Moisture carries flavor, while fat mellows flavor in meats such as hot dogs. In drier products such as jerky, spicy heat like jalapeño has less impact on flavor.
Historically, using seasonings was part of preserving meat. During Roman times, people discovered the salt from certain salt mines preserved meat longer than others did. Since then, we have learned the higher levels of nitrates found in those mines provided a longer meat shelflife, as well as a pink color. The advent of refrigeration resulted in seasonings being used predominantly for flavor. Of course, manufacturers still can use seasonings to extend shelflife, but most use processing techniques for this purpose instead.

Seasoning blends purchased by today's meat manufacturers are customized, and may contain 15 or more different ingredients. This saves the meat processor from having to weigh up each of these items separately and accurately. Therefore, a custom seasoning blend can help to minimize production errors.

Gold’n Plump Poultry’s Marinades® retail line of breast fillets offers consumers taste and convenience in flavors such as Chili Lime, Teriyaki, Lemon with Cracked Pepper, Cajun and Roasted Garlic Herb.

Flavors of the World

Lisa Kalla, product development specialist for Gold'n Plump Poultry (St. Cloud, Minn.), explains that production of seasoned meat products is driven by consumers' need for convenience, short preparation times and variety. Over the years, consumers' flavor preferences have become more diverse, the result of various ethnic cuisines becoming more mainstream. It is still tough to break the tradition of Italian, Mexican and Chinese foods; however, these three ethnic flavors are branching out. Regional ethnic dishes, such as Tuscan and Szechwan, have become popular.

Authenticity has become more important to consumers, and the result can be seen in butchers' and grocers' product displays. Even within the U.S., regional cuisines, such as Californian, Midwestern, and Floridian, have their own identities, expanding on their respective influences of Mexican, barbecue, and Cuban flavors. There continues to be room for the tried and true, though. “We still see many consumers seeking out mainstream flavors such as 'roast,' 'BBQ,' or 'savory,' which are familiar and will appeal to a wide variety of family members,” says Kalla.

The seasoning industry has a multitude of great and interesting flavors that have scored very well with taste panels. The biggest challenge to the industry is describing these flavors to U.S. consumers. For example, an Indian sauce called “Tikka” is very popular in Europe, but has not yet “hit” the U.S. (It is a tomato and onion-based sauce with several aromatic herbs, including coriander and lemon juice.)

More than ever, seasoning suppliers are showing great varieties of Hispanic, Asian and Pacific Rim flavors, which once were considered niche. Many of these flavors now are so mainstream themselves that developers are creating more region-specific types. “We have several ethnic flavors in our retail line of products including Chili Lime, Teriyaki, Cajun, and Albuquerque Mesquite, to name a few,” Kalla reports.

Chefs to the Rescue

As in other areas of the food industry, chefs often are consulted in processed-meat development as well as in seasoning-blend manufacture. Chefs are a big help in bridging the gap between science and the culinary arts. Not so many years ago, consumers seasoned their own meats. But because of today's busy lifestyles, people are moving away from labor- and time-intensive traditional cooking and, as a result, seasoning in the home kitchen has decreased.

Now, home-cooked meals usually include some type of convenience food, and pre-seasoned or marinated meats—often the main course—can be real time-savers. Chefs' participation in the development of seasoned meat products ensures that when a home cook presents a meal to her family, it meets their expectations for quality, flavor and convenience.

“As the chef deems mirepois [a mixture of carrots, celery, onion and herbs sautéed in butter] a necessity in seasoning soups, sauces and stews, product development scientists find salt, black pepper, and garlic necessities in seasoning processed meats,” states Bruce Armstrong, R&D manager-meat and poultry, at a leading seasoning-blend supplier. “Every processed meat product made in the U.S. contains salt and pepper, and a high proportion contain garlic in some form.” The most important seasoning ingredient from a flavor and functionality standpoint is salt, he adds. Without it, the product would not hold moisture. And its flavor cannot be easily replaced.

The Science of Seasoning

Processed meats, such as sausages or meatballs, often contain starches, binders, gums, water and other ingredients necessary to hold the product's shape or improve texture. These bland ingredients can dilute the flavor of the seasoning, thereby increasing the need for flavor components such as salt and spices. Oleoresin spices are useful in these cases, because they can provide as much as 20 times the flavor strength of the original spice.

Seasoning needs vary from one meat product to the next, and chemical properties play a role in those differences. Flavor can be increased by a lower pH, which is why vinegar is sometimes an ingredient. A consideration with meat, though, is that lowered pH prior to cooking dramatically affects the texture and quality of the meat.

Armstrong offers this example: A meatball is an emulsion of fat, protein and water. Acid added to the raw meat denatures the protein, causing the emulsion to break down and the meat to crumble, especially if it is low in fat. A high-fat meat product such as a wiener will “grease out” if acidified; the three main components will break apart into moisture, fat and protein. Therefore, if an acid flavor is desired in a meat emulsion, it must be added after the heat process, which creates a unique challenge.

Meat products low in moisture also present a seasoning challenge to developers. Moisture carries flavor, while fat mellows the flavor in meats. The drier the product, the less impact a spicy heat such as jalapeño has on the flavor. “Sausages pickled in vinegar can be much hotter and spicier than a jerky,” Armstrong notes.

Seasoning needs also vary by end-product application—whether it is fresh, frozen or fully cooked. How the end user reconstitutes the finished product also changes the requirements of the seasoning blend. And developers must consider production equipment and processing parameters when working on new flavors.

“Our 'must have' list for a high-quality seasoning supplier includes: 1) high-quality products and ingredients with attention to authenticity (if it is a regional flavor), 2) excellent service and quick response time for samples, and 3) technical support,” says Kalla. Often, limited R&D resources cause product developers to rely on suppliers to assist them in problem solving and technical issues that are key to a meat processing organization.

Website Resources— Gold'n Plump Poultry's home page— Research Chefs Association— American Spice Trade Association— North American Meat Processors Association