Grilled vegetables convey several flavor profiles, depending on the cooking method. Most top-quality frozen convenience meals and entrées with grilled vegetables have vibrant colors and distinct grill marks. There are some that may have apparent grilled flavor, without grill marks.
“If grilled vegetables are the selling point on your label, using a process that [physically] marks into the grilled vegetable is very important for [appearance],” says Allison Rittman, corporate chef for Charlie Baggs Inc. (Chicago), a foodservice consulting company.
Some companies apply coloring that appears as grill marks onto their products. However, strenuous processing techniques sometimes remove imitation grill marks, and the natural flavor nuances that develop when a food is actually flame-roasted or grilled are missing, also. On the other hand, the addition of colored stripes is a very inexpensive way to get grill marks, and is acceptable for foodservice products such as burgers.
Avoiding Mush Mouth
Grilled vegetables tend to lose quite a bit of crispness when cooked. “You don't want a mushy texture. You want something that is crisp, delicate and perfectly seasoned. It has to taste and appear fresh,” says Rittman. Vegetables that are Individually Quick Frozen (IQF) prohibit the formation of large ice crystals that cause cell damage and syneresis. That is more likely to occur with block frozen products.
Additionally, IQF vegetables are easier to portion out for individual meals. “IQF grilled vegetables have a brighter color, crisper texture and better flavor,” Rittman points out. Additionally, it makes formulation of frozen convenience entrées easier, as some IQF products may have been formulated to go through a freeze-thaw cycle.
If a food manufacturer or commissary cook sautées a vegetable, a heat transfer agent such as soybean or canola oil is used in the grilling process to develop the flavor. “One of the biggest problems that you see with grilled vegetables is too much oil or fat,” observes Mike Artlip CEC, CCE, department chair of the associates in applied science and the director of the Navy Food Service Management Program at Kendall College (Evanston, Ill.). “You can wring them out.” This displays one of the advantages of a dry grill. An alternative is to use a light oil spray.
The Grilling CultureEvery manufacturer has a different opinion about how something should be grilled or roasted. “For example, one person will look at a red pepper and see a little bit of charring on the side. To them that is a roasted pepper. Other customers want it almost black to be considered roasted,” says Chris Cook, vice president of sales for a grilled vegetable foodservice supplier.
Grilled vegetables are used in soups and frozen entrées, or as toppings on pizzas and sandwiches. “People like the fact that they can use vegetables to create many new, unique flavors, without just adding flavors or seasoning. Choosing the right cooking process for a vegetable depends on the final target application,” explains Sanah Boisvert, national account manager at a frozen vegetable supplier.
Grilled, fire-roasted and smokehouse-roasted vegetables are all different processes that can be described as grilled. “There are no standards of identity for these terms,” says Boisvert. “So what our company may mean by grilled may be very different from what somebody else means.”
Grilled vegetables tend to have strong flavors that, unless properly balanced, can dominate the entire product. To prevent this outcome, formulators can determine what complementary flavors enhance the grilled flavor.
Rittman says that grilled vegetables would mask the delicate flavors of a light butter sauce. A smoky, grilled vegetable would compliment a tomato sauce that has acidity and body.
“I haven't seen a lot of those flavors in frozen entrées or convenience foods yet, but I think that [smoky flavor] is the next evolution of where grilled vegetables are going,” predicts Rittman.
Boisvert's company defines grilled as an item that has been cooked on a flat grill at relatively low temperatures (in the mid-300ºF range) for a slower, gentler cook (as chefs do when they sautée vegetables). This process is designed to naturally caramelize the vegetables. There is no oil added during the grilling process, and Boisvert describes the resulting vegetables as being fully cooked, sweet and naturally golden brown. “These vegetables don't have grill marks on them,” she says.
“Caramelized vegetables provide a totally different flavor opportunity,” explains Boisvert. Caramelized onions and/or peppers are ideal to use in French onion soup, on Salisbury steak or on a Philly cheese steak sandwich.
“Making a caramelized vegetable is a very difficult, time-consuming, expensive process that most food manufacturers wouldn't entertain doing in production,” says Boisvert. “They are very traditional flavors that chefs really appreciate and now are commercially available.”
A lot of gourmet restaurant chefs use caramelized vegetables in dishes like balsamic glazed pork chops. They appreciate the added convenience.
Fire- and Smokehouse-roasted VeggiesGenerally, the terms fire-roasted and smokehouse-roasted describe a cooking process that takes place over a direct, open flame. However, depending on the processor, the vegetables may or may not be cooked with oil or have grill marks on them.
Fire-roasted, smokehouse-roasted and most grilled vegetables have a more intense, pungent flavor profile than caramelized vegetables. In the last nine months or so, fire-roasted has been the buzzword in the vegetable industry. Fire-roasted ingredients have a smokier, char-grilled, more intense flavor because of the open flame. The products also look more natural because of a mix of dark colors instead of one grill mark line going across the food, notes Rittman.
Smokehouse-roasted vegetables are an intense, smokier version of fire-roasted veggies, and work best as stand-alone flavors. “[Our company] puts a little bit of extra virgin olive oil on the vegetables, and we roast them at a slightly slower speed for our smokehouse roasting process,” explains Boisvert. The vegetables are naturally smoked in a process that traps the smoke--similar to cooking on a barbecue grill with the lid on. “You get a more intense, rich, smoky flavor profile and you also have grill marks on them.” Both this and the caramelizing process are unique to her company, she says.
The extremes of freezing, heating and retort processes can break down grilled flavors. Seasonings can maintain and enhance it. The demand for added value has prompted suppliers to raise the bar with the addition of vegetable seasonings like three-chili, chipotle or fajita seasonings, notes Cook.
The addition of seasonings is generally a foodservice request, Boisvert observes. “Typically, an industrial manufacturer is going to add his own seasoning at some point in the process, whereas the foodservice customer will want a product that is completely ready, seasoned and ready to go.”
Color-coordinatedKeeping green vegetables green is a difficult task. However, different suppliers have different directives to prevent color leaching. Maintaining a proper pH will deflect color leaching. Green vegetables need to be cooked in an alkaline environment and all other colors need an acid environment, says chef Artlip.
Par-cooking a green vegetable in an alkaline environment will set the color. “This is accomplished by formulating alkalinity into your marinade,” explains chef Artlip. “Then, if you cook it on a really hot grill, you get that bright green pepper or asparagus.” Citric or acetic acid and other natural ingredients like balsamic vinegar or orange juice can bring down the pH, depending on the application and its flavor profile, suggests Rittman.
She explains that some of the other ingredients in the meal could affect the vibrancy of the vegetables' colors or whether those grill marks are visible. For example, it is hard to distinguish the fire-roasted tomatoes and fire-roasted red peppers in a tomato sauce. “Although these might contribute great flavor combinations, it will look like one continuous sauce,” pictures Rittman. In contrast, a tomato sauce with grilled yellow peppers will add value because of the prominence of the peppers, the grilled marks and the contrast of color.
“I think that, although it might not always be feasible, trying to manage the processing technique can resolve color leaching,” says Rittman. Boisvert asserts that the short time and very high temperature (between 1800º-2000ºF) used to produce fire-roasted and smokehouse-roasted veggies seals in their color.
Blanching, another common vegetable processing step, also impacts color. Blanching by either steam or water is a standard process that most IQF processors use to deactivate the enzymes before the vegetables are frozen. “Unfortunately, blanching strips the color from the vegetable and increases the moisture content,” Boisvert informs.
“Our products are lower in moisture than most of the products on the market because we skip the blanching step. We start with fresh, raw produce and all of the heat comes directly from our grilling or roasting procedures.” As a result, the vegetables have less syneresis, a firmer texture and brighter colors. “If someone wanted to use grilled vegetables as a sandwich topping, such as with a grilled Philly cheese steak, this would minimize the moisture migration onto the bread.”
With a thorough understanding of grilling options and the correct processing techniques to achieve them, a manufacturer of grilled vegetables can add upscale quality and flavor to a meal that takes minutes instead of hours to prepare.
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