habanero minus the heat? meet the ‘habanada’

mazourek and habanadaTHREE HABANEROS rank on New Mexico State University’s top-10 hottest chiles roster. But what happens when you take the heat out of the habanero (besides that it doesn’t make the list)? You get a ‘Habanada’—as in there’s nada so crazy-hot about it to distract your mouth from the little pepper’s complex flavor.

Eaten when orange and ripe, the recently released ‘Habanada’ has a floral character and a lingering sweetness, plus just a hint of spice, says its breeder, Michael Mazourek of Cornell University (above).

Though the ‘Habanada’ was developed during research for the PhD Mazourek earned in 2008, it wasn’t commercially available until this season, when Fruition Seeds licensed it from Cornell, to sell by mail as transplants. Plans are to build up quantity of seed in coming years, and sell packets, too.

The ‘Habanada’ actually got its start with seed from New Mexico State. Heatless chance mutations had shown up in habanero populations in the breeding program there, and though they didn’t figure into the plans, scientists thought their Cornell colleague might be interested.

Besides refining the flavor over 13 generations, Mazourek had another task: eliminating the risk of mistaken identity. Lest anyone growing, selling, or cooking with both habanero and ‘Habanada’ fear taking a bite of the wrong one, no worry, says co-founder Petra Page-Mann of Fruition. The ‘Habanada’ has broad shoulders like its ancestor, but is more tapered and not squashed at the end in classic habanero form.

Nora's Sherbet (1)For chefs, the excitement is being able to taste the other notes besides heat—and not just in pico de gallo. When Nora Antene of Le Pigeon restaurant in Portland, Oregon, was paired with Mazourek’s ‘Habanada’ at the 2014 Culinary Breeding Network Variety Showcase, an event bringing together the talents of plant breeders and chefs, she took the pepper to an even-cooler place: She made it into a sherbet (above). Who knows what’s next, once seedlings make their way into restaurant kitchen gardens, and the farms of their suppliers?

fruition habanada plants
growing the ‘habanada’

YOU CAN TAKE the heat out of the habanero, but you can’t take the habanero or any other pepper out of the heat entirely, of course, when growing it. Hot and sweet peppers alike love summer sunshine (but ‘Habanada’ performs just fine even in upstate New York’s Zone 5, both Mazourek and Fruition can attest). Black plastic mulch and row covers can help speed growth early in the season.

Provide plants with moderately fertile, well-drained soil, but be careful with the Nitrogen, says Petra; too much fertility will produce bushy plants but less fruit. As with all fruiting plants, attention to regular watering means better fruit production. Once plants starts to yield, expect a pint of fruits per plant per week. (More on growing peppers in this article.)

‘Habanada’ is an open-pollinated pepper, meaning gardeners can save seeds for personal use–assuming, of course, they managed the 500- or even 800-foot minimum isolation distance recommended so it doesn’t cross with another Capsicum. If that happens, you won’t have your own ‘Habanada’ seed source any longer, but might be one step toward developing another pepper variety altogether.

(Pepper photos from Fruition Seeds. Photo of Mazourek from Cornell’s EZRA magazine.)

  1. Sally says:

    Margaret, it would be wonderful if you could alert us to these peppers when seeds are available. I don’t think I know enough gardener friends to split up a flat of 100. They sound like a very delicious addition to the garden.

    1. margaret says:

      Sounds like a great side-by-side trial, Steph. I have never tasted either. Southern Exposure says the Aji Dulce is a Venezuelan heirloom that is “sweet, spicy, and delicious, with only a trace of heat. Highly aromatic fruits; their flavor is unusual and complex, with overtones of black pepper and coriander, and undertones of other spicy flavors.”

  2. Nell says:

    Hooray, and thanks for the heads up!

    Up until today, encountering an appealing habanero-containing recipe always made me wish fleetingly that there were a chile with the hab’s flavor but much less heat. I guess I thought I was alone in that wish, because it never occurred to me to poke around to see if someone might be developing just that. So glad you brought us the news.

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