Wilbur Scoville was a pharmacist who devised a means of measuring the heat of various chile peppers.
While the Scoville scale that he created in 1912 is not without its critics, it continues to provide a convenient means to benchmark pepper pungency.
His scale has gotten quite a workout recently, as emerging chile varietals like the super-spicy ghost pepper push its upper limits. Registering roughly 1 million Scoville Heat Units, the ghost pepper, which has appeared on numerous restaurant chain menus over the last couple of years, provides a fiery step up from the ubiquitous jalapeño, which scores a much more modest 5,000 SHUs.
While some restaurateurs continue to turn up the heat by experimenting with more incendiary varieties, many others have turned their attention to the lower end of the spice spectrum.
Shishito peppers, one of the hottest ingredients on the menu, are actually among the mildest chiles. Native to Japan, they typically rate around 100 SHUs, although an occasional outlier can be substantially hotter. Popular as snacks and bar food, shishitos were among the 10 fastest-growing produce items on appetizer menus, jumping a whopping 199 percent over the past four years, according to menu analysts at Datassential. At three-unit Citizen Burger Bar, based in Charlottesville, Va., they are cooked in sweet soy sauce and offered with housemade ranch dressing for dipping.
The signature SkinnyLicious menu at The Cheesecake Factory featured charred shishito peppers served simply with salt for a lower-calorie nosh, and at the Ra Sushi chain, a subsidiary of Benihana Corporation International, they’re sautéed in Asian garlic butter sauce.
Shishitos are appearing in a range of other treatments, too. They’ve turned up in Atlanta at trendy independents like Leon’s Full Service, where they accompany the housemade summer sausage; at Noble Fin, where they accent the popular pan-roasted branzino; and at Spring, where the chilled summer squash soup includes grilled shishitos and whipped goat cheese.
At Michelin-starred Green River in Chicago, saffron spaghetti is topped with uni, clams and shishito peppers, while at Charlie Palmer Steak in New York City, shishito peppers and sugar snap peas in miso ponzu sauce were a seasonal special side dish. They also brighten up brunch at Alden & Harlow in Cambridge, Mass., where corn pancakes are finished with maple and shishitos.
Hatch chiles, native to New Mexico, are poised to cross over from cult status to the mainstream. Clocking in at about 2,000 SHUs, they are prized by aficionados for their sweet smokiness and by operators for their versatility. The Habit Burger Grill, based in Irvine, Calif., hosted a Hatch Chile Festival last fall that included a burger, chicken sandwich and chicken salad, all topped with the fruit. In the fast-casual pizza segment, Rave Restaurant Group’s Pie Five has run successful seasonal Hatch chile pie promotions.
The small-plates menu at Lazy Dog Restaurant & Bar, based in Huntington Beach, Calif., includes Hatch chile and bacon mac-and-cheese topped with green onion crumble. The promotional Hatch green chile sauce at Focus Brands subsidiary Moe’s Southwestern Grill was prepped fresh daily in house. And in November, Taco Bell hooked into the growing interest in Southwestern peppers with the new green chile queso made with roasted chiles from the Hatch Valley of New Mexico,
Calabrian chiles are also having a menu moment, and it’s surprising that it took so long, given the popularity of Italian food. Grown in the toe of the Italian boot, they average about 6,000 SHUs, although they can be substantially hotter when aged on the vine. They add color, spice and acidity to dishes, which has allowed them to make headway with chefs. The Olive Garden’s Spicy Calabrian Chicken appetizer is served with Gorgonzola sauce, and Mediterranean Baked Feta at Zoës Kitchen, based in Plano, Texas, is topped with cherry tomatoes and Calabrian peppers. Zoës also menus a rosemary ham and mozzarella piadina with Calabrian pepper aïoli.
Independents pick these peppers, too. The sausage pizza at Garage Bar in Louisville, Ky., puts them alongside milled tomatoes and confit shallots, while Ferocious Puppies, or thick-cut fries served at Animale in Chicago, are served with pancetta, onions, Calabrian chiles and a sunny-side-up egg. Easily adaptable, they are in the vinaigrette that finishes the Charred Romano Beans at Sardella in St. Louis, and in the sauce that covers the rigatoni with clams at Atlanta’s Noble Fin.
Nancy Kruse, president of the Kruse Company, is a menu trends analyst based in Atlanta. As one of LinkedIn’s Top 100 Influencers in the US, she blogs regularly on food-related subjects on the LinkedIn website.