New habaeros pack flavor, little heat

For years chileheads have been hot on the trail of the elusive mild habañero, a pepper that was born to be mild. Now, New Mexico State University scientists say they've done it.

Working with a mystery seed Texas, NMSU researchers in Las Cruces blazed through seeding trials last year and are ready to release “NuMex Suave Red” and “NuMex Suave Orange,” two of the mildest habañeros that you'll ever willingly pop into your mouth.

Rather than red lining the heat scale, these new peppers are less spicy than a New Mexican green chile pepper.

Chile peppers are rated in Scoville Heat Units. The “Red Savina” habañero, the hottest scientifically tested chile pepper in the world, is a blistering 577,000 heat units. A normal tongue-burning jalapeño ranks about 25,000 teary-eyed units.

Paul Bosland, a chile breeder with NMSU's Agricultural Experiment Station and the director of the university's Chile Pepper Institute, said his new Suave Orange rolls in at a mild 835 heat units and Suave Red at a smooth 580 units.

Asked why they bred a mild habanero, Bosland said simply, “flavor. Habaneros have unique flavors as chile peppers, but most people just couldn't taste them because they're so hot.”

Major food processors like Campbell Soup Co. and H. J. Heinz Co. are already lining up for planting updates on the mild habañeros. Eric Votava, a senior research specialist and chile breeder at NMSU who did much of the field development, said the so-called Suaves have a citrusry flavor with an orange-lemony overtone.

“You'll feel a sensation of heat more in the back of your mouth and throat, as opposed to a jalapeño where you'll feel the heat on the tip of your tongue and lips,” he said.

NMSU's new habañeros look like a cross between the traditional compact habañero and a Scotch bonnet, another of the world's hottest chiles, often used in jerk sauces and Caribbean salsas.

“That's what's interesting about the Suaves,” Votava said. “People can now taste these exotic flavors without being afraid of setting their mouth on fire.”

No one seems to know where the Suaves call home, Votava said. The university's chile breeding program received the chile pepper seeds from Houston chile aficionado Bill Adams, who liked their mild taste and forwarded the seed to NMSU's chile institute.

Trials were conducted and the best of the lot was chosen for more selective testing. While the Suaves ultimately look similar to their hotter cousins, in the field they're taller plants with about the same production yield, he said.

The name “Suave” comes from the Spanish for mellow or smooth. “We wanted to emphasize the mild nature of these chile peppers,” Bosland said. In the near term, he said, the largest market for the mild habañeros will likely be home gardeners. Seed is available from the Chile Pepper Institute.

Bigger markets will come later. “For 400 years we had green chile, and it's only been in the last 20 years that the mainstream commercial companies have looked to be part of that,” Bosland said.

As a special promotional memento of their new chile varieties, Bosland and his research team recently passed out trial samples of the Suaves to university administrators and students around campus. And with a little coaxing, most willingly stepped up to try a taste. “Sure, they trust us.”

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