Flavorful Heat in Bold, Spicy Food

October 1, 2001

11 Min Read
Flavorful Heat in Bold,           Spicy Food

October 2001

Flavorful Heat in Bold, Spicy Food

By Alison Brushaber

American taste trends over the past few years have progressively leaned toward bold, spicy flavors with heat. What we are seeing, though, is the machismo never hot enough for me giving way to truly flavorful heat in food that does more than burn tongues.

Growing up in Minnesota did not expose me to any type of southwestern or Mexican cuisine. Not until I was 19 (on my travels through South America) did I discover and consequently fall in love with this type of cuisine. The vigorous flavors of that part of the world quickly became a personal favorite. Since then, in my 30-year career as a cook, chef, and research and development professional, I have infused many dishes with unique flavors based on my experiences. A particular interest of mine has always been the study of the myriad varieties of chile peppers and their different tastes. As American tendencies lean toward spicier foods, adding not just heat, but flavorful heat, is a topic worth exploring.

Composing with heatChefs have many different notes from which to choose when adding flavorful heat. Almost as a composer concocts a musical piece from some tune perhaps running through his head and the notes on hand, so do chefs, culinarians, food scientists and consumers create dishes. Vinegar, sweet, salty and heat are a few standard notes that can come through in a dish. Adding heat is just one option when adding flavor. As more Americans request foods with bold, spicy flavors, the question becomes: how? Options include using vinegar, garlic, onion and mustards. But one of the biggest trends lately is to achieve that taste through the use of chile peppers, which come in a variety of forms, including fresh, powdered and canned.

Formerly, mainstream use of chile peppers often was confined to chile powder. Add it to beans, and voila! instant flavor. This powder actually consists of a blended combination of dehydrated peppers and spices, and varies with the company or individual doing the blending and making the resulting tastes all different. Today, as more chefs and individuals learn about the varieties of chiles and their wide range of flavor and heat, they are requesting very particular kinds of chiles for use in their dishes. More often its: I need a New Mexican Red, or Mediterranean Oregano, please, rather than: pass the powder. Specifying a certain type of chile guarantees a consistent and controlled taste from the pepper, the only variables being the growing region and the conditions in that particular year.

What we have been talking about here is processing of chiles into dehydrated seasonings. This is a popular form, mainly because of its ease of use and accessibility. Of late, a number of companies have acknowledged the new flavor trends by offering dehydrated versions of a wider variety of peppers. Some processors subject certain of these products to irradiation, killing any microorganisms that may have existed within the pepper and making the seasoning safer for consumption.

New ingredients, new applicationsA few years ago, I came up with a recipe for a mayonnaise for a large restaurant chain that, when added, could provide any sandwich with a spicy, Southwestern zest. I gradually combined dehydrated, ground chipotle pepper with a mayonnaise base and tasted it until I had achieved the right amount of heat. This worked well for my client as a major chain restaurant, they had to be able to source the spice, and adding the dry ingredient to the mayonnaise base in quantified amounts was easily within the skill of the companys labor force.

Spicing up the flavor of mayonnaise with chiles is only the start; the uses are as varied as the spices. Because chipotle powders start as jalapeños that are first allowed to ripen on the vine, then dried in the smokehouse, and finally ground into a powder, the spice has a wonderful smoked taste and is relatively hot. Guajillo is not outrageously hot, but also has a deep, rich flavor. Ancho, with its dark, roasted flavor, is not particularly hot, but has a distinctive coffee or chocolate note. This makes it a flavorful ingredient in chili con carne, a popular sauce in Mexican cuisine. In fact, ancho also makes a great dipping sauce, using a base of mayonnaise, buttermilk, sour cream and ranch-type seasoning with the pepper. Ancho introduces flavor and color to the sauce which happens with any of these peppers.

Boiling peppers is another way to use chiles to spice up a dish or make a flavorful sauce. One of my favorite examples of that particular method is boiling New Mexican Red chiles to make a Santa Fe enchilada sauce in the traditional way of the natives of that region. I actually own land in the Santa Fe area and every year I go for the harvesting of the New Mexican Red chiles in Chimayo. Because I get the same type of chile peppers from the same region every year, the only variables in the heat of the pepper are the growing conditions that affect the heat level stored in the capsicums of the peppers the rain, sun, heat and soil.

I make big batches of this Santa Fe enchilada sauce from boiled New Mexican Reds every year. It takes two days to make the puree. I boil the peppers and then take the tops off, which is much easier after the pepper softens. I puree the remainder in a food processor and strain it to remove all the big chunks to end up with a nice, smooth sauce. The largest part of the sauce is the essence of the peppers, which provides the heat source. I then sauté fresh Texas 1015 or sweet Vidalia onions in oil and add fresh garlic. (Using roasted garlic would add another dimension of flavor.) I combine this with tomato paste and add it to the chile-pepper puree.

As the essence of the sauce is ultimately the chile pepper, adding tomato paste cuts the heat. Through sensory evaluation, I adjust the ratio of pepper puree to the tomato paste based on how hot I want the sauce. Once satisfied with the heat level, I puree the whole mixture again to produce a nice, smooth sauce. Because boiling the peppers takes a large amount of effort and because I like to use freshly harvested peppers, I only undertake this process once each year. Therefore, I make gallons of the sauce, give some away to friends and freeze the rest for my own use on enchiladas throughout the year.

A process common for people south of the border is that of roasting peppers. Roasting adds a whole new flavor dimension. Currently, we are creating a roasted poblano, roasted tomatillo chile salsa. Poblano peppers (called anchos when dried) are a dark-skinned green pepper that are not particularly hot but do have a distinctive flavor. They can be roasted on a charbroiler or on a backyard grill, even, in a pinch, on an electric stove. After roasting, putting the pepper into a plastic bag will loosen the skin for easy peeling. The pepper can now be added to a recipe. In the chile salsa mentioned previously, the roasted poblanos are cut up and mixed with roasted tomatillos. After cooking the mixture further, it makes a great table sauce for dipping, or works as a green enchilada sauce.

Can-do chilesAnother very easily used processed-pepper version is canned chiles. In Southwest cooking, canned, chopped green chiles are common. In fact, to many people, green chiles come only in a can. Though many of these canned peppers are either Anaheim or Hatch chiles, many people do not know what type of chile they are using, or even what a green chile pepper looks like when fresh. As more people discover different types of chile peppers, they can start to appreciate the different flavors inherent in different peppers, leading them to investigate what is really in that can.

A very popular form of canned chile is canned chipotle, or chipotle in adobo sauce. Processors cut up the chipotles (essentially jalapenos allowed to ripen on the vine and then dried in a smokehouse) and put them in tomato paste. These ingredients cook together during the canning process, which gives the sauce a different flavor and results in a very handy wet version of chipotle chiles. Using canned chipotles alleviates the work of either soaking or boiling them to ready them for a sauce; they are already moist and plump and can be pureed and added to the other ingredients in a recipe.

Any type of canned green chile is easy to use in queso or casseroles. Personally, I like to use canned chipotle, canned and fresh tomatoes and fresh onions to make a very good and very easy dipping sauce or salsa. Also, because this chipotle has gone through the canning process, its not going to harbor the same bacteria as a dried chipotle.

A hot topic: safetyThe safety factor became an issue when I was working with a client to create a spicy barbecue sauce. Seeing the trend toward bolder, spicier food, the client wanted some kind of sauce with a kick that was easy to manufacture. After many different formula ideations, we used canned chipotles in adobo sauce for the barbecue sauce. The flavor was nice, the restaurant could source the canned peppers, and it involved very little health risk. For mass-market commercialization, using chipotles in adobo sauce made sense because it is a sterile product with a low microbiological count and, of course, it involved no sacrifice in flavor.

Safety plays a large part in the decision to use one type of chile pepper over another, or any chile peppers at all. Food-safety issues are very top-of-mind to most people today and they consider it in their pepper-processing decisions, whether designing for a single unit or a big chain. Obviously, the bigger the organization, the more paramount food-safety issues become. When a culinarian wants to add flavorful heat to food, that person must take bacterial count into account in addition to factors that directly influence flavor and appearance.

Other hot factorsColor is also an integral part of the decision process. Many chefs have in their mind a vision of how they want their piece to look, feel and taste, so many turn to chile peppers to invoke an array of colors. For example, anchos can produce a deep, dark color, or New Mexican Red peppers might be added for something lighter.

In addition to color, chefs also take flavor and heat into consideration. Americans are now beginning to understand that spicy doesnt necessarily mean hot.

Chile peppers, in particular, run the gamut of flavor and heat levels. For example, chipotles happen to be a relatively hot pepper that also has a heavy flavor. However, anchos and guajillos are not very hot, nor are green chiles, such as the poblano, which is relatively mild but full of flavor. The use of extremely hot habaneros and scotch bonnets is not as prevalent. However, using sauces made from those hot peppers, in carefully measured amounts, can achieve flavor without leaving an unsatisfying burn.

Adding flavorful heat to food products enhances their taste and appeal. Considerations include flavor, heat level, color and food safety in choosing chile peppers, as well as any other method of adding tasty heat. Whether its an independent restaurant that wants to create a unique, signature sauce by roasting chile peppers themselves, a fast-food chain needing to add zest to their menu with something easy and safe, or individuals wanting their home-cooked meals infused with an unmistakable flavor, many turn to chile peppers. With their varied processed forms, there is a chile pepper, flavor and heat level for everyone.

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