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Chipotle. Buffalo. Sriracha. Spicy heat is a flavor that grabs consumer attention, and the food industry is always on the lookout for the next heat source. According to research by Food Genius, a Chicago-based menu tracking company, “spicy chicken” dishes were found in 31 percent of all menus nationwide, and 74 percent of spicy chicken dishes are served with a sauce.
KFC has found inspiration in Nashville, Tenn., a city known for a fried chicken doused in red hot, cayenne-loaded batter. Popeyes continues to draw on Louisiana for hot ideas, with recent specials including Spice-Packed Wings served with spicy pepper ranch dip. The chain also features Bayou Buffalo, a cayenne pepper hot sauce blended with butter, celery and Cajun seasonings. Meanwhile, Burger King relies on an old standard of jalapeño to add heat to its latest version of chicken fries.
Why the ongoing heat wave? Spicy heat brings jolts of flavor in customizable forms, such as dips, dressings and sauces, so customers are able to try a little or a lot. Using recognizable brand names such as Frank’s or Tabasco is one way to build in flavor and shorten the R&D process, according to Scott Hume, an expert who tracks the burger industry for his BurgerBusiness blog. Referencing global hotspots has a similar cachet. For instance, Hume recently reported that Wendy’s has tested a Sweet Thai Chili Chicken Sandwich. The product delivers sweet, subtle heat with sweet Thai chili sauce, green chiles, dill pickles and chipotle sauce on a brioche bun.
Where should grocerants look for the next jolt of spice? As Korean barbecue and kimchee gain popularity, Gerry Ludwig, consulting chef at Gordon Food Service, a Grand Rapids, Mich.-based broadline food distribution company, sees potential in gochujang, a salty, spicy fermented Korean paste made from red chili peppers, glutinous rice, fermented soybeans, and salt. It’s not meant to be used alone as a finishing sauce but can flavor oil or be combined with another condiment.
“It’s versatile in cooking and hits on several recognizable flavors, like soy sauce and chili paste. It’s not a burning heat,” Ludwig says.
- Mild sauces, like mayo and ranch, spiked with a jolt of the latest hot pepper
- Fried and rotisserie chicken coatings in a range of heat levels
- Hybrid heat, such as sweet Thai sauce on a cayenne-dusted chicken sandwich