Relief is on the way for pepper aficionados who love the flavor and aroma of the habanero but can't stand the heat. The same research center in south Texas that tamed the jalapeño pepper in the 1970s hopes to have a milder version of the fiery, orange pepper in about two years.
“People are still arguing whether the habanero is the world's hottest pepper, but certainly it's the hottest pepper anybody would want to eat,” said Dr. Kevin Crosby, a vegetable breeder at the Texas A&M Agricultural Research and Extension Center at Weslaco who heads up the only mild habanero breeding program in the country.
The growing popularity of the habanero in the United States prompted Crosby to add the pepper to his breeding program two years ago, not so much to reduce its heat, but to provide growers with a better plant.
“We're trying to improve its adaptation to the climate here in south Texas since the habanero has become a very high-value cash crop for the few growers who produce it,” said Crosby. “Unfortunately, the habanero variety from the Yucatan and the Caribbean that we grow here isn't too well adapted to our hot, windy climate.”
Crosby has crossed the Mexican habanero with wild habanero species from Bolivia and Colombia to develop a hardy plant that yields well while maintaining the aroma, heat and other characteristics of the popular Mexican variety.
“While we're developing a hardy plant that yields uniform and abundant fruit, we're also selecting for some milder versions for people who like the flavor and aroma but who don't like the super heat,” he said.
Crosby is crossbreeding the familiar Mexican habanero with South American varieties of the same species that are considered sweet because they have no hot capsaicin, the chemical that gives peppers their heat.
Crosby said it takes many selections to develop one that is both mild and has the same shape, size, color and fruit quality as the hot Mexican variety.