Knowing which ingredients to reach for and how a product should be processed are the keys to a successful product launch. This is especially true of sauces and marinades since they act as vehicles for, and transporters of, the key flavors of a formulation. With the goal of creating or recreating recipes more familiar to the restaurant or home chef, manufacturers bring both art and science to bear in order to ensure saucy success.

Considering the final use of the product is the best direction to proper formulation for the food scientist or research chef. For sauces, important considerations are whether the product will be applied before or after cooking; and at what point in the chain from production to table will the final product be employed.

Also critical are the treatments that each component, as well as the final product itself, will be subjected to.

For example, will the sauce be applied to cooked protein and frozen? Is the protein “piecey” and oddly textured, such as with chicken wings? Or, is it a smooth and flat protein, such as a chicken breast or steak? Is the final sauce to be jarred and kept shelf-stable, or filled and frozen in a vacuum-sealed package? Is it designed to be shelf-stable in a pourable, aseptic carton? Such crucial questions provide the formulator with the information needed before even beginning the hands-on process of creating the ideal sauce for the specific conditions.

“The formulation of a ready-to-use foodservice sauce is significantly different from one included in a retail box of frozen foods,” says Liz Chan, a food scientist for Giraffe Food & Beverage Inc. in Toronto.

“This has mostly to do with the different storage and reheating conditions. Because we supply restaurant chains with sauces, such as Buffalo wing sauce, Giraffe has followed up on requests for the same sauced product for frozen entrées,” Chan observes.

Sauce Architecture

Chan notes that to make necessary modifications to revise a Buffalo wing sauce formulation, for example, into a freeze/thaw-stable alternative requires adjustments to assure stability upon thawing, avoiding separation, graininess or other off-flavor and texture aspects. The original recipe might not be able to successfully deliver that same satisfying experience.

“Certain modifications are necessary to maintain the structure and functionality of the sauce in all conditions,” says Chan, “or it could separate, lose viscosity or become watery.”

Want more sauce trends? Click here to read Prepared Foods' interview with Kevin Fortun, founder of Fortun Foods Inc.

Food scientists and culinologists must consider usual usage of a sauce or marinade, as well as anticipate “worst-case scenarios” when developing their products. This entails applying engineering knowledge and experience to build a sauce correctly. A successful sauce or dressing requires a solid foundation—one that can maintain its original integrity throughout the expected shelflife and beyond.

The primary ingredients, alone or in combination, create a structurally sound sauce that can withstand all the stress it will be subjected to during processing or reheating.

Consider the example of cook-in-bag applications, where a protein such as beef, pork or chicken is cooked in sauce for an extended length of time, then frozen for eventual reheating by the end-user. Multiple ingredients that provide a cohesive and stable sauce structure will be required, yet all must provide neutral or enhanced flavor.

Skilcor Food Products Inc. manufactures a pork back ribs-in-sauce product that is vacuum-packed and frozen for a baked reheating process by the end-user.

“We slow-cook the ribs for up to eight hours to achieve a ‘melt-in-your-mouth’ tenderness consumers not only favor, but expect,” says Miriam Firth, director of QA and food safety for Skilcor. “During this time, moisture and fat from the meat—the “purge”—dilute the sauce, which initially is quite thick. But the sauce has to remain viscous, so it will adhere to the ribs when reheated by the consumer baking the product at temperatures of up to 400°F. At the conclusion, they expect to see the sauce on the ribs, on not on the baking sheet.”

In cases where modifications are significant and require a total overhaul of the foundation of the sauce, experts often suggest incorporating a combination of starches and gums to increase freeze/thaw stability. Technology by ingredient scientists has advanced to where highly specific starches and gums can be used individually or in combination to allow a seamless transition in the formulation.

Certain modified starches do well in stabilizing sauces, but can break down during multiple freeze/thaw conditions. However, combining longer-chain hydrocolloids—gums—with the starch will significantly improve the stability throughout the freeze/thaw cycles. Gum-starch blends will bind a greater amount of water and prevent the moisture from migrating within the sauce. This will reduce the formation of unwanted ice crystallization.

Starches and gums can work better in combination than they would separately, in that they create a more highly functional system. Further, a starch-gum system can be used at a more reduced usage level than if using the starch alone, allowing for cleaner flavor release and reduced costs.

Cook-in-bag sauces require multifunctional ingredients to maintain their integrity during all stages of cooking, freezing and reheating. Generally, food scientists incorporate two different types of starches, such as a modified cook-up starch (certain waxy starches, especially waxy maize corn starches, are excellent examples) for building initial viscosity. This will be blended with a starch that hydrates at a slower rate, to maintain viscosity during reheating and absorb the purge from the meat. In this case, a potato or rice starch fits the bill.

In addition to traditional waxy maize cook-up starches, today’s food scientists incorporate innovative alternatives for optimal performance in thickening and water-binding applications. Fruit and vegetable fibers, such as are derived from apple, citrus or pea, are effective, clean label performers. They bind water, reduce fats and oils, are gluten-free and provide an improved nutritional profile.

Healthier Approaches

One modern consideration in choosing appropriate ingredients for sauce, dressing and marinade developing is how much of an emphasis should be placed on nutritional content. The connotation of “healthy” has evolved from a generation ago, when it focused on reduction or total removal of macronutrients, such as fat and sugar. After that, healthy was associated with anything value-added, such as vitamin, probiotic or antioxidant fortification.

Today’s concept of what constitutes healthy not only includes all the former, but has advanced to take into account the processing—i.e., “minimally processed”—as well as social issues and where the product originated (for example, “local” or “regional,” “fair trade” and “environmentally friendly.”) These have opened up the field to formulators for not just ingredient selection, but also sourcing, sustainability and manufacturing procedures, not to mention marketing possibilities.

A recent, innovative alternative to traditional modified starch bases in sauces and dressings is microalgae flour, providing multiple functions in sauce and dressing formulations. These include water binding, emulsification and fat reduction. Labeled as either whole algal flour or algal flour, microalgal flour is GMO-free, GRAS, gluten-free and highly functional in formulations. It can replace common allergens, such as egg yolk and wheat flour, while reducing overall fat and saturated fat content.

Microalgal flour is described as a “whole food,” containing 50% lipids along with fiber, starch and protein. In formulations, it provides a neutral flavor while delivering a creamy mouthfeel. Used in finished products, it develops a profile close to olive oil. This combination of fat, starch, fiber and protein allows for significant fat reduction while permitting a cleaner label in sauces and dressings.

One part of microalgal powder mixed with water can be used to remove three to five parts of fat or oil. Moreover, the combination of protein and phospholipids in microalgae gives it emulsification properties. Dressings and cheese sauces have been developed with the ingredient that finalize with significant reduction in liquid oil, plus complete removal of egg yolk.

Decades ago, food scientists realized the benefits of incorporating yeast extracts for flavor enhancement, a sense of umami and increased taste satisfaction. Yet, because of consumer perceptions, some processors are reluctant to use them to improve their sauces and dressings.

“We try not to use yeast extracts as much when formulating new products because of a perceived negative ‘halo’ effect and comparison to MSG,” explains Juriaan Snellen, corporate chef for Heinz Canada.

Contrary to popular belief, yeast extract and MSG are not the same thing. Yeast extract does contain glutamic acid, just as does MSG, but at a significantly lower level—only 5-20%. When added to foods at suggested usage levels of 0.05-0.20%, yeast extracts contribute a minimal amount of glutamic acid into the food—about the same as occurs naturally in commonly eaten proteins, such as beef and chicken. It should be noted that the human body produces this functional amino acid on its own.

Yeast extracts also function to reduce the vinegar or acid bite in dressing or marinade formulations and, thus, may be referred to as “vinegar toners.” These soften the bite of a vinegar, leaving a more pleasant tang instead of an overwhelming kick.

Staying Consistent

When it comes to flavorants, such as herbs and spices, shifting to formulations designed for long shelflife can be tricky. Herbs and spices derive flavor from volatile oils that easily—and often quickly—break down if they are not preserved somehow.

To achieve consistent and continuous, authentic spice flavor, heat and aroma, a kitchen chef might reach for a “pinch of this or a pinch of that,” but the research chef turns to liquid extracts, such as spice oleoresins. Incorporating these into a formula makes it possible to deliver the desired taste characteristics across extended periods of time, significantly longer than dried alternatives offer.

Natural variations can change the characteristics of a spice from crop to crop. Oleoresins are standardized to compensate for such variations that alter the flavor, color and aroma of the spice or herb. This means they will provide a more consistent product from batch-to-batch production.

Additionally, a more uniform dispersion can be achieved with the liquid-soluble extractives more so than with their dry spice counterparts. This creates a more preferable taste and appearance in finished products, unlike dried spices, which sometimes leave pockets of flavor and color because of uneven mixing when used in large quantities.

Making Flavor Last

“Global flavors in sauces and marinades often require the high impact of spices and herbs delivered by oleoresins to meet the expectation of an authentic taste experience,” says Gordon Kozak, director of R&D for Ecom Food Industries Corp. He explains how oleoresins can be used to replicate not only the flavor of the spices and herbs in a traditional meal but the cooking method, as well.

“In an item like a Jamaican jerk chicken, for example, the overall flavor of jerk is much more complex than just a blend of spices,” says Kozak.

Oleoresins are used to incorporate the rich spice background, as well as the authentic grill flavors and citrus notes imparted by cooking the seasoned chicken over a charcoal grill and drizzling lime juice as it cooks.  The subtleties of pimiento, cumin, ginger and sage in the oleoresin, blended with the blackened flavor of the grill, make these flavors as easily recognizable as the tastes experienced on a recent vacation.

Where oleoresins really shine are in multiple flavor systems in which high-impact flavor from spices and seasonings is required. This cannot be achieved with dry spices alone. By adjusting the volatile oil content of a spice extract, the flavor possibilities are endless.

Kozak explains, “Over the past few years, our customers have requested global spice blends to characterize the complexity of the cuisine, and we’ve responded accordingly, providing a variety that includes Spicy Chorizo, Chinese Five Spice, traditional mirepoix, Moroccan tagine, herbs de Provençe, piri, Szechuan, tandoori, Thai curry and a Worcestershire-style spice blend—just to name a few.”

For wet marinades, the oil medium also can be critical. Bold flavors can stand up to being carried by olive oil or a nut oil, such as peanut oil. But when subtler flavors are used, a lighter oil is a must.

“Sunflower oil is an excellent choice for marinades,” says John Sandbakken, executive director of the National Sunflower Association. “Sunflower oil has a neutral, light taste and, as a result, it is one of the best flavor carriers for herbs, spices and other ingredients. Sunflower oil also has a longer shelflife than many oils, which is beneficial for prepared foods.”

Another advantage to sunflower oil is its high smoking point. Even a semi-refined sunflower oil has a smoke point of 450°F.

Dipping Into Details

Creamy dressings, such as a ranch or Caesar, are examples of where proper processing is crucial for successful manufacturing. While the formula may contain all the right ingredients, appropriate blending is required to create and stabilize the emulsion for extended stability. First, sufficient sheer is needed to force the components together on a molecular level to form the stable matrix.

This is achieved through high-sheer mixing or homogenization to reduce the droplet size of the oil and water phases which result in a homogeneous blend of the lipophilic and hydrophilic molecules. To stabilize and hold this matrix, emulsifiers can be added. These may include soy lecithin, egg yolk, distilled monoglycerides or the manufactured surfactant Polysorbate 80.

Prepare a sauce in a kitchen, and it’s called cooking. However, make the same sauce in a commercial manufacturing set-up, and it becomes “heat processing.” The difference is that the former results in a sauce that tastes great but might not last very long. The latter, involving more sophisticated production methods, can provide the extended shelflife often required in the market. Cooking is heat-treating a food to make it consumable. The main objective is the development of specified organoleptic characteristics, such as taste, aroma, color and mouthfeel. Cooked products can be stored in the refrigerator for a few days, and then in the freezer for a few weeks, before losing their integrity.

Heat-processed sauces, however, have been fully sterilized by exposing the food to a temperature generally exceeding 100°C for a period of time sufficient to inhibit enzymes and all forms of microorganisms. This generally requires from at least 1-5 minutes to destroy all microorganisms up to and including bacterial spores.

Tomato paste processing is an example where heat treatment is required to deactivate enzymes. However, that also destroys the pectins and alters the viscosity of the sauce. Raw tomatoes must be cooked to a minimum of 185°F to deactivate these destructive pectolytic enzymes that naturally occur in tomatoes and other fruits.

Enzyme-deactivation systems, referred to as “hot break units,” raise a product’s temperature to at least 185°F to denature the protein-based enzymes susceptible to heat destruction. Most sauce manufacturers use several types of heat exchangers in their plants for sterilization and proper flavor development, employing each according to the specifics of the formulation.

“Sauces with a high particulate level are run through a tube-in-tube system, whereas high-viscosity and high-particulate sauces require a scrape-surface system,” notes Ed Baldor, production manager at Giraffe Foods.

“Sauces with low viscosity and low particulate may be heated in a plate exchanger. These inline systems increase our production efficiencies over a traditional kettle set-up and allow for processing a wider range of products, thus expanding our product offerings to our customers,” Baldor continues.

Even when a formulation seems foolproof, it can fail in production without correct adjustments of ingredients and techniques for batch production. High-volume processing is what actually drives the formula development from start to finish, in regards to the correct choice of ingredients; the order of addition; appropriate heat processing, mixing and blending; and other key steps. Understanding the fundamentals of food processing, combined with an understanding of raw material functionality, ensures the successful development of the sauce or dressing.

Transitioning from kitchen to commercialization requires skill, knowledge and experience with raw materials and processing, as they work hand-in-hand to create the perfect sauce or dressing. Because the environments are so vastly different, it is most likely that the food scientist will start with a formulation rather than a kitchen recipe, and use one based on an existing product or one similar in composition.

This reduces the amount of steps required to revise the formulation and increases product development efficiencies. The fastest way to a successful formulation is to start with the ingredients and processes that will be available in full-scale production, instead of starting with kitchen ingredients and preparation.