Our Growing Hot Sauce Obsession Could Lead to Hotter Jalapeños

With the hot sauce industry skyrocketing in the US, some farmers are eager to develop peppers that have bigger heat without sacrificing flavor.

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Apr 6 2015, 10:30pm

Some like it hot. Well—a lot of people, actually. More people every single day. You may feel like suddenly your square older sister is chugging Sriracha and your coworker's use of Tapatío is growing more and more obscene. And you'd be right, because the hot sauce industry is essentially skyrocketing.

Some theorize that we're finally taking culinary cues from our ever-rising proportion of Asian and Latin American immigrants, both of which come from food traditions much spicier than our Standard American Diet of burgers and fries. Others attribute the ever-stronger affinity to our national love of hot wings.

Since 2000, the US has seen 150-percent growth in its domestic hot sauce market—an impressive increase greater than that of all of its competing condiments (ketchup, mustard, barbecue sauce, and mayonnaise) combined. That makes it the eighth fastest-growing industry in the US, at least as of 2012, and puts its worth at about $1 billion. Hardly chump change for something you just use a few drops (or squirts) of at a time.

But hot sauce makers, naturally, are eager to tap into both the casual hot sauce user and the seasoned spice-lover, who might be looking for thrills above and beyond your average jalapeño. And that's why, according to Forbes, one jalapeño farmer is trying to devise a jalapeño that packs extra heat without losing its familiar flavor.

The number of people who enjoy hot, spicy foods and sauces has increased from 46 percent to 54 percent in the past six years. We're now looking at an American population that predominantly enjoys dumping hot, peppery vinegar all over their food—but might not be ready for, say, the Carolina Reaper.

That's where Aziz Baameur comes in. As the Farm Advisor for the University of California Cooperative Extension in several counties, he's got a front-row seat to the potential of the humble jalapeño. Though it's pretty manageable in terms of its spice level, the pepper has a flavor that most American consumers prefer, making its way onto some 25 percent of restaurant menus, in everything from pizza to poppers to phở.

Baameur hopes to make the jalapeño hotter while maintaining its pleasant, versatile tang—which isn't exactly easy. After all, could you easily describe the flavor of a habanero were it to be free of hellfire?

With to their irreplaceable role as star ingredients in our food culture, jalapeños could potentially retain that throne while catering to a spice-junkie audience looking for something with more kick. For the past three years, Baameur has been testing different levels of potassium, nitrogen, and water on a small field of jalapeño crops to see how he can tinker with their heat without sacrificing any other qualities, testing an existing theory that jalapeños will harbor more capsaicin—its spiciness compound—if given limited water.

That theory turned out to be a bust; when he reduced watering by 15 percent, his crops suffered significantly both in capsaicin content and in production. Ditto when he applied additional potassium.

But a 50-percent-extra shot of nitrogen just might be the ticket; Forbes says that it rewarded him with jalapeño plants that were 20 percent more pungent and had 10 percent higher yield.

Though research is still ongoing, Baameur's experiment is hopeful in its premise that it could be possible to replicate existing pepper species with varying levels of heat.

In the somewhat near future, you may be able to order your jalapeño poppers as mild, medium, or super-hot—and the only difference in flavor will be how much your eyes will water.