October 28, 2013
When Bill Owens in Hayward, Calif. first brewed a pumpkin beer in the early 1980s, no one else in modern craft brewing history had done such a clever thing. His project, so it is said, was inspired by historical records indicating that George Washington had used squashes—and possibly pumpkins—in experimental homebrews. Buffalo Bill’s Pumpkin Ale became popular over the years and remains so some 30 years after its birth.
But today, that maverick beer stands modestly amid hundreds of others like it. For autumn beers celebrating America’s most iconic squash have become ubiquitous: The summer nears its end, and brewers across the continent get busy in unison adding a blizzard of spices and cooked pumpkin (sometimes fresh, sometimes out of a can) to their tanks of fermenting beer. By October and November, pumpkin brews are as commonplace as jack-o-lanterns, and from a glance at a supermarket beer aisle, one might think that America’s craft brewers had run out of ideas.
Many pumpkin beers taste about the same, brewed with roughly the same flurry of autumn spices–which is fine. Most beers of any given style, after all–whether IPAs, porters or pilsners–have a similar flavor profile. The trouble with pumpkin beers is that they can be hard to handle if too liberally spiced. William Bostwick, beer critic for the Wall Street Journal and author of the forthcoming history of beer and brewing, “The Brewer’s Tale,” notes that the standard potpourri of spices used in pumpkin beer–cinnamon and nutmeg, and usually a few others–can turn “acrid, bitter, and cloying” if they are boiled for too long. Bostwick says he has found the worst of these beers to “taste like allspice soup.”
He points out, too, that pumpkin beers generally don’t taste like pumpkin at all.
“On the whole, these are basically pumpkin pie beers,” Bostwick says. “What you taste is spices. I’m not sure most people even know what pumpkin itself really tastes like.”
Indeed, the flavor of pumpkin is so mild that it can be almost undetectable even in a lightly spiced beer. In Half Moon Bay, California, a town surrounded by pumpkin fields, the local brewery has been making a pumpkin beer every fall for 10 years. But this year, the Half Moon Bay Brewing Company toned down the recipe, from eight pounds of nutmeg, clove, allspice, cinnamon and mace in last year’s 500-gallon batch to just one meager pound for the current release.
“I specifically wanted it to taste like pumpkin, not pie,” brewmaster James Costa says. The beer, available only on draft, is decidedly unspicy—so unspicy that one might entirely fail to notice that the reddish hued, creamy topped ale is spiced at all. The pumpkin, meanwhile, is faint, as nature intended this humble squash to be.
Dawn Letner has perhaps never tasted that pumpkin beer. She owns the Chico Home Brew Shop in Chico, Calif., where she frequently sends home customers during October and November with pumpkin beer recipes.
For her, most pumpkin beers are almost intolerable.
“I might buy a bottle now and then, but definitely not a 6-pack,” Letner says. “Do you really want to sit and drink more than one of these spicy cinnamon bombs? For me, the answer is no. If I did want to, I’d just make a spiced tea and add a shot of alcohol.”
Sean Lilly Wilson, owner and founder of Fullsteam Brewery in Durham, N.C., makes a wide array of unusual fruit and vegetable beers to celebrate the autumn–but he has chosen not to make a beer featuring the pumpkin.
“There are enough pumpkin beers in the world,” he says, adding that he doesn’t much care for the style. “They’re often so overly spiced that they’ve lost all nuances. Some of the most celebrated pumpkin beers are just too much for me.”
To make pumpkin beers, some brewers use freshly harvested pumpkins, roasted until the starches turn gooey and sweet. Buffalo Bill’s Brewery, for one, has long used the jumbo pumpkins famous for their hippo-like dimensions, if not their flavor. Half Moon Bay Brewing, on the other hand uses apple-sized sugar pie pumpkins–though Costa concedes that the variety of squash used is probably irrelevant. Other brewers use only pumpkin concentrate, rendered from cooked pumpkins and reduced to a dense, extremely sweet juice and purchased in cans. The pumpkin is added at varying stages of the brewing process, sometimes prior to boiling, other times toward the end of fermentation. Late in the process, too, the spices are added, and another pie-flavored pumpkin beer hits the shelf.
Whether you disdain pumpkin beers, simply tolerate them for a few weeks or wait all summer for them, you must give credit to Buffalo Bill’s Pumpkin Ale. Though the mild chai-tasting beer receives consistently poor reviews on beer rating forums, it was the original of what has become a wildly popular style, with almost countless examples now on the market. As of this writing, Beer Advocate’s online rating forum included no less than 529 pumpkin beers–most, if not all of them, spiced like mulled wine. And at the Great American Beer Festival, an annual fall event in Colorado, pumpkin beers occupy their very own category. Clearly, no matter the scorn felt by some critics, America loves these beers. Geoff Harries, the owner of Buffalo Bill’s since 1994, says demand continues to grow for his pumpkin ale, which is now distributed in 43 states, and he said in an interview that from October to November, the beer-drinking public goes into a state of “hyper-excitement” over pumpkin beers. Come December, though, the interest peters to a stop.
Even if you aren’t hyper-excited about pumpkin beers, it’s worth exploring the category for the oddball renditions some breweries have introduced:
- Oak Jacked, from Uinta Brewing Company, in Salt Lake City, is a sweet, deep brown ale with more than 10 percent alcohol and is aged in whiskey barrels for a creamy, vanilla-Chardonnay finish.
- New Belgium’s pumpkin beer, named Pumpkick, includes cranberry juice and lemongrass for an unusual, tart and zesty interpretation.
- Elysian Brewing Company, in Seattle, makes a well-liked pumpkin beer, too–a copper-colored imperial style named The Great Pumpkin. This brewery, in fact, has held an annual pumpkin beer festival since 2005. The event’s centerpiece is a jumbo pumpkin filled with beer and tapped like a keg.
But of the many off-center pumpkin beers available, a few stand alone as marvels of beer making. Perhaps most extreme of them all is a boozy ale called Rumpkin, from Avery Brewing Company.
“I’m one of the biggest pumpkin beer fans in the world,” says Adam Avery, the man who created this beer. As the founder of the brewery, Avery has garnered a reputation over the years for making some of the most outlandish, aggressive, almost unapproachable beers in the world. “I would drink pumpkin beers every day if I could, and it seemed weird that I had never made one before. So we thought, ‘Let’s make a pumpkin beer, and let’s make it the granddaddy of them all.’”
And unless we overlooked something grander, Rumpkin is it. The dark, cognac-like beer, which tastes of vanilla, coconut and dark chewy fruits, has been aged in rum barrels and weighs in at 18.6-percent alcohol.
Autumn is the season of abundance, diversity and color–not just pumpkins, pumpkins, pumpkins–and Fullsteam Brewery, at least, seems to recognize this. The small facility, now just three years old, released a persimmon ale this fall named First Frost after the seasonal event which traditionally marks the ripening of the persimmon crop. Wilson, Fullsteam’s owner, is also getting set to brew a fig-chestnut beer, named Fruitcake, and a pawpaw beer, named Pawpaw, while a sweet potato lager, named Carver, is available year round on draft at the brewery.
None of these fall and winter beers are spiced.
“We’re not in the scented candle business,” Wilson quips. “We’re in the craft beer business. We want to let people taste the ingredients we’re using.”
As for those spicy pumpkin beers, Bostwick, for all his skepticism, gets why brewers make them like they do:
“No one wants to buy a pumpkin beer expecting it to taste like pumpkin pie and finding that it tastes like nothing.”
They’d rather, it seems, have it taste like allspice soup.
September 13, 2013
Last winter, salt farmer Ben Jacobsen opened a saltworks on the grounds of an old oyster farm stationed on a lonely stretch of the northwest Oregon coast. Jacobsen’s delicate, crunchy flake salt has quickly and quietly become the essential mineral underpinning some of the best cooking in America, beloved by the likes of Thomas Keller and April Bloomfield. (Or perhaps not so quietly: recently, Bloomfield sang its praises while preparing peas on toast for Jimmy Fallon on late-night television). Though he is little known outside the rarefied world of top chefs, Jacobsen is intent on bringing high-end American salt to the home table.
“Ben’s salt is all about the story, our connection to where the food comes from, which I respect,” the salt expert Mark Bitterman told Portland Monthly earlier this year. He carries Jacobsen flake salt at both the New York and Portland locations of The Meadow, his high-end salt boutique. “But he is a guy who has been playing with salt for a few years; he could never come close to a Frenchman following a hundred-year-old tradition for making fleur de sel.”
The slight stung. But as it happened, Jacobsen’s attempt at making America’s first-ever fleur de sel was already underway. Despite the fact that the United States is the second-largest industrial producer of salt in the world, behind China, very little of it is used for cooking; chefs have always looked elsewhere for their salts. The labor-intensive process of making fleur de sel, the most prized of the sea salts, traditionally involves harvesting by hand from the salt ponds of Guèrande, Brittany, on the coast of France, when the weather is warm and the seas still (between June and September.)
Paludiers, trained for years in the art of salt harvesting, carefully rake and collect the top layer of crystals (the “flower,” which only holds its shape in calm conditions). The salt is valued by chefs for its high moisture content — it maintains its integrity when finishing hot dishes like steak or fish — and for the mineral richness that imparts a sense of place. Flake salt, on the other hand, has flat, large crystals and a brighter, cleaner taste; it’s recommended for use on salads, vegetables, and baked goods. Ancestral salt fields have been found everywhere from Peru and the Philippines to Portugal, and the best fleur de sel today is still carefully picked in those places.
“It’s so peculiar that we haven’t had a fleur de sel to call our own,” Jacobsen said recently. Hanging out with Jacobsen in his Portland neighborhood shows him to be a surprisingly appropriate ambassador for the humble-yet-essential role of salt in cooking: he’s an unassuming, amiable guy in a plaid shirt and denim trucker hat who’s liked by all, and you don’t notice that he’s everywhere until you actually start looking around. (His flake salt is used in the city’s top restaurants, and carried in boutiques from here to the Atlantic coast.) Jacobsen is earnest when he says he thinks it’s about time for a great American salt, given that the country is surrounded by salt water. “As chefs and home cooks,” he observes, “we’ve forgotten about our resources.”
It turns out that the Oregon coast has a salt-making pedigree of its own, hosting an operation during the winter of 1805-1806, when five men on the Lewis and Clark expedition were dispatched to the sea to gather salt for elk meat that was already spoiling. For two months, they camped a hundred paces from the ocean and kept five brass kettles of seawater boiling around the clock, eventually producing three and a half bushels of salt for the return journey across the continent. Lewis called the product “excellent, fine, strong, & white.”
At the modern-day operations of Jacobsen Salt Co., not much has changed with regard to the science: it still involves boiling seawater down to make salt. But with regard to rigor, the process is a great deal more stringent (in scaling up, Jacobsen has hired a chemist to help streamline production with precision). To make his flake salt, Jacobsen pipes seawater up from pristine Netarts Bay, a protected conservation estuary; filters it through seven different systems; and boils it down to remove calcium and magnesium (the minerals give salt a bitter aftertaste, and also interrupt crystal formation). Once the desired salinity is achieved, Jacobsen evaporates the rest in custom stainless-steel pans kept at a constant temperature, so that salt crystals form on the surface. On a recent visit, I watched as series of crystals grew to completion and fell to the bottom of the pan, one by one, drifting like snowflakes.
Making fleur de sel — though laborious in its own way — involves even more waiting. At the time of this writing, Jacobsen is patiently evaporating the first batch of fleur de sel in a hoop house outside the main facility, using just the sun. Unlike flake salt, fleur de sel is made from unfiltered seawater, so that the natural minerality comes through. Each batch can take anywhere from two to twelve weeks, depending on the weather, and each pond can produce 100 pounds of salt. As the water evaporates, Jacobsen uses a pond skimmer to carefully collect the crystals. He is wrapping up plans to farm an acre of fleur de sel at a new location on the coast, with a facility dedicated to the specialty salt (with the use of greenhouses, he expects to be able to extend the traditional fleur de sel “season” by a month or two on either end).
According to Jacobsen, the quality of Netarts Bay seawater is among the best in the world, and it’s validated by the chefs who buy his flake salt every week. So it only follows that fleur de sel made from that water would have an excellent flavor profile that’s uniquely representative of this part of the Pacific coast.
Despite the care put into each jar of product, the salts are meant to be used, and not in a precious way. The fetishizing of artisanal food products, Jacobsen says, has made it difficult for the average American consumer to feel comfortable buying and using really good salt. “People will spend $150 for a bottle of wine for a two-hour dinner,” he told me. “But good salt is one of those things you can spend less than $10 on, and it will last a household for two months. It elevates everything, and it’s a luxury you can have at your table.”
You’ll be able to buy his fresh-off-farm fleur de sel for your table on October 3 from Jacobsen’s website and various retail outlets.
Good Salt for Your Kitchen
We asked Jason French — chef at the Portland restaurant Ned Ludd, and fan of Jacobsen Salt — to give us an easy home recipe that highlights what a good salt like fleur de sel can do. Here’s what he came up with.
Salt-and-spice-cured trout and arugula salad with capers and lemon cream
Serves four as an appetizer, or two as a main course
For the trout:
2 boneless skin-on trout fillets
6 thinly sliced lemons
For the cure:
2 T. Jacobsen fleur de sel
3 T. sugar
1 heaping T. garam masala (a traditional North Indian spice mix easily found in any supermarket)
For the salad:
1 large bunch arugula, washed, soaked in ice water, and spun dry
3 T. brined small capers, rinsed
1/2 c. parsley leaves
1 T. lemon juice
2 T. extra virgin olive oil
Jacobsen fleur de sel
For the lemon cream:
1 shallot, peeled and minced
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
1/2 cup heavy cream
Jacobsen fleur de sel
1. Lightly toast the spices in a pan until aromatic. Cool and mix with the fleur de sel and sugar. Place the trout on a small sheet pan lined with plastic wrap. Coat the flesh of the trout fillet well with the cure and lay three slices of lemon to cover. Place a sheet of plastic wrap over the trout and cover with another sheet pan and weight with some canned items from your pantry. Place in the refrigerator for 4 hours.
2. Make the lemon cream by macerating the shallots in the lemon juice and zest for 20-30 minutes. Season with a pinch of fleur de sel. In a separate bowl whisk the cream until just starting to thicken and mix with the shallots. Continue to whisk until lightly thickened. This should be made just before the salad is served.
3. For the salad, chop the capers and parsley together. Add the lemon juice and olive oil and whisk lightly. Season with a pinch of salt. Toss with the arugula.
4. Divide the arugula between the plates. Rinse and dry the trout fillet and slice thinly at an angle using broad strokes, peeling the flesh away from the skin with each slice. Divide among the plates. Drizzle the lemon cream over the trout and arugula and serve. (Note: the trout may be done ahead of time, but make sure to rinse and dry it so it doesn’t over cure.
Bonnie Tsui writes frequently for The New York Times, and is a contributing writer for The Atlantic.
February 15, 2013
Today, entering “chipotle” into a Google search yields 19.7 million results in a fraction of a second. The ingredient appears in more than 800 recipes on Food Network’s website. A MenuPages search for the ingredient generates more than 1,500 mentions of chipotle on the East Coast alone. Founded in 1993, the Chipotle Mexican Grill franchise grew from 16 locations in 1998 to more than 500 in 2005, then doubled that in 2011.
How did a small smoke-dried jalapeno reach such celebrity status in the kitchen?
Ten years ago, McCormick & Company, the largest spice company in the world, put chipotle on the map in its third annual flavor forecast, a roundup of spices and other ingredients that predicts a peak in popularity for that year. Chipotle, already well known and regularly used in central and southern Mexico, saw a 54 percent jump in menu mentions across America in the next seven years.
The company’s 2003 forecast also included lemon grass, sea salt and wasabi, present-day restaurant staples. Three years later, chai and paprika were the breakout stars. In 2011, the forecast featured flavors with origins outside of the states, highlighting curry and herbes de Provence.
McCormick’s team of nearly 100 chefs, sensory scientists, dietitians and marketing experts will talk 2014 flavors at a summit next month. But 2013 has just begun, and one of the ingredients in this year’s flavor combinations could become the next chipotle:
- Bitter dark chocolate, sweet basil and passion fruit. Pairing chocolate with fruit isn’t a new trend, but swapping traditional mint with basil is a new spin.
- Black rum, charred orange and allspice. Allspice is usually associated with baking, but pairing it with black rum could produce tropical cocktails.
- Cider, sage and molasses. This trio lends to rustic, comfort foods during chilly weather.
- Smoked tomato, rosemary, chili pepper and sweet onion. This quartet can be used to spice up homemade ketchup, sauces and jams.
- Faro, blackberry and clove. Faro, one of the oldest ancient grains, is similar to quinoa, which has begun showing up in the grocery aisle inside pastas and chips.
- Dukkah and broccoli. Dukkah is an Egyptian blend of cumin, coriander, sesame and nuts. It mostly appears in olive oil as a dipping sauce for table bread in American eateries, but McCormick chefs say uses can extend to toppings for soups, stews and salads.
- Hearty cuts of meat, plantains and cinnamon sticks. Plantains can stand in for potatoes in the classic meat-and-potatoes meal.
- Artichoke, paprika and hazelnut. These three aren’t new on the market, but combining them in one palate makes for a more exotic dish.
- Anise and cajeta. McCormick chefs believe the latter will catch on quickly. It’s a thick Mexican syrup similar to dulce de leche, which many Americans are already familiar with.
- Japanese katsu and oregano. Katsu’s tanginess resembles barbecue and steak sauces.
Zeroing in on trends is the easy part, says McCormick chef Mark Garcia. It’s the recipes that are tricky. They combine the ten flavor combinations with complementary ingredients and taste-test the recipes multiple times.
“One of the worst things we could do is just come up with a recipe where the ingredients don’t make sense but we thought they sounded cool together,” Garcia says. “We clearly have to bring some techniques as well as some artistry to the process so that we create combinations that are both relevant but also make sense from a culinary standpoint.”
Garcia’s prediction for the frontrunner this year for America’s next top flavor is dukkah, explaining that it’s “one of those ingredients where literally the term ‘all-purpose’ comes to mind.” The blend, along with the other flavors, may diffuse into the food industry, cropping up in grocery aisles and the pages of restaurant menus. But will the average citizen’s taste buds accept the new flavor?
Ami Whelan, a senior scientist at McCormick, thinks so. Her job is to evaluate, measure and interpret people’s responses to food based on their senses of sight, smell, taste, touch and hearing.
“The senses help us make decisions about the foods we eat. For instance, the appearance of a strawberry helps us make a decision on whether the fruit is ripe,” Whelan writes in an email. “The aroma of fresh baked bread or cinnamon rolls direct us to the store where we expect to taste a fresh, tasty product.”
A sensory analysis of flavor combinations reveals the likelihood of consumer acceptance, but Whelan says she usually has an inkling about the outcome.
“The chefs and culinarians on the team have an extensive intrinsic knowledge of the basic sensory properties of foods and flavors and innately know, even prior to tasting, what might work well together and what likely does not,” she says. “All of us on the team are foodies by nature, meaning that food and flavor is not just our job, but also our hobby and favorite past-time.”
January 15, 2013
Several food critics recently predicted barrel-aged hot sauce would be this year’s breakout condiment. The process originated nearly 145 years ago, when pepper seeds from Mexico and Central America took root in Avery Island, a salt dome in Louisiana. There, Edmund McIlhenny watched the red peppers grow, starting out green in infancy, then turning yellow, orange and finally deep red and ready for picking. He mashed them and mixed in salt from the island’s underground mines. Then, he dumped the mixture into white oak barrels, where it aged for three years, slowly fermenting.
Tabasco red pepper sauce was born.
When whiskey is freshly distilled, it is colorless and only tastes and smells like the grain and the alcohol. It gets its color and richness in flavor from aging in charred oak barrels. Hot sauce, like Tabasco, works much the same way—it soaks in flavor and grows deeper in color in the barrel.
In 2009, a former chef at Vesta Dipping Grill in Denver purchased an eight-gallon charred whiskey oak barrel to add some smoky flavor to the restaurant’s house-made sauces. Last year, Vesta’s executive chef, Brandon Foster, purchased two more barrels, and they sit in the restaurant’s basement, allowing the chiles to age and absorb wood tannins and hints of whiskey.
The first iteration, dubbed Hudson Barrel Hot Sauce, became a Louisiana-style sauce made with red Fresno chilies and habaneros, onion, garlic, salt and vinegar. After the chilies are pickled for two weeks in cans, the barrel is rinsed with a bottle of whiskey, and the mixture ages for a minimum of four weeks. Around week six or eight
, the whiskey flavor really seeps in, says Foster, and the resulting flavor is smoky with an acidic punch and some background heat.
Vinegar and salt pull moisture from the barrels into the hot sauce, bringing flavor with them, Foster says.
“The barrel has sauce aged in it, it’s had whiskey aged in it,” Foster says. “It’s going to have excess moisture in it and I think that’s the salt and the vinegar, the macerated chilies, that are really just reacting with that wood and pulling out as much flavor as possible.”
The first barrel, which cost $130, produced eight batches of hot sauce before Foster noticed signs of wear and tear and feared leaking or mold. His two new barrels have gone through ten to 12 batches of hot sauce, and recently welcomed a new concoction—this time, using tequila.
The new recipe, created by one of Vesta’s kitchen managers, calls for Serrano peppers, roasted jalapenos, habaneros, onions, garlic and red wine vinegar mashed together and poured into a tequila-rinsed barrel. The green, Latin America-style sauce, which will be hotter and sweeter than Hudson Barrel Hot Sauce, will debut at the restaurant in a few weeks.
What sort of volume goes through one eight-gallon barrel during its lifetime? A lot: 250 to 300 pounds of chilies, 60 to 70 pounds of onions, 20 to 25 pounds of garlic and generous helpings of salt and vinegar. Foster uses chiles from California for the current batch, as Colorado’s winter weather isn’t easy on pepper crops.
Once the sauces have matured, the mixture is pureed, but it’s not smooth by any means, Foster says. He drains the barrel by setting it on a counter above a bucket and shaking it back and forth, then tosses the mash into a high-powered Vitamix blender, after which it’s pureed further through a cap strainer. Some pulp remains to add viscosity to the sauce, which is seasoned, bottled and served at Vesta’s sister restaurant Steuben’s, alongside 20 to 30 other hot sauces. And since the barrels are replenished regularly, some of the flavor customers taste has been building for two years.
For Ronnie New, executive chef at Magnolia Pub and Brewery in San Francisco, barrel aging hot sauce is a new venture. He’s been making his own hot sauce, similar to Sriracha, for a year and a half, adding it to the restaurant’s wings and fried chicken. Magnolia has no shortage of barrels—its bar buys bourbon and whiskey by the barrel for its house cocktails—so tossing hot sauce into one of them seemed like a logical move.
By June, he’ll fill a 53-gallon Evan Williams bourbon whiskey white oak barrel with 200 pounds of locally sourced chilies, age the mash for six months, and bottle it by 2014. As the vinegar in the mash starts to denature the chilies, New says some natural sugar will be released, causing the mixture to ferment. When natural proteins are exposed to salt and changes in pH, their coils unwind, and they tend to bond together to create solid clumps, losing some of their capacity to hold water.
“Hot sauces tend to develop more and more flavor the longer they sit,” says New, who will monitor the flavor as the mash ages. “Every single environment is different, so there’s not an exact formula. The end product might be slightly different each time we do it.”
On the opposite coast, Sam Barbieri, owner of Waterfront Alehouse in Brooklyn, recently emptied a 31-gallon barrel whiskey full of hot sauce and added it to his restaurant’s wings and buffalo-style calamari.
“If you’re aging whiskey in a barrel and dump it out, there’s still about eight to ten percent retention in the wood from the whiskey,” Barbieri says. “I put the sauce in there, and all those beautiful vanilla and oak tones will come into my hot sauce.”
The sauce, made from chocolate habaneros, Bishop’s Crown peppers and Serranos, ages for two years. The end result is extremely hot, so Barbieri adds pureed carrot or apple cider vinegar to balance the flavor and arrive at his desired pH level, roughly 3.5, a number he says those in the canning industry aim for to create a stable product. Then, he heats the sauce at 192 degrees Fahrenheit for five minutes before bottling it.
Unlike Foster, Barbieri doesn’t reuse his barrels. Instead, he throws its staves into his barbecue pit to infuse pepper flavor into roasted hogs, adding hickory and apple. He’s in talks with local distilleries about acquiring his next barrel.
“As soon as you age your whiskey, I will come pick up your barrel,” he says.
January 10, 2013
In 2007, the Naga Bhut Joloki or “Ghost chile” was named the hottest pepper on earth. Then in 2010 the Naga Viper stole the title. And in 2012 the Trinidad Scorpion Moruga Blend moved into the lead. And for good reason.
The Scorpion ranks at round 2 million heat units on the Scoville scale. (For comparison, tabasco sauce has 2,500–5,000 Scoville heat units or SHU.) What exactly does that mean? When the scale was invented in 1912 by pharmacist Wilbur Scoville in search of a heat-producing ointment, it was based on human taste buds. The idea was to dilute an alcohol-based extract made with the given pepper until it no longer tasted hot to a group of taste testers. The degree of dilution translates to the SHU. In other words, according to the Scoville scale, you would need as many as 5,000 cups of water to dilute 1 cup of tobacco sauce enough to no longer taste the heat.
And while the Scoville scale is still widely used, says Dr. Paul Bosland, professor of horticulture at New Mexico State University and author or several books on chile peppers, it no longer relies on the fallible human taste bud.
“It’s easy to get what’s called taster’s fatigue,” says Bosland. “Pretty soon your receptors are worn out or overused, and you can’t taste anymore. So over the years, we’ve devised a system where we used what’s called high performance liquid chromatography.”
That’s a fancy way of saying that scientists are now able to determine how many parts per million of heat-causing alkaloids are present in a given chile pepper. The same scientists have also figured out that if they multiply that number by 16, they’ll arrive at the pepper’s Scoville rating (or “close enough for the industry,” says Bosland).
And, let’s face it, who would want to be the one to taste test a pepper named after a viper or a scorpion? Or maybe the better question is what sane person would? The BBC recently reported on the first man to finish an entire portion of a curry made with ghost chiles, called “The Widower,” and he suffered actual hallucinations due to the heat. Bosland told the AP in 2007 he thought the ghost chile had been given it’s name “because the chili is so hot, you give up the ghost when you eat it.” How’s that for inviting?
Indeed, the capsaicin, the spicy chemical compound found in chiles demands the diner’s attention much like actual heat heat does. And it turns out there’s science behind that similarity. “The same receptor that says ‘hot coffee’ to your brain is telling you ‘hot chile peppers,’” says Bosland.
And what about the rumor that very hot peppers have the potential to damage our taste buds? Not true. Bosland says we should think of chile heat like we do the taste of salt; easy to overdo in the moment, but not damaging to your mouth over the long term. Even the hottest habanero (100,000–350,000 on the Scoville scale), which can stay on your palate for hours — if not days – won’t wear out your tender buds.
Bosland and his colleagues have broken the heat profile of chile peppers into five distinctly different characteristics. 1) how hot it is, 2) how fast the heat comes on, 3) whether it linger or dissipates quickly, 4) where you sense the heat – on the tip of tongue, at the back of throat, etc., and 5) whether the heat registers as “flat” or “sharp.”
This last characteristic is fascinating for what it says about cultural chile pepper preferences (say that five times fast). Apparently those raised in Asian cultures — where chile heat has been considered one of the six core tastes for thousands of years — prefer sharp heat that feels like pinpricks but dissipates quickly. Most Americans, on the other hand, like a flat, sustained heat that feels almost like it’s been painted on with a brush.
The Chile Pepper Institute, which is affiliated with New Mexico State University, sells a nifty chile tasting wheel, which describes the heat and flavor profiles of many different chiles and offers advise on how to cook them.
Eating chiles is a little like tasting wine, says Bosland. “When you first drink wine, all you notice is the alcohol. Then you can tell red from white, and soon you can taste the difference between the varietals. Eventually you can tell what region the wine comes from. That’s how it is with chile peppers too. At first all you taste is heat, but soon you’re be able to tell which heat sensations you like best.”