Yes, There Is a Scientific Unit of Spiciness

• Content sponsored by TABASCO® •

Many of us love spicy food for its cravable quality and the feel-good rush we get after eating it. Heat doesn’t have to be one-note: think of the garlicky sweet-heat of Sriracha or the smoky essence of chipotle. In fact, heat can be the perfect vehicle for dialing up a dish’s flavor and balancing out its other elements.

To incorporate heat into your menu most effectively, let’s dive into how to use, understand and appreciate this multifaceted taste sensation.

Assorted fresh organic peppers
Assorted fresh organic peppers

Measuring, and Crafting, Heat

Meet the Scoville scale: the actual, industry-standard measurement for spiciness. An American pharmacist named Wilbur Scoville came up with the scale in 1912, using a system known as the “Scoville organoleptic test” in which trained testers assess the level of capsaicinoids — the chemical that gives peppers their kick — in a given pepper or mixture. A bell pepper, for example, does not contain capsaicin, whereas sweet paprika and sweet peppers contain 100-500 Scoville Heat Units. Jalapeños clock in at 5,000 SHU, cayenne pepper at around 50,000, and ghost peppers at upwards of 1 million—and certain hybrids can contain even more.

There is often some variability in Scoville values owing to the subjectivity of the human palate. For example, TABASCO® brand Cayenne Garlic Sauce contains a relatively mild 1,200–1,800 SHU, TABASCO® brand Chipotle Pepper Sauce contains a more pungent 1,500–2,500 SHU, and TABASCO® brand Habanero Sauce contains a spicy 7,000–10,000 SHU. (To put that in perspective, TABASCO® Brand’s spiciest sauce, Scorpion, contains 25,000–40,000 SHU.)

The maturity of the pepper and the way it’s prepared can also affect the heat level. Many people don’t realize that chipotle is not a variety of pepper, but a smoked, sun-ripened jalapeño. So while both TABASCO ® brand Chipotle and Green Jalapeño Pepper Sauces start with fresh, green jalapeños, the process we use leads to an entirely different product. For Chipotle Sauce, jalapeños are sun-ripened to the perfect shade of red before being smoked for three days, while Green Jalapeño Sauce uses just that—fresh, green jalapeños. In the end, Chipotle Sauce not only offers a completely different flavor profile, but is also a little spicier (1,500–2,500 SHU) than Green Jalapeño Sauce (600–1,200 SHU).

Some Like It Spicier than Others

Offering a variety of heat levels and flavor profiles is key to a successful menu: A recent study found that the greatest number of consumers prefer moderate heat, but the rest diverge greatly in their heat preferences. One in five prefers either a balance of spicy and sweet or mild spice, but almost the same number find the spicier the better. 1 They’re also becoming more interested in different flavors of heat. Chipotle and Sriracha pepper sauces, for example, are fast-growing sauces menued on sandwiches, with +11% and +248% menu growth over the past four years, respectively.

Having grown up exposed to a wider variety of foods and cuisines than any previous generation, Millennial and Gen Z consumers gravitate most towards spicy flavors. This ties into this generation’s love of ethnic flavors, with 76% of consumers saying they find ethnic foods with authentic spices and sauces appealing. This is also the population that prefers the spiciest flavors on the heat spectrum.

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Incorporating Heat into Your Menu

A great dish is a balancing act, and an element of heat can be the perfect pillar. While TABASCO® Scorpion Sauce is the spiciest of the bunch, it contains fresh guava and papaya fruit, giving it a rounded, fruity finish that can cut rich dairy and even sweets. Considering the fact that 55% of consumers call sweet heat “craveable,” it’s no surprise that sweet-and-spicy flavor combinations have taken off. Take advantage of the trend with a change from your usual Buffalo wings: try these Scorpion Wings that incorporate brown sugar, pineapple juice and a dash of soy sauce for a savory, spicy and sweet new take on this classic appetizer.

TABASCO® Pepper Sauce flavors can also be used to add a dynamic dimension to dips and sauces. Try adding Cayenne Garlic Sauce to your marinara for a touch of something different to complement pizza, lasagna or subs, or serve alongside garlic knots, breadsticks or fried mozzarella. A few dashes of Habanero Sauce in plain yogurt makes a tangy, delicious topping for grilled meats, veggies and pita.

However you use it, remember that heat is not just about fireworks, but also flavor—which can ultimately help set your menu apart.

The TABASCO® Family of Flavors® lineup of nine unique pepper sauces lets you dial up heat and flavor in all your creations. Learn more about the products available for foodservice and get recipe inspiration at TABASCOfoodservice.com.


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