Prepared Foods talks with Judson McLester, executive chef and ingredient sales manager for McIlhenny Company and its Tabasco brand. McLester is responsible for the brand’s US ingredient sales and works with industrial ingredient brokers nationwide. As a chef, he works with McIlhenny’s foodservice team on national chain account projects and presentations. He also supports Tabasco’s retail and culinary public relations events.

Prepared Foods: During the past 18 months, what food or flavor trends have most surprised you?

Chef Jud McLester: On trend involves crispy bugs, like crickets and grasshoppers, seasoned and eaten as a snack or a salad topping. This is not really new concept but with alternative proteins on the rise, consumers are looking to new sources. Crickets and grasshoppers can be found in markets around the world and are becoming more popular.

Another growing trend involves savory dessert concepts. For example, a chocolate-covered crispy pork belly. I recently had this dish served with Sea Salt and Raspberry Sauce and it actually was pretty good. It seems that anything bacon or pork belly is free game for both sweet and savory applications.

PF: What’s the difference between flavor and heat—as you might apply it in various applications?

Chef Jud: Sure, let’s clarify things. Tabasco brand products are pepper sauce flavors that contain heat—so therefore, we are actually in the flavor business. Using Tabasco brand Original Red Sauce at lower levels will actually help elevate the other flavors it is being used with. When used at higher levels it adds even more flavor and a little more heat.

So, with all that said there really isn’t much you can’t use Tabasco on or in. I’ve been brewing beer with Tabasco Original Red Sauce, using it in ice cream, and in sweet applications. Our new Tabasco brand Spray Dry flavor works really well in powdered sugar used topically on cookies and to flavor seasonings used on chips and nuts. It’s incredibly versatile.

PF: Can we talk about spice and heat for a moment? As a chef, how have you seen this trend evolve from 2015 into 2016? Can you cite one or two menu examples?

Chef Jud: It’s funny but in my mind, spicy/heat is not really a trend—but a way to make food taste better or more satisfying. The trick is to balance flavor and heat so it has a complementary effect on the food you’re eating.

In 2015, it was all about heat. e.g. focusing on the the hottest pepper or who can handle the hottest whatever. Now in 2016, however, I’m seeing chefs use those really hot peppers in recipes more for flavor and less for heat in both sweet and savory dishes.

One example is using chipotle sauce in ice cream like a Chocolate Chipotle Rocky Road. Chocolate and chipotlenaturally pair well together. The smoky notes found in chipotle and chocolate complement each other. Another example is Peri Peri Chicken. Peri Peri peppers have natural citrus undertones, which compliment a range of flavors.

The use of spices and heat in other cuisines has been popular for a while and our consumers have become highly educated on the topic. Thus, it’s not surprising that chefs are continuously looking for that new and perfect combination of flavor and heat.

PF: You mentioned McIlhenny’s Tabasco Spray Dry flavoring. How are you working with this new ingredient?

Chef Jud: For one project, we marinated chicken using Tabasco Original Red Sauce and other seasonings. The idea was to have the chicken taste like Tabasco Sauce but without changing the texture or bite of the meat. However, Tabasco is too acidic and it changed the texture of the chicken. Instead, we used Tabasco Spray Dry to deliver the flavor of the iconic Tabasco Sauce and to accentuate the heat.

Another project involved a refrigerated dip, where we were trying to flavor the base with Tabasco Sauce. Well, we found out that we could not get the flavor we were looking for by using straight Tabasco Sauce because of the product’s vinegar content. So, we combined it and Tabasco Spray Dry together in the base to drive both flavor and heat. That product is currently available in the grocer’s refrigerated case.

PF: What did McIlhenny show at this year’s Institute of Food Technologists expo?

Chef Jud: This year, we sampled a number of products featuring Tabasco brand ingredients. I always like to show a co-branded product, a savory dish, a beverage and something sweet.

To highlight a co-branded product, we served Hot N’ Spicy Cheez-It Crackers with Tabasco brand Green Jalapeño Pepper Sauce, made by Sunshine Bakery. This is a good way to show members of the industry how our flavors are used in finished retail products. It allows them to visualize the partnership with other recognized brands.

We also sampled Corn and Crawfish Maque Choux featuring Tabasco Chipotle Pepper Sauce, prepared by our own Cajun chef, Nelson Boutte. We selected this dish because we like to showcase cuisine that is indigenous to the area were Tabasco products are made and how it is used by the locals.

Another product we chose to highlight was Tabasco Bloody Mary Mix, which is made with our iconic Tabasco Original Red Sauce. This is always a hit, especially the morning after a long night.

Lastly, we offered an unexpected taste combination in our Avery Island Wedding Cookies featuring Tabasco Spray Dry Flavoring in the powdered sugar coating. This is a spin-off of a traditional Mexican Wedding Cookie made with pecans. The Tabasco Spray Dry mixed with powdered sugar adds a touch of sweet heat, which is really trending right now.

PF: One important trend is that of ingredient sourcing and traceability. What do you tell manufacturer customers about Tabasco?

Chef Jud: One of the most important things to realize is what it takes to make Tabasco Original Red Sauce. I’ll give it to you in a nut shell. We grow peppers on Avery Island, La., for seed stock. Our peppers are picked by hand. We only add salt when we mash our peppers for a preservative (not flavor enhancement). Our mash is aged for up to three years in oak barrels to develop umami-like flavor and we use cane vinegar not corn. It’s more about flavor than heat.

I believe if product developers used our products like a flavor enhancer—and not just as a condiment—they could create better-tasting products. We offer a wide variety of Tabasco Pepper Sauce flavors and formats, so there is something for every type of concept. And while it may not always be an obvious fit, we are here to work with manufacturers and show them how easy it can be to elevate the flavor of their products without necessarily adding heat, if they don’t want to.

About TABASCO® brand Industrial Ingredients Division

As the leader of the fast-growing pepper sauce market, McIlhenny Company supplies food manufacturers with the same authentic TABASCO brand Original Red Sauce flavor that has been enjoyed for over a century by both consumers and foodservice professionals. Now this unique flavor profile is available in a variety of convenient formats to fit most food processing environments. The ultimate goal of the TABASCO brand Industrial Ingredients Division is to help food manufacturers and processors improve the flavor and profitability of their next great food idea. 

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Originally appeared in the September, 2016 issue of Prepared Foods as Fuel the Flavor.