’Tis the season for scares and frights, and in the world of fast food that means just one thing: It’s ghost pepper time. Not only is the name of the ingredient a nice little nod to Halloween, but at its full potential the ghost pepper can pack a truly terrifying punch. In most cases, what we’re being served in our takeout bags isn’t going to hit the same as biting right into a fresh ghost pepper (which you should absolutely not do), but it still delivers much more of a kick than your typical “spicy” fast food offering.
There’s more to this ingredient’s connection to fall than its haunting name. According to Taste, October is prime ghost pepper season in Northwest India where the plant originated. While it’s long been used in cuisine in that part of the world, the pepper’s introduction to American eaters can be traced back to 2007 when it was awarded the title of Hottest Chili by Guinness World Records; it clocks in at around 1 million on the Scoville scale. (By contrast, a jalapeno pepper usually maxes out at 8,000 Scoville units.)
In the early years of its popularity, the ghost pepper wasn’t treated like a food but a dangerous item. On social media, people would use it to prove their mettle or prank others. In 2010, The Associated Press reported that the Indian Army was using chilis in tear gas grenades. It took years for this pepper to build its culinary reputation as a legitimate ingredient in spicy food—one that people could actually enjoy, not just fight their way through.
In 2012, Red Robin was the first chain to put ghost pepper on an American menu. According to Esquire, the Fiery Ghost burger featured a “sweltering blend of ghost-pepper sauce and fresh, fried jalapenos.” The burger was apparently tasty and more mild than many heat seekers were expecting, proving that there was a way to safely serve ghost peppers to the everyday customer.
From there, other chains followed. In 2015, Money claimed that millennials were to be “blamed” for the rise in widely available spicy items; that same year saw the introduction of Wendy’s Ghost Pepper fries and Popeyes Ghost Pepper wings. While neither of those offerings (nor Red Robin’s Fiery Ghost burger) are still on the chains’ menus, we’ve come to expect other attempts at raising the temperature on fast food menus throughout the year.
If you’re looking for a fast food item that’s actually spicy, these are some places that currently have ghost pepper (or something hotter) on the menu that are worth a try:
- Baskin Robbins: Spicy ‘n Spooky Ice Cream
- Burger King: Ghost Pepper Whopper
- Culver’s: Spicy Crispy Chicken Sandwich (ghost pepper powder is part of the spice blend)
- Hooters: Ghost Pepper Sauce (only at certain locations)
- Red Robin: Scorpion Gourmet Burger (technically not using a ghost pepper, but a pepper that is even hotter)
- Shake Shack: Hot Ones menu (technically not using a ghost pepper, but a pepper that is even hotter)
- Wendy’s: Ghost Pepper Ranch
- White Castle: The 1921 Ghost Slider (and ghost pepper cheese can be added to any slider)
While many of these are limited time offerings, some, like Wendy’s ranch dipping sauce, have proved popular enough to stick around on the permanent menu. And with our nation’s craving for more and more heat, it’s likely that we’ll continue seeing regular menu items that up the ante. Before you know it, everything will be doused in Carolina Reaper sauce. Now that’s spooky.