Consumers are fascinated by other cultures, and this inquisitiveness is now evidenced in salad dressing trends. Their interest in global gourmet foods is exemplified by Nicoise salad, a French main dish salad made of greens, tomatoes, tuna, anchovies, and usually olives, hard-boiled eggs, and capers. Add an emulsified dressing made with ground Japanese-style dried sardines, which complements the traditional flavors very well, and you have Niboshi nicoise.

Hide a few perfectly steamed Cajun crawfish beneath a salad of beautiful Chilean greens seasoned with a lime, cilantro, and cumin Mexican dressing, and it is Latino lagniappe, a Latino salad with a Louisiana surprise.

On menus everywhere, national and multi-national restaurant chains are adding new and different dressings to an ever-growing list of salads. McDonald's Restaurant (Oak Brook, Ill.) has publicly stated that a major factor in its remarkable turnaround and record sales was the introduction of its new premium salads. There is no doubt that the brand power of Newman's Own (Westport, Conn.) dressing has been a big part of that huge success. Though “the arches” had launched a few versions of salad in the past, never before has any introduction been so widely accepted. The consumer acceptance of those wildly popular dressings may have been the key.

Traditional vinaigrette, made classically of three parts oil to one part vinegar, plus any of a number of herbs, spices or seasonings, usually exhibits a visible separation between the oil and vinegar phases, unless shaken prior to serving. Some commercially manufactured dressings exhibit this division; other producers emulsify their dressings, eliminating the problem and the need to shake. Today innovative research chefs incorporate far more complex and exciting blends of flavors and ingredients than ever before. Food developers are being faced with greater technical challenges than simply stabilizing an oil and vinegar emulsion.

Traditional Salad Dressings

With a career in food spanning over 34 years in eight states, chef John DaLoia is the corporate executive chef (CEC) for McCain Foods (Florenceville, N.B.). Additionally, he is a CEC with the American Culinary Federation (St. Augustine, Fla.) and the vice chair of the Research Chefs Association (RCA)-Chicagoland Midwest region. He works cross-functionally with R&D, sales, procurement and marketing to help drive new product development, and develop new business across all company brands.

When asked to define a “traditional” dressing, chef DaLoia says, “A salad dressing is a sauce, and any sauce should bring balance to the dish. If the major components of the salad are greens with a slightly bitter flavor, the sauce should bring sweetness, acid, and the roundness of either a vegetable fat, such as olive oil, or a vegetable puree. If the major components are sweet, such as a fruit salad, the sauce should bring a touch of sour, perhaps dairy notes, and a creamy texture. Yogurt, sour cream, and an herb to freshen the palate, would be a good example.”

Of course, mayonnaise (considered by some a “mother sauce”), the foundation for many dressings, is essential for a myriad of protein- and pasta-based salads. This traditional dressing contains all the components of a well constructed sauce; roundness from the egg yolk and the olive oil, acid to cleanse the palate from the lemon juice, and salt to brighten flavor. It can be flavored with any number of aromatic ingredients, from roasted garlic (making aioli) to fresh herbs (making any number of innovative new dressings).

Trendy Oils

In 1982, less than 30,000 metric tons of olive oil was imported into this country. In 2003, the figure was 214,473 tons; about 10% of the world's production. Bob Bauer, president of the North American Olive Oil Association (Neptune, N.J.), tells us that imports this year will be even higher because of olive oil's healthy image.

On May 25, 2005, the New York Times ran an article in the food section entirely about upscale olive oils. On Chicago's super fashionable Michigan Avenue, The Magnificent Mile, a new boutique boutique--Ta-Ze--had opened. It is a super-pricey shop selling only one product: rare, trendy, upscale, designer olive oils from all over the world.

Though most oils are imported from Italy, Spain, Greece and France, the rarest could be extra-virgin brands from Tunisia, Australia, Israel and the U.S. (The latter might originate from McEvoy Olive Ranch in Petaluma, Calif., for example). Oils from South Africa, Argentina, Chile, New Zealand, Turkey, Peru, Lebanon, Morocco, Croatia and Jordan may also be available. Even Japan produces some olive oil, a legacy of 16th-century Spanish and Portuguese missionaries, on the island of Shikoku, near the center of the archipelago. In New York City, at last summer's Fancy Food Show in the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, olive oils from 445 companies in 16 countries were on display.

Because of labeling laws in the E.U., even a bottle of oil that says ''imported from Italy'' may actually contain oils from several countries, including Turkey, Tunisia, Spain and Greece. If it does, the label must state that. The average consumer likes greenish, peppery, Tuscan-style oils. A few years ago, you would not find greenish oils in Puglia in southern Italy, because they made oils with riper olives; today you may find “Tuscan-style” oils anywhere.

Good olive oils, despite their country of origin, are likely to carry a harvest date and a date of use. The label also may designate estate bottlings, lists of the varieties of olives in the blend, and, increasingly, indicate that the oil is organic. These details contribute not only cachet, but a real dedication to quality.

Tunisia is the world's fourth-largest producer. Their oils are primarily sold in bulk and used for blending. Despite making olive oil since ancient times, countries like Tunisia and other places in North Africa and the Middle East need technical help to produce better-quality oil. There are now 100 million olive trees planted in China, with most of the oil stripped, refined, and used for blending into vegetable oils. Making better oils requires upgrading the equipment used, and striving for more consistency. Such efforts are under way.

Ahead of the Trend

Chef Chris Runkle is a certified research chef (CRC) who is a knowledgeable and experienced expert in conceiving and creating new salad dressings. Over the years, chef Runkle has formulated wonderful, successful dressings for some of the world's largest quick serve restaurants (QSRs) and fast casual restaurant chains. Working for Cargill (Minneapolis), Harry's Farmer's Markets (Whole Foods, Austin, Texas), and now Golden State Foods (Irvine, Calif.), chef Runkle has crafted delicious recipes on the bench top. He also has scaled those formulas up to full-sized, 8,000lb. production runs. In a recent interview, conducted in the new flagship McCafe coffee shop at McDonald's headquarters, the chef shared some of his secrets.

In his 26 years of creating wonderful culinary treats, chef Runkle has developed dressings for major QSRs including Burger King, Wendy's, and Sonic. He also has created successful salad dressings for fast casual chains including Olive Garden, Applebee's, Red Lobster, Chili's, and TGI Friday's. Currently the CEC for Golden State Foods, Chris tells us, “For most customers, the highest 'selling' salad dressings are the dressings people are familiar with. Blue Cheese, Ranch, Italian and vinaigrettes are still the top sellers and will continue to be.” When asked to share some of the newest and most exciting concepts he has on the stove, chef Runkle said, “The most successful dressings that I have worked on recently were balsamic vinaigrette, Thai chili vinaigrette and orange ginger vinaigrette. But I see many requests for twists to familiar dressings; twists such as Ranch dressings with new ingredients like chipotle, avocado, wasabi, pesto, sundried tomato and herb, or vinaigrettes with fresh and new ingredients like habanera mojo, key lime, maple pecan, ancho citrus, chipotle orange and Thai curry vinaigrette. Large restaurant chains are beginning to look for more excitement and more exciting flavors.”

Experience has made chef Runkle a firm believer of the trickle-down theory of consumer trends. Customers are being educated by what they see and eat at fine dining restaurants. That culinary awareness moves down to casual, fast casual, and finally to QSR establishments. By keeping an eye on what the chefs at fine dining restaurants are doing now, he can predict what will trickle down into our favorite fast food shops in a few years.

What he believes will be the coming trend in salad dressings is an increased interest in, and a demand for, fresh, exotic ingredients. Ingredients like lemongrass, fire-roasted tomatillo, or grapefruit segments in dressings; or fresh cilantro, baby lettuces, and shaved fennel in the lettuce mix, will be commonly seen in chain restaurants. Chef Runkle says, “Any great chef will tell you that fresh quality ingredients are what set you apart from the start. We are seeing dressings with grated citrus peels, garlic, whole herbs, roasted chilies, the way nature intended. It is very exciting. I guess you can tell I get pretty passionate about food. But, that is not to say you have to use strictly 'fresh' ingredients. There are some really great products out there today that bring you ingredients that perform well in the manufacturing environment.”

Ethnic Flavor Themes

There are four or five consistent flavor themes showing up in menus across the country. Asian, Latin or Hispanic, Mediterranean, and the traditional American salad builds are on almost every menu. Taking these and serving them with new twists is what may lie in the future. For an example from the Hispanic area, regional ingredients from Cuba, Argentina and Spain are gaining popularity. Spain has been a very popular theme lately. Ethnic regions provide a lot to explore; Valencia, Basque, and Catalunya all have very distinct flavors and styles. Although it may be a while before we see agar agar noodles or foams on a QSR salad, some of the flavors like piquillo peppers, Manchego cheese, and toasted almonds will be seen. Actually bringing fresh ingredients and ideas to the manufacturing facility safely is always a challenge. As chefs push vendors to bring fresher and more exciting varieties of ingredients, many have responded very well. Chipotle peppers have become almost too common to be considered innovative. Now we find ancho, pasilla, guajillo and piquillo peppers. All kinds of fire-roasted fruits and vegetables like tomatillo, pineapple, and zucchini, as well as lemongrass, avocado and habanera are now available to the large-scale manufacturer.

New Government Guidelines

Many chain restaurants are responding to the new USDA food pyramids. More and more salads are making it through the testing process to hit the menu boards. Today, there are baby lettuce and vegetables in the builds. As for the dressing, keeping nutrition in the forefront, such as using unsaturated vegetable oils and looking at trans free alternatives, is important to the end user. There are some interesting things going on in dressing development using dairy products to meet the dairy portion of the pyramid. Yogurt or buttermilk is a great base for a salad dressing.

Chef J, CEC, CRC, is a certified executive chef with the American Culinary Federation and a certified research chef with the Research Chefs Association. He has developed products for companies such as Marriott Corporation, Ritz-Carlton, McDonald's and Au bon Pain, among others. He can be reached at

Sidebar: Developing Flavor and Taste Trends

A certified executive chef and a certified culinary educator, chef James Brisson develops new products for some of the world's most trend-savvy food companies. His career includes culinary positions with The Four Seasons Hotels, The Ritz-Carlton Hotels, and SuperClubs-Jamaica. Performing culinary research and development duties through his business, The Wall Street Chef, chef Brisson consults with foodservice clients on today's emerging menu, flavor, and trends in the industry.

Chef Brisson says many inexperienced marketing professionals make a very common mistake: they tend to focus on the newest and most trendy restaurants, tastes, and menu items, when, in fact, flavor acceptance by the majority of consumers can be seen as a “trend curve.”

The newest and most out-there flavors are seen in the most upscale and high-end restaurants. These wildly new menu items slowly gain popularity, and the best make it to the table of the fast casual segment. Finally, the very best and most popular flavors, after being polished by the grindstone of market forces, make it to the QSRs and retail supermarkets. Buffalo wings and the various products now using that flavor are a good example. While never considered upscale, they were a very niche item when first created. Today they are commonplace. Flavors like Caribbean jerk and South American chimichurri are following that same path. Anchor Food Products (owned by McCain Foods, (Florenceville, N.B.)) has just introduced a line of South American-inspired retail products. We can expect many more companies to follow suit in the future.

Healthful Eating and Dressings

New product developers must keep in mind that a very large segment of the market is focused on health and weight loss. The federal government will continue to promote that trend. Every major restaurant company is putting dollars on the line to tie into that message. Salad consumption will continue to increase because consumers believe that salads are healthy. The dressings that will be most successful must follow that lead. The “super-homerun” new dressings in the near future will be those that successfully combine gourmet flavors with the perception of healthful eating. Research chefs, food scientists and marketers should all agree on a single goal: delicious, healthful new products--because delicious and healthful equal success and profits.