In its “US Market for Flavors” report published last fall, the market research group Packaged Facts (a division of Market Research Group LLC), noted that, in today’s “modern culinary climate, experimentation is the lifeblood of the food and beverage industry.”

The report further revealed that “food preparations featuring bold, spicy, and ethnic flavors are of particular interest to consumers seeking food adventures that eclipse the familiar and the mundane in order to take taste buds to new realms.” This is evidenced most strongly in the popularity of cooking sauces.

Cooking sauces trade on a confluence of food interests, including the Millennial affection for so-called speed-scratch cooking kits. These kits allow assembly of such items as, for example, freshly made pasta noodles with a heat-and-eat sauce and steamed vegetables (either pre-cut and -packaged or made from whole produce). The idea is fast, healthful, and as fresh as is practical.

Coupled with the aforementioned strong trend toward bold/spicy ethnic and fusion flavors, it’s easy to see why fresh-like jarred and packaged sauces are enjoying a heyday. In a global fusion culture, many ethnic flavors (think authentic Thai green curry or a Korean barbecue sauce) might attract strong consumer interest, but remain outside of the mainstream’s cooking skill set. This is a trend that, according to the Packaged Facts report, will “continue into the foreseeable future.”

Bold isn’t just about exotic Asian flavors, according to David Sprinkle, research director for Packaged Facts. The “Market for Flavors” report notes, “Citrus also has jumped onto the bold bandwagon, along with other tangy flavors, like tomatillo and cilantro. Sauces, meats, even vegetables are being subjected to bold and exotic spices and flavors from around the world. Consumers also are interested in unexpected pairings, like vanilla and cardamom; savory or spicy flavors with desserts and confectionery; and basil or cilantro with traditional spices, like cloves.” (To learn more about the report, go to

Bench to Shelf

For culinologists, there’s a pivotal moment in finally perfecting a new sauce in the test kitchen and deciding it’s good enough to “go commercial.” Yet that’s also when a lot of the real work begins. In the run-up to make a sauce suitable for high-volume production, sometimes the “first, worst step” is taking the ingredients in that one-quart sample and multiplying them by 10,000.

In the initial development stage, the developer can spend months tweaking the ingredients—a few grams more of this, an ounce less of that. A creative team of research chefs and R&D experts, all with well-trained palates, can suggest changes and tweaks. Other times, the focus is on basics, such as adjustments in sodium and sugar content, or adding more heat to the mix. Sometimes it is more detailed, fine-tuning the total flavor profile with less of a particular herb or more of a secondary spice.

When it’s time to move into production, however, everything from cooking methods to the formulation itself comes into play. Start with the basic cooking mechanics: “You can bring a quart pot to a boil quickly,” says Neil Fusco, CEO of Cucina Antica Foods, “but it will take much longer to bring a larger batch up to temperature, and that could have a major impact on the flavors you’re trying to blend.”

Proper order of the formulation preparation is important, too. “It’s not so much what the ingredients are, but more when you add them and how you mix them together that can make a difference,” Fusco says. “You have to know the chemistry of your ingredients—when and how you add them will be crucial.”

“Moving from an R&D bench top to a commercial batch can be a real problem, if it’s not done with care,” agrees Dave Hirschkop, president & CEO of Dave’s Gourmet Inc. “The changes you might need to make are more nuanced. Most companies establish a gold standard for their products and try to stay as close as they can but often fall a little short. You have to be able to make adjustments.”

Hirschkop was more concerned about the technical requirements required for larger batch processing. “They can ruin a good product. Reaching the proper temperature or acidity to get the necessary shelflife can create a problem. Are you packaging in glass or a retort pack? That can change your production. The cost of ingredients, too, can change how you go to market. Even an upscale producer like us has to watch costs.”

Going from that carefully stirred and watched pot during early product development to larger batches is a concern for Hirschkop, too. “There is such a mass of liquid that has to be heated up and stirred; scalding of the product can become a problem,” he explains. “You have to make sure the sauce is blended consistently during the filling process, from the first jar taken from the vat until the last jar is packed off. So the equipment you use is important. You have to really make sure your people are on top of it.”

“Some of the ingredients can vary,” Hirschkop continues, “The color of produce can be slightly different, especially with some vegetables. When you look at your sauce, does it still have the same taste, just slightly lighter or darker? Do you throw it away or keep it?” Such decisions might seem like hair-splitting, but a grey zucchini vs. a verdant one can make the entire difference between, for example, an accepted primavera sauce and a soundly rejected one.

A suggestion Fusco makes is to try to be as true to the original formulation as possible. “You should try, within reasonable parameters, to stick to—or stay relatively the same—to the original cooking time in order to retain the same flavor,” he says. “Increasing the cook time from 20 minutes to an hour for the larger batches, for example, or any overcooking or undercooking, can change the final taste or mouthfeel.”

Creamy Challenges

Cream sauces present a number of difficulties, due to both the fragile nature of liquid dairy itself, as well as the fluctuating nature of dairy prices and the comparatively high cost of cream, in general. “Cost is always a huge driving factor,” acknowledges Jody Denton, CRC, executive research chef for Frito-Lay North America. “When you are developing cream sauces, guess what’s most expensive ingredient? Cream!”

The solutions for many sauce makers run the gamut from using combinations of cream and milk along with modifiers, such as stabilizers and thickeners, or milk and modifiers only. “Let’s say you are trying to do a stable retort sauce or a shelf-stable sauce product,” Denton proposes. “With retort manufacturing, if you try to use real dairy cream, the cream can break and turn brown, and you end up with broken cream ‘bits’ and poor texture. You also will end up with an overcooked cream flavor. You can still use real cream, but you need to use as little as possible. Use as much water as you can and get that water to have as much flavor as possible through stocks and flavor compounds and herbs, then bring in as little cream as you can get away with to achieve the creamy top-note flavor and get the maximum creaminess in texture without losing stability.”

According to Denton, the ingredients that can end up playing the biggest role in formulating a successful cream sauce are the hydrocolloids used as thickening and stabilizing agents. “There are a lot of functional ingredients available now for this purpose,” he says. “Incredible strides have been made in modified starch and gum technologies.”

Denton points to the example of creating a freeze-/thaw-/reheat-capable cream sauce without changing textures or experiencing sineresis. “Wheat flour or corn starch are the common hydrocolloids for stabilizing a cream sauce in small batches and for immediate use,” he says, “but in manufacturing, it can lead to separation of the sauce components or just end up imparting a different texture altogether.”

Denton says the best approach is use of combinations of starches and gums. For example, different types of modified corn starches that achieve different results can be used singly, in concert with each other, or with specialized gums.

“Ingredient technologists have become really skilled at creating single starches, combinations of starches, or blends of starches and gums that all can be used to achieve a highly specific result,” Denton states. “They can be modified to accommodate different pH levels, to tolerate heat, to manage flow without gelling, to hit a certain mouthfeel at a certain temperature—it’s mind-boggling how many different variations are available today.”

Stinting on the cream in a cream sauce is not just about the cost factor; it also can be beneficial for shelflife and stability, explains Denton. He suggests incorporating real dairy flavors, as well. “It might not be exactly what you’d get in the home or restaurant kitchen, but you can get really close to a full-cream taste with the right dairy flavors,” he says.

For Cucina Antica’s line of Italian cooking sauces, Fusco adheres to as minimal an ingredient list as possible. All the company’s products are made without tomato paste and have no added water or sugar. They also do not contain artificial flavors or preservatives. “Controlling the variables is much easier than with more complicated sauces that might include blends of dozens of herbs, spices, and liquids,” he adds.

Another advantage to high-acid sauces, such as with tomato sauces, is that of food safety. “The low pH allows you to use a hot-fill method without having to add any acidulant,” says Frito-Lay’s Denton. “For example, if you hot-fill a higher-pH sauce, such as pesto, you have to add so much acid—such as lemon juice or vinegar—to protect it, thus destroying the basil. You end up with something unlike a real pesto as far as flavor and texture.”

Denton also points out that the acidic nature allows processors to cook such sauces to 180°F, then move right into the fill and cool steps. “Then,” he says, “you maintain the integrity of your sauce, preserving the textures of the particulates and the flavor.”

Denton acknowledges advances in manufacturing sauces and similar products outside of ingredients and prep techniques. “One exciting thing happening in recent years is the increased use of aseptic fill technology, where the product is heated at a higher temp for a shorter time, then vacuum-sealed in a container that allows the product to maintain a real restaurant quality.” Denton cautions, however, that some limitations exist, citing restrictions on particulate size among them.

Sauce Basic

The minimalist approach to sauces can act as a quality-control key. This view is shared by many new, boutique sauce makers. Popular sauces, especially ethnic sauces, often known for simplicity, have been trending up. Harissa, a North African concoction that might become the next sriracha, has been made with just six ingredients for centuries.

“Chili peppers, bell peppers, garlic, extra virgin olive oil, vinegar and salt—these are the same ingredients we use at home to make a traditional harissa,” says Mina Kallamni, founder of Casablanca Foods LLC. The company prepares commercial batches of harissa using the same ingredient list as when Kallamni made the jump from home cook to entrepreneur.

Casablanca sells its Mina’s Moroccan Red Pepper Sauce in both spicy and mild versions and also offers a spicy green pepper sauce. Mina’s products now are available in more than 4,000 supermarkets across the US.

Although the ingredients remained the same, ramping up production required a few changes in how they were prepared. “We were fortunate enough to have to make only a few technical adjustments,” Kallamni explains. “At home, we use whole chili peppers and grind them through a food mill. But, for commercial scale production, we had to adjust and switch to finely diced chili peppers.”

Kallamni used the same approach for the sauce’s garlic component. One ingredient adjustment to the recipe was necessary in order to broaden the product’s appeal: “We also brought down the heat level a touch,” explains Kallamni. “Our family likes harissa very spicy, but the harissa we make at home is too spicy for the larger market.”

Sharone Hakman launched Chef Hak LLC/Hak’s Foods after leaving his job as a financial advisor. He successfully appeared on the first season of FOX Network’s MasterChef, a reality cooking show. Hak’s Foods offers more than a dozen sauces (most famously, signature barbecue sauces) and dressings in major retail outlets throughout the country. Hakman routinely develops well-tested sauce ideas and takes them from small, sample test batches into large-scale production.

Watching the pH balance is critical, according to Hakman, as is “keeping a watchful eye” on brix (sugar content). Hakman’s challenges have included compensating for water loss differences in large volume production, as well as controlling for minor variations in color and texture, based on the usual inconsistencies of raw agricultural products.

Tasting the first production run straight from the cooker is important, but Hakman has another, often forgotten quality-control step.  In ramping up to large-batch sauce-making, this step might be even more meaningful:

“Watching your ingredients and making sure they’re top quality should mean that first batch is what it should be. But you also have to sample the finished sauce as your consumers will—a month or more after it’s been bottled and shipped,” Hakman says.

Indeed, it usually takes that long for a product to reach supermarket shelves. During that time, the ingredients will continue to “marry,” and the “straight-from-the-kettle” flavor might change.

Hakman reserves some freshly made samples for later tasting as his final quality-control step. “If you take proper care of the ingredients, what you taste will be what you expect,” he says.

John Umlauf, of American Halal Co. Inc.’s Saffron Road Foods, is responsible for the quality and consistency of a long menu of more exotic, global sauces. The company’s extensive line includes Thai, Korean, Malaysian, North African,
Central American, and Southern Mexican products. It takes a lot of front-end research before Umlauf even heads to the kitchens to craft a new sauce.

“We do our homework, first,” Umlauf stresses. “Then, during the development phase, we consult culinarians and professionals to help us fine-tune our sauces.”

Saffron Road products are co-packed, so Umlauf’s quality-control steps are extreme. “I actually taste every single production run,” he avers. “If anything tastes even somewhat ‘off,’ we contact production right away. For example, we once detected an off-taste in a product run and determined it was due to the way in which the garlic was being handled. We worked with the co-packer and changed the method being used to sauté the garlic.” Umlauf cautions even such small things can have a far-reaching effect on the final product’s taste.

Something Sweet

The trend in ready-to-pour or heat-and-serve sauces has grown just as strongly on the sweet side. In part, one of the biggest drivers has been the salted caramel trend. Caramel sauces, chocolate sauces, and combinations of the two have enjoyed a renaissance not seen since the 1950s—due to the additions of not only flavor enhancers like sea salt—but the use of aromatic spices, chili pepper, floral inclusions (lavender, violet), herbs (verbena, sage), and even bacon.

Vanilla not only is favored as a key component of sweet sauces, it traditionally is indispensible for enhancing the more-subtle notes of chocolate and chocolate sauces. What might have seemed like a barrier to growth in vanilla and chocolate usage was recent considerable pressure—from within the industry, as well as without—to engage in sustainability and fair trade practices in acquiring these developing-world ingredients.

The opposite seems to have happened: Consumers have flocked to specifically sourced chocolate and vanilla in the same terroir concept afforded wine. This heightened enjoyment of chocolate and vanilla is making the already perennial top two flavors popular across a broader spectrum of product categories and applications. That trend has readily—and marketably—been extended to sauces.  For example, a simple vanilla sauce does not stimulate as much consumer interest as, say, a Madagascar Bourbon vanilla or a Tahitian vanilla sauce.

The use of vanilla in sauces typically required whole bean vanilla, as extracts typically contain alcohol. However, vanilla makers developed alcohol-free, pure vanilla extracts from a cold-pressed glycerin methodology. They are easily applied to formulations without altering taste or aroma. Another format that works especially well in sauce-making is vanilla bean paste. The honey-thick paste imparts a strong vanilla flavor that stands up well to high heat without losing subtle vanilla floral notes.

Thickened caramel sauces and caramelized or burnt-sugar syrups are becoming popular in both sweet and savory sauce applications. Generally available in a range from light (blond), sweet syrups to dark syrups with a slight bitter tang, they also can help maintain desired viscosity in a sauce, adding to visual appeal, as well as flavor. They also are excellent for adjusting color in a brown sauce formulation.

For dairy dessert formulations, such caramel syrups can be used to enhance pouring throughout the product’s shelflife. They are easily incorporated into base sauces and can help suspend particulates, preserving their shape and texture. Caramelized and burnt-sugar syrups are applicable as clean label ingredients, if they are used not only for color, but also for flavoring the finished product.

Sometimes, a direct infusion of sweet into a savory sauce might overwhelm a desired subtlety. ConAgra Foods Inc.’s Lamb Weston group opted to take advantage of the jump in popularity of sweet potatoes to use the tuber to add a hint of sweetness to some of its global cuisine products. Root vegetables, in general, often are higher in healthful, medium-chain carbohydrates known as oligosaccharides (such as inulin) that are slightly sweet, naturally.

Sea salt and bacon aren’t the only crossovers between sweet and savory. The use of coconut in traditional Thai and Indian sauces can be cited as one of the main appeals that made these once-exotic cuisine expressions a new component of mainstream American dining, especially among Millennials. The addition of peanut butter and tamarind creates the quintessential satay sauce popular in Thai, Malaysian, and other Southeast Asian cuisines.


Originally appeared in the April, 2016 issue of Prepared Foods as Saucy Thoughts.