Holy Habanada! All About the Newest Pepper on the Produce Stand
In the world of peppers, the last few years have seemed to be all about a race to the top – of the Scoville Scale.
The notorious measuring system for pepper spiciness has been pushed to the limits in the past decade, with the most recent reigning champion for world’s hottest pepper tipping the scale at more than 2 million Scoville units – or nearly 1000x more zing than a low-end jalapeño.
Still, not all pepper growers are after the spice of life. Just ask the inventor of the Habanada pepper.
What Are Habanada Peppers
While this very special pepper may be hard to pronounce, it’s much easier to eat than it is to say.
That’s because the Habanada has been bred to include exactly zero Scoville units, making it the world’s first truly heatless pepper – a sentence that may make you cheer or weep, depending on the state of your taste buds.
The modern marvel first sprouted in 2015, part of the doctoral research effort of Cornell University professor and international plant breeding sensation Michael Mazourek.
And if the name “Habanada” looks familiar, it’s for good reason: One of the pepper’s parents is the well-known habanero, a pepper famous for its extra-spicy prick.
According to Mazourek, the desire to design the new pepper was inspired by the unexpected virtue of the habanero – namely, the pepper’s juicy, fruity qualities. He wanted to make a version of the delicious capsicum that his more heat-averse friends could enjoy, he told his colleagues at Cornell.
So how did one of the world’s hottest peppers unwittingly produce its first heatless hybrid?
Where Did Habanada Peppers Come From
We’re not sure who would be prouder of this pepper, Charles Darwin or Reginald Punnett, but there’s no doubt both the scientists’ theory of evolution and method to predict hereditary traits played outsized roles in its creation.
Despite its Upstate New York roots, the seed of the Habanada idea was actually first planted by the University of New Mexico. Horticulturists there had recently discovered a rouge breed of habanero which failed to generate any heat at all.
But unlike friendly zero-Scoville sweet peppers, which simply don’t produce capsaicin—the chemical compound that makes peppers spicy—this particular breed had lost the entire capsaicin-producing mechanics. It couldn’t be spicy if it tried.
Intrigued and inspired, Mazourek took some seeds to the lab, determined to do something with this strange fruit. His first thought was to unzip its genes, independently identifying which ones made a pepper hot or not, and using that information to breed accordingly.
Though as it turns out, creating a heatless pepper is one thing. Creating a heatless pepper people might actually want to eat is another thing entirely.
What Do Habanada Peppers Taste Like
According to accounts at Cornell, the original heatless parent pepper of the Habanada tasted less-than-edible. And subsequent breeding experiments by Mazourek were all over the board, ranging anywhere from disgusting to delicious-but-nothing-like-habanero.
That’s when Mazourek had the thought to just cross-breed the thing with an actual habanero. But the idea proved far trickier than it may seem.
Habanero peppers are capsaicin gold mines, regularly weighing in around 300,000 Scoville units – or roughly 100x hotter than the average jalapeño. To make that offspring spiceless would take work.
Luckily, that type of work was exactly what Mazourek was looking for. And while it took 13 generations and thousands of taste-tests, he was eventually able to settle on the perfect example of his fruit.
The end result was a pepper that resembles the habanero in shape (small and skinny) and color (a lovely burnt orange). The Habanada is also pleasantly pungent, and diners report it carrying notes of everything from citrus to floral and even slightly guava tastes.
But one thing all eaters seem to agree on is the lovely anticlimactic quality of the fruit. While habaneros are famous for building heat on the tongue, the Habanada pepper builds sweet anticipation.
Diners say the excitement is waiting for the kick of a heat that never comes – then getting hit instead with a surprisingly sweet bite.
What Can You Do With Habanada Peppers
Habanada peppers are still relatively new and typically considered a specialty item. To taste them, there are only essentially two options: Grow them yourself, or go to a restaurant.
On the plus side, the seeds of this strange fruit are becoming more popular, as well as their presence on menus around the world. And that’s thanks, in no small part, to the pepper’s line-blurring characteristics, allowing it to register wonderfully in dishes going for spicy, savory or sweet.
Enterprising chefs have used the food for everything, from classic pico de gallo accoutrement to stunning and simple pepper-centric dishes. And its unique position on the sweeter side of the spectrum have also led the pepper to make an appearance in a number of dessert dishes, including strawberry Habanada shortcake, Habanada crème brulee, and Habanada sorbert.
Still, as a new star on the culinary scene, there’s no doubt we’re only seeing the start of what the truly unique Habanada can do. It may be spiceless, but this little pepper’s possibilities certainly don’t lack variety.