Heatless Habaneros

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Standing in a friend’s garden, I was assured that the small, red pepper in my hand would be safe to eat. “Take a bite!” she said. “I swear it’s not hot.” The pepper in question looked and smelled exactly like a habanero, one of the hottest peppers in the world. If I took a bite, it would surely singe my lips, tongue, and throat — just like a habanero.

Or so I thought. With my front teeth, I took a small, tentative bite. The signature flavor and aroma of a habanero filled my mouth and nostrils, but the scalding pain never came. Nor did it arrive after a second bite. It didn’t even come as I chewed and swallowed the seeds, which are traditionally the hottest part of the fruit. My friend hadn’t led me astray after all. Indeed, this pepper had no heat.

How was this possible? Was the plant a botanical misfit, or had someone removed its heat on purpose? Many pepper enthusiasts would balk at the idea; what’s the point of a chile pepper if it doesn’t pack a punch? And yet, here I was, enjoying a whole, raw, habanero-like pepper without any discomfort.

As I swallowed the last of that “heatless habanero,” I realized this strange pod had a unique flavor, fruity and citrus-like, and because it wasn’t scorching hot, I could better appreciate and discern those pleasant qualities.

Historically Hot

Habaneros are among the hottest chile peppers in the world. They’re thought to have originated in South America, but they’ve achieved a pinnacle of cultural and economic significance in the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico, where the majority of the world’s habaneros are grown today.

The Scoville scale is a method for determining the pungency of peppers by measuring each pod’s capsaicin level, which is the component of the pepper that produces heat. Bell peppers fall at the lower end of this scale, as they contain no capsaicin, and register 0 Scoville Heat Units (SHUs). Jalapeños are significantly hotter, and can register up to 8,000 SHUs. Habaneros, on the high end of the spectrum, register a sizzling 350,000 SHUs at their most potent.

Habaneros are extremely hot. In Peppers: A Story of Hot Pursuits, author Amal Naj describes the experience of biting into one of these peppers: “Habaneros offer a sharp and violent bite, but then as quickly as it comes, it disappears, leaving behind a soothing and aromatic sensation. The pepper eater, basking in that mild euphoria, hardly remembers that he’d been savagely mauled just seconds earlier.”

Over the years, these orange, lantern-shaped pods have become synonymous with heat. So when Bill Adams, a chile grower in Texas, discovered a low-heat habanero look-alike, it was a breakthrough. Adams shared those seeds with New Mexico State University’s (NMSU) Chile Pepper Institute, which then conducted field trials to find selections for public release.

Those selections became ‘NuMex Suave Red’ and ‘NuMex Suave Orange.’ (“Suave” means “soft,” “mellow,” or “smooth” in Spanish.) These peppers aren’t completely heat-free, but they’re mild compared with the average habanero. “If you’re someone who eats a lot of hot peppers, you won’t even be able to feel the heat because it’s so mild,” says Danise Coon, the senior research specialist for the NMSU Chile Pepper Breeding and Genetics Program. “But they have the full aroma and flavor of regular habaneros.”

The ‘Habanada’

Row 7 Seed Co - Habanada Pepper

After this discovery, NMSU found other low-heat habaneros in one of its own seed banks. University staff sent some of those seeds to Cornell University, where they fell into the hands of Michael Mazourek, a graduate student. Mazourek, now an associate professor of plant breeding and genetics at Cornell, was drawn to these peppers not only for the challenge, but for the flavor. “Habaneros are delicious,” Mazourek says, “and I wanted to be able to eat more.”

According to Mazourek, the project’s source pepper was low in heat, as well as in flavor. His task was to create a pepper with the full aroma of a habanero, but without any detectable heat.

Mazourek likens plant breeding to working in the kitchen. “It’s like cooking,” he says. “You might add some seasoning, stir and taste, and decide you need more of something.”

In 2008, Mazourek had a new pepper to release to the public. The ‘Habanada’ pepper — “nada” in this case meaning no heat — is tangerine-orange in color, but tapers to a point at the pepper’s bottom end, or apex. Mazourek says the pod’s shape — a jagged zigzag — was intentionally selected for its dissimilarity to traditional habaneros.

“People want to be able to tell the difference between habaneros and ‘Habanada’ peppers,” Mazourek says. Imagine biting into a habanero when you thought it was a ‘Habanada,’ and you’ll understand why.

The pepper’s jagged appearance has a second advantage. Most home cooks have a habit of removing the white ribs inside a pepper. “And in a ‘Habanada,’ all the flavor and aroma is in those white ribs,” Mazourek says. “So the ‘Habanada’ is intentionally a zigzag to make it challenging for people to defeat their flavor experience by peeling those white ribs out.”

Heatless Heirlooms

These heatless habaneros are exciting breakthroughs for plant breeders, chefs, and chile lovers. But they’re not the first. In fact, in some communities, these flavorful peppers are heirloom treasures.

J. Densmore was born in eastern Cuba’s Holguín province. For the cooks of this region, a small red pepper known as arroz con pollo was the seasoning pepper of choice. Arroz con pollo — so named because it flavors the popular Cuban dish of the same name (chicken and rice) — bears a striking resemblance to habaneros, but has a bright-red hue when fully ripe. The peppers aren’t entirely without heat, but are extremely mild when compared with the traditional habanero.

When Densmore was 10 years old, her family immigrated to the United States. Forty years later, she returned to Cuba for the first time, and reunited with family she hadn’t seen since she was a little girl. Toward the end of her trip, Densmore asked a friend to help her find the arroz con pollo pepper from her youth. The pair bought several at a local market, and Densmore dried the seeds to bring back to her home in the U.S.

“I put them everywhere: in my suitcase, in my carry-on, in my pocket, and in my daughter’s luggage,” Densmore says. “That way, if some were taken, I had hope that others would make it home.” The seeds arrived home safely, and Densmore planted them immediately.

She began to grow the pepper not only for her family, but also for Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. Baker Creek founder Jere Gettle says arroz con pollo is one of his favorite seasoning peppers. “I use them any time I need a flavorful pepper,” Gettle says.

Heirloom seasoning peppers — variously known as ají dulce, ají cachucha, and ají gustoso, depending on the location — are found throughout the Caribbean and Central America. “That’s how it is with peppers. Each agricultural community has a certain type of pepper that they grow generation after generation,” Coon says.

Most Like It Hot

Thanks to Densmore’s seed-saving journey to eastern Cuba, I’m able to grow arroz con pollo in my Pennsylvania garden. Habaneros are adapted to their native tropical environments, but they’ll thrive anywhere with hot summers.

“They’re almost like a weed,” Gettle says. “They’re really easy to cultivate. All the heatless habaneros tend to produce like crazy as long as you have warm weather.”

Arroz con pollo can be slow to produce, but once it does, it fruits in abundance. I planted some with a variety of other sweet and hot peppers. While I didn’t notice a dramatically slower start, it has indeed produced a bounty.

The ‘Habanada’ is likewise adapted for warm weather, but Mazourek says that, so far, the plants have thrived everywhere from New York to Florida.

“They grow differently than a bell pepper or a jalapeño — it’s a longer season, a smaller seed, and a smaller seedling, so you have to plan around that,” Mazourek says. “‘Habanada’ peppers take a while to gain some momentum, but when they do, I recommend staking them.”

Although these peppers should be healthy and happy to start, Mazourek says growers should withhold nitrogen applications until after the plants have flowered. Soil that’s too rich in compost will produce magnificent hedgerows without the fruit. “If you want to boost their hot pepper production,” he says, “get them out of a leaf-growing habit, and into a fruit-setting habit.”

Under the right conditions, arroz con pollo and ‘Habanada’ can both be grown as perennials. Densmore has often dug her arroz con pollo plants out of the field to store in her basement during winter. “And then next spring, I have a 3-foot-tall pepper plant ready to go back outside,” she says.

Spicing Up the Kitchen

I’ve used arroz con pollo numerous ways, but I’ve especially enjoyed it as the primary seasoning in various rice dishes. “There’s a lot of flavor packed into just one pepper,” Densmore says. “I can use three or four peppers to season a whole quart of beans. I still add my other herbs and spices, but these peppers just give it a little sass and tropical flair.”

Coon says the ‘NuMex Suave Orange’ and ‘NuMex Suave Red’ pair well with fruit salsas and chutneys because their flavors are fruitier and more floral than other peppers.

When my harvest is complete, I plan to make an arroz con pollo hot sauce. As much as I enjoy spice and heat in my foods, I’m looking forward to a “hot” sauce that doesn’t make my eyes water and my mouth burn.

Fool Me Once

While the ‘Habanada’ was selected for its slight differences from the habanero, New Mexico State University has continued with its breeding experiments, taking the heatless pepper in a different direction. Released in 2015, the ‘NuMex Trick-or-Treat’ is a hybrid of ‘Orange Habanero’ and a low-heat pepper from Colombia. “We love that it looks exactly like an orange habanero but doesn’t have any of the heat,” say researcher Danise Coon. “You can easily trick your friends with it.”

Growing the ‘Habanada’

To grow the ‘Habanada’ pepper, start the seeds indoors 10 to 12 weeks before the last frost. Plan to transplant the seedlings outdoors 2 to 4 weeks after the last frost. Plant the seedlings 4 inches apart in an indoor bed with well-draining soil and a pH of 6.5. You can also start them in individual seedling containers. The young plants will emerge about two weeks after initial planting.

When moving the plants to your garden, space them at least 1 foot apart; ‘Habanada’ plants are thick and bushy, so they’ll need plenty of room to spread out. The mature bushes will reach 4 to 5 feet in height. ‘Habanada’ peppers also do well on trellises, and the extra support will result in higher pepper yields.

Immediately after they’ve been transplanted, water the plants generously; this will help overcome any transplant shock. Afterward, fertilize them every two weeks.

‘Habanada’ peppers take about 100 days to mature, and only reach a length of 2 to 3 inches. Patience is key for growing these peppers, and the wait and the effort are worth it in the end.

Andrew Moore is a freelance writer in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He’s the author of Pawpaw: In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit.

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