the Huy Fong Foods original for which there’s no trademark.

“We [at Tabasco] use more red peppers to make it thicker,” McLester said. “Ours is a blend of red peppers plus Tabasco sauce, which itself is a fermented product and therefore brings some umami-like characteristics. In addition, it’s a flavor enhancer, so the heat from the red peppers plus Tabasco lifts and brightens.”

|||Read more: Ghost pepper or gochujang|||
Ghost pepper or gochujang

ssamjang sauce
Gochujang, a savory spicy Korean condiment, builds flavor with umami.

While such sources of heat as Buffalo-style sauces and chipotle continue to be mainstream, naga jolokia or ghost pepper, seems to be one of those flavors that’s taking longer to catch on, according to  McLester.

“Eventually, I think it will come around; sometimes these ‘trends’ go through the whole R&D process which could take up to 18 months or longer or maybe it’s not a ‘trend’ worth jumping on,” he said. “However, gochujang is everywhere; it’s part of the ‘fermented scene’ and I’m hearing more and more about it.”

As director of innovation for Cargill, Christopher Runkle, CRC, said he’s seeing a lot of interest in sriracha from many major food service chains.

“We’re seeing a lot of Korean red chile paste that’s fermented with rice and/or soy bean, building flavor with umami,” he said. “The fermentation process builds the umami flavor characteristics in with the heat; even with sriracha, fermentation with chiles and garlic not only drives the heat but impacts flavor.”

To produce gochujang, red chile is fermented with rice and soybean creating a natural umami.

“They’ll toss cabbage in this gochujang and ferment it further,” Runkle said. “The heat driver for kimchee is gochujang.”

He recommends gochujang as a marinade for beef or pork alone or combined with soy sauce or honey plus lemon/lime juice to bring up the acidity. 

stacked bowls of chilis
A number of chilis can create layers of heat.

Having grown up in Tampa, Runkle enjoyed the local fare at numerous Cuban cafes. He recalls a garlic dipping sauce and the intensity of heat generated from the little white bulb.

“When you crush or chop garlic, the heat from the sulfur components in garlic is released, enzyme activity drives the heat,” he said. “They typically use parsley or cilantro plus garlic with lemon juice; the heat is driven by the garlic. It’s a different way your tongue perceives this heat.”

What research scientists and chefs alike love to do with a sauce is to layer the heat.

For Runkle, that may mean creating a honey sriracha sauce with black pepper that may hit you up front so the sriracha heat lingers longer. This may be done with a number of chiles including black pepper, cayenne, red chile peppers, green jalapeño peppers, etc.

Nashville-style hot chicken, which Runkle sees as a regional trend that’s popular in a number of the area’s gastro pubs, takes its heat from cayenne mixed with lard that allows the cayenne to adhere to the chicken.

Runkle pegs pickled vegetables as a way to layer heat, as in Korean and Japanese cuisine using kimchee, which features fermented pickles and radishes.

“We’ve been playing around with pickling, then adding cider vinegar, sugar and crushed red pepper for a spicy bread and butter pickle,” he said. “Or you could combine rice wine vinegar and sugar plus gochujang to make a spicy Korean pickle.”

Lori Murphy, senior technical director of ingredients for Erlanger, Ky.-based Wild Flavors & Specialty Ingredients, an Archer Daniels Midland business unit, said everyone responds differently to pungency, chemicals and heat:

“Heat is first felt in the mouth, then the esophagus, then the stomach; this leads to sweating or cold chills, depending upon the heat that’s used.”

While capsaicin goes to the stomach and may produce sweating on the forehead or upper lip, mint, which is frequently used in beverages, generates a cooling sensation that may be perceived as a heat or spice because of the way it plays on your tongue—like the spicy-heat sensation in chewing gum—and the cooling sensation perceived in our nasal passages.

At the end of the day, beauty may be in the eyes of the beholder, but when it comes to defining and appreciating heat, it may really be in the nose, tongue, esophagus and even stomach of the taster. So don’t hesitate to layer it on.