There are between 2,000 and 5,000 taste buds scattered over the surface of the human tongue. Each has 50 to 150 receptor cells, selective to the particular taste they sense. As consumers’ palates become more sophisticated and attuned to the growing complexity of flavors available today, there are times when it’s not enough for food products to satisfy just one of these tastes.
Some sweet-yet-salty/savory combos have been with us for scores of years. Caramel popcorn, salted nut rolls and peanut butter and jelly are three classic examples. But the influx of influential cuisines with long histories of intersecting the two seeming polar opposites stimulated a recent ballooning interest by consumers in such unusual pairings.
Demanding bolder, more adventurous taste experiences, consumers are actively seeking dynamic contrasts within the foods they eat. This is demonstrated by the popularity of products such as pretzels dipped in chocolate and caramel (dashed with salt), bacon ice cream or beef jerky chocolate. This leaves product developers with the challenge of figuring out how to cater to these more intricate flavor trends.
Product developers can always take a cue from that epitome of the sweet and salty combination, the peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Beyond the fundamental sweet and salty marriage, a good PB&J features a compilation of fattiness, sourness and even a touch of bitterness that leads to not only contrasting richness, but also a particular equilibrium in which each ingredient enhances the next. While the peanut butter provides sweetness, richness and saltiness, the jelly provides the contrasting–and pleasing–sour notes along with additional sweetness.
This concept of balanced yet contrasting sweet and saltiness is seen throughout global cuisine as well. From Kansas City to Bangkok, sugar and salt are usually always graced with additional components to achieve a truly balanced eating experience.
Though not often thought of in the sweet and salty/savory category, a prototypical example is classic American barbecue. This could be said of all sauces made with a tomato base. It makes sense when one considers that, botanically, a tomato is a berry and ripe tomatoes have an irresistible combination of sweetness and “meatiness.” Think “ketchup.”
Although sweet and salty forms the base of most sauces, there can also be a dozen or more additional ingredients, each bringing supplemental complexity (such as natural umami components) and a bit of acidity to provide sharpness. When paired with a perfectly smoked salted brisket, the same balancing of flavors exists as those that appear in the classic PB&J.
South of the American barbecue bastions, Mexico brought its molé culture north, giving us pungent Ancho chili pepper with bittersweet chocolate as a saucy accompaniment to stewed chicken and pork. Traveling further east, where would Thai cuisine be without tamarind paste to contrast salty soy sauce and the sweetness of palm sugar, or its coconut and fish sauce? All are often bridged with the spicy shock of hot chili peppers.
For centuries, global cuisines have played off this sweet and salty interaction by mixing a variety of different sources to give an explosion of flavors that have been enjoyed through generations. Product developers can readily use these culinary examples to their own advantage. Following the lead of the PB&J example, keep the layers simple. Focus on the five basic tastes–salty, sweet, sour, bitter and umami–and the mechanics of the food ingredients being employed.
Successfully taking advantage of the sweet/salty combination craze requires more than simply adding a little sugar to salty popcorn, however. Achieving the right balance requires choreography of all of a product’s flavor profiles. For many chefs and even seasoned product developers, trying to create a good marriage between sweet and savory or salty can sometimes lead to falling victim to the “bad caramel-corn dilemma.” This results in products featuring an imbalance of not just the two primary flavors but all of the supporting notes as well.
Understand the sweetness profile you want to achieve and cost, labeling and other external requirements. Use this information to then work backward to land on sucrose, fructose or another form of sugar that will provide the best fit. (In developing a reduced-sugar product, it is no different when selecting a high-intensity sweetener. Stevia, monk fruit, sucralose – each offers its own set of considerations when it comes to cost, labeling requirements and sweetness level.)
Once the base is set, move toward a correct and maintainable acid profile. From there, it’s possible to build up to more complex flavors. Then, it’s possible to add the supporting components: fattiness, cooling and astringency. Sometimes all that is required as a finisher is a touch of sweet berry flavor. With the proper balance of citric acid, malic acid and fructose this can achieve the right flavor path for a sweet-savory balance.
Understanding the finished product’s core components and applying the simple methodology of layering basic tastes virtually guarantees a successful approach toward building more comprehensive flavor profiles. Applying this method to formulations that otherwise might not support a complex sweet and salty profile can prove, in the finished product, that the final results of a salty sweet can be an art as much as a balancing act.
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Tate & Lyle