The food industry is currently challenged with a growing demand for foods and beverages that are “familiar with a twist.” In some cases, product developers find themselves exhausting one “new” flavor or ingredient trend, even as they are searching for the next. For the most part, this is because, where consumers once had a reluctance to try new things, today’s global influences have them on a perpetual quest for what’s new and what’s next. This is especially true of Millennials, notorious for jumping from one ethnic culinary trend to another.

In the race to create new flavor experiences through new ingredients, new preparation techniques, and regional ethnic influences, savory flavors have figured strongly. In fact, a recent survey of new product introductions of savory snacks, conducted by global product research group Mintel Inc., revealed an increase of 18% in the year between 2014-2015. The number of such products released in North America experienced a 19% jump between 2013-2014, and that rose several more percentage points in the following year.

In the Mintel survey, nearly four in 10 of consumers asked declared that the “single most important factor that would influence them to purchase salty snacks” centered around the product incorporating a “new” flavor. However, past product performance data support the fact that there always is opportunity in recreating and re-introducing such time-tested treatments as Cajun and BBQ flavors, especially if they come with new twists on the familiar.

Certainly, the “hot” movement has not subsided. People continue to seek out savory heat. In the Mintel savory snack study, nearly a third of respondents indicated that “spicy flavors” can drive their interest in purchasing an untried savory snack. But consumers aren’t just looking for heat by itself. They crave more complex blends of savory, coupled with fermented and even sweet components. Such combinations make hot acceptable to any form of menu item, from breakfast to dessert and beverages. 

Food products that are influenced by the unique flavors of India, the Middle East, South America, etc., are of great interest. Each culinary source has its own method of preparation and serving, as well as ingredients, that brings with it special flavors, textures, and colors. For product developers, these provide a wealth of new sources for seasonings and sauces right from the start.

Flavor Onset

To begin creating a product that centers on savoriness, it is important to first decide on the cooking method for the core ingredient, whether it is a protein, a starch, or a vegetable. This will determine the direction that the savory aspect will take—such as braised, roasted, grilled over a wood fire, or otherwise cooked. Time, temperature, and cooking vessel all will contribute to the development of the product, as the cooking method and medium will both create unique reactions with and between the ingredients.

Whether choosing smoky or charred notes on a rich cut of meat, or seeking a light, nutty, browned note from a quick sauté in a fry pan or a wok, the base flavors need to be established. Some items are best marinated or rubbed prior to cooking. This can pertain to how lean or dry they are.

Adding a touch of oil to the surface or to the pan coaxes out new colors, via specific chemical reactions, and savory flavors, as the surface caramelizes—a very important step in savory preparations. Where it isn’t possible to cook with direct heat, or the heat source is controlled with humidity (as in a steam-injected oven), flavors and colors can be developed as part of the marinade and rub prior to cooking.

Functional glazes also may be applied prior to cooking as well. These can give a unique, “saucy” appearance and texture. Frying also can develop the savory brown notes associated with the cooking method and the type of product cooked. This can include anything from proteins, such as poultry and seafood, or starches and vegetables.

The Maillard reaction is perhaps the primary source of savoriness in a formulation. It is a result of the amine groups of proteins, coupled with sugar molecules (usually from starches) that form the sweet, nutty brown characteristic flavors when high heat is applied and in the absence of a liquid medium. It presents the browned and crusted surface appearance typical of fried, sautéed, or roasted starch or meat.

For example, potatoes are transformed from bland, blanched, and near-flavorless starchy tubers to the crisp, browned, and full-flavored French fries due to the magic of natural sugars converted by the Maillard reaction. Add a little salt, and their addictive savoriness is increased multifold.

Building the Savory Complex

Savoriness can involve multiple components in synchronization to build a final product with a distinct flavor profile that is greater than the sum of its parts. Using a sandwich as an example of a complex savory structure, note that the bread, the meat, the produce, the cheese, and the condiments are all layered to produce an intricate combination of savory experiences.

Because each layer has the potential to contribute to the savory flavors (as well as the colors and textures that have been shown to psychologically enhance the savory experience), the sandwich becomes a self-contained culinary experience. Salt in the cheese and condiments; grill or smokiness in the protein; or just the tang and complex fermented notes of a particular condiment or sauce make flavors pop.

The proper construction of savory in any item created relies on such synchronicity. The ingredients that you start with; the method with which you prepare each component; and the final assembling elevate the eating experience.

Time is certainly a key factor in developing savory flavors. For many industrial manufacturers employing high-speed, high-humidity cooking systems, the flavors imparted to the food are generally greatly diminished (and, in many instances, absent) when such cooking methods are applied. Too often, such need for speed has resulted in product offerings considered bland by many.

Small-batch cooking relies on hours to create perfect flavorrs through simmering, reducing, slow-roasting and other drawn-out methods. These are typical of the way a traditional soup, sauce, or gravy has been made for generations. Today’s consumers seek these flavors on the shelves, ready-made. Processors, however, might turn to certain “tricks of the trade” to arrive at the same results more quickly, using various techniques and ingredients to imitate more slow-cooked flavors.

As consumer preferences continue to lean toward lower sodium, MSG-free choices, making use of the Maillard reaction allows for savory flavors that have high impact. They are key to exciting the umami region taste receptors and will balance the interface on the tongue between the sour, salty, and umami interfaces. In order to help chefs design foods with the desired flavor attributes, a new generation of ingredients made from fats, amino acids, carbohydrates, vitamins, and other natural ingredients are being developed.

When the aforementioned ingredients are reacted in a controlled environment with specific heat, pH, time, and temperature parameters, the resulting product can have the primary ingredient (especially meat or poultry) acquire flavor top-notes that mimic specific cooking methodology, such as grilled (caramelized, charred, seared). It even is possible to bring in flavor elements associated with cooking over wood, direct fire, gas, charcoal, or a flat iron. Roasted, fried, sautéed, and smoked are other cooked flavor notes that can be paired as companions to the species flavor to enhance the savory nature of the ingredient.

Who’s Umami?

The Mushroom Council describes umami as the “fifth basic taste,” after sweet, salty, bitter, and sour. It is variously described as a savory, brothy, rich, or meaty taste sensation. To food scientists, umami indicates a high level of glutamate, an amino acid and building block of protein. To chefs and food lovers, it’s a satisfying sense of deep, complete flavor, balancing savory flavors and full-bodied taste with distinctive qualities of enhanced aroma and mouthfeel. Cured meats, soy sauce, aged cheeses, yeast, and mushrooms also are rich in glutamate and, thus, umami.

Umami components, notes the Council, stimulate both appetite and satiety (the feeling of being full and satisfied). Umami-providing ingredients can counterbalance saltiness to allow up to a 50% reduction without compromising flavor. Interestingly, umami components also can be utilized to highlight sweetness; plus they act like masking agents by lessening bitterness.

Two other major elements—peptides and nucleotides—also are responsible for umami taste by working synergistically with glutamate. Peptides are small chains of amino acids, and nucleotides are the building blocks of nucleic acid that make up the fundamental genetic material in proteins. When combining these essential elements, product developers can achieve a full-flavored savory dish.

“Umami might sound mystical, but it really isn’t,” says research chef, cooking show host, and author Robert Danhi.  “Humans crave this fifth taste since the day they’re born,” he explains. “It is only recently that the majority of scientists have come to an agreement that the tongue not only perceives sweet, salty, sour, and bitter, but also umami.” 

Danhi further explains that there is a demonstrated, natural innate affinity for umami—just as there is for sweetness. “Of the 20 amino acids in breast milk, glutamic acid is the most abundant,” Danhi adds. “Glutamate receptors on your palate sense the free glutamate in foods and equate them with delicious taste.”

Danhi goes on to explain that the theoretical postulation is that each taste we perceive helps us survive, mostly by helping us be selective about what foods we eat. “The umami taste is essentially the indication that the food has protein. We need protein to live. This taste is responsible for a majority of the craveability of foods: the urge to pull that dark roasted bit of meat off the end of a roast; to bite down into a crusty baguette; to yearn for the sautéed mushrooms atop your steak; or to close your eyes and revel as you savor aged cheeses,” he says. 

Tasty Components

Ingredients such as tomato paste or concentrate, onion or garlic purées or concentrates, mushroom powders, yeast extracts, prepared demi-glaçe, and soy sauces and powders make it possible to introduce deeper, more complex flavors and colors into sauces and gravies, or into ground protein or cooked vegetables. A little of these flavors go a long way to enhance savoriness without having to cook for longer amounts of time. They also allow for protection of texture.

Product developers have other exciting ingredient additions to their savory toolboxes. Vegetable powders, reductions of wine or spirits, and amino acid extracts are just a few examples. For simple, yet more exotic notes to imitate or enhance meatiness, some chefs turn to instant coffee, cocoa powder (as well as the aforementioned tomato/vegetable powders, soy sauce powders, or yeast extract powders) as part of dry seasonings and sauce bases.

Also, dried and smoked chili peppers—whether smoky-sweet like anchos or smoky-fiery like chipotlés—can be used to add smoky umami notes to stews and sauces. All these ingredients can work exceptionally well in helping with meaty, browned and savory notes when formulating simple and less expensive preparations.

Some of the best sources of savoriness in formulations—especially vegan/vegetarian ones—are mushrooms. All mushrooms are a rich source of umami, and the darker the mushroom the more of those flavor notes it contains. Shiitake, as well as the Agaricus bisporus trio of portabella, crimini, and button mushrooms are the most common and most highly favored mushrooms, but others are fast becoming popular. Oyster mushrooms, Hen-of-the-Woods, morels, chanterelles, and truffles are more widespread, due to greater availability and increased efforts toward cultivability.

As described by the Mushroom Council, for food aficionados, mushrooms can create a “satisfying sense of deep, complete flavor, balancing savory flavors and full-bodied taste with distinctive qualities of aroma and mouthfeel.” They are perfect for building on other, different savory flavor sources, matching perfectly with cheeses (especially aged cheeses), tomato sauces, soy sauces, and animal proteins.

By themselves, mushrooms are popular in multiple formulations, including sides, appetizers, sauces, toppings, and soups. They can be used in a number of different formats, such as sliced, chopped, ground, and whole, and work well with every type of cooking method. Mushrooms also have been gaining strong ground as inclusions in ground protein preparations and as replacements for meat proteins.

The method in which a food is cooked imparts its own unique flavor nuances.

As part of a protein blend, mushrooms provide added texture and increase moisture in a ground mixture, while enhancing flavor. In this manner, they are suitable for low-sodium and -fat formulations. Not only are the mushrooms indistinguishable in such a blend, but focus groups have shown that the eating experience is generally superior to that of a plain ground meat.

“Savory doesn’t have a ‘point of view’,” says Andrew Hunter, research chef and season regular on CNBC’s Restaurant Startup television show. “It smells good; it tastes good. Once you’ve achieved [the desired savory flavor], you can add the point of view.” Hunter points out the different methods and strategies to get to the desired profile of savoriness with the following example.

“A duck sausage we’re working on actually contains three different meats. It uses fresh pork, smoked bacon, and duck—the leg and thigh meat, specifically. Each gives a unique signature flavor. Fresh pork fat gives its own savoriness; the bacon gives the smoky, cured notes; and the duck fat and skin give their unique flavor notes. Balance is the key. To those layers are added roasted mushroom, roasted onion, and a small amount of roasted garlic in the background, finished with a small amount of salt and pepper.”

Hunter’s formulation starts with the above blend as a base, then adds variations of flavor top-notes to create a series of sensations, from fruity breakfast sausage, Mediterranean sausage, spicy roasted jalapeño sausage, and others. “Any number of flavors and additional ingredients can take you where you want to go without disturbing the original savoriness,” he explains.

As another example, Hunter points to a properly cooked cheeseburger. “Each ingredient—the fermented notes of a yeasty bun; caramelized amino acids in the beef; and strong enzymatic flavor notes in the cheese—contributes to an experience of umami and savoriness when properly executed,” he says.

Continuing with the burger example, Hunter singles out the other factors involved in building a proper savory complex. “The cuts of meat used give a basis for flavor development. Add to that the freshness, the fat content, and the grade of meats—and all can be critical to a superior experience Then, add a bit of salt and seasonings, plus a condiment or sauce, to layer different characteristics. All provide balance, in proportion to the delivery of a unique and satisfying experience.”

Originally appeared in the January, 2017 issue of Prepared Foods as Flavor Forward.

In a Pickle

The flavors of fermented products occupy a whole new category of products based on both new and old preparations. (See “Raw: Defining Clean Food Label Trends,” Prepared Foods, April, 2016.) Pickling vegetables, fermenting relishes or sauces, and curing proteins add tremendous complexities of salt, acid, bitter, sweet, hot, and spicy. Recipes come from all over the world and constitute some of the earliest preparations of certain ingredients, being an original form of preservation.

Product developers using these ingredients as layers, not just as topical condiments, can provide a means to deliver a special flavorful touch without straying too far into the unusual. For example, hot pepper sauces that are created by a multistep, several-year aging process in salt and vinegar elevate the resulting condiment from merely a hot pepper sauce to a savory, fermented sauce. Moreover, the resulting sauce can be used as a catalytic component in flavor-building. Many chefs use such sauces as a tool for enhancing extant flavors of a formulation, adding a layer of complexity to prepared sauces, dressings, or marinated products.

The Nose Knows

Developing and applying pleasant aromatic compounds to a product pre-sets expectations for a positive experience. Whether the smell of buttered popcorn, sizzling bacon, fresh-brewed coffee, or a nicely grilled steak, aromas emitted by the ingredients and cooking methods create the immediate, craveable experience before the product is even seen consumed. The psychological effects of certain aromas are indisputable. In food formulations, science supports that the sense of smell constitutes some 80% or better of the sensation of flavor. Savoriness creates specific “comfort” and hunger feelings from the first aroma.

Umami Meets Maillard

by Robert Danhi

The process of cooking creates umami by breaking proteins down into peptides and nucleotides. Dry-heat methods of cooking, such as stir-frying, grilling, or roasting, create layers of caramelized flavors. The intense heat of these methods sparks the Maillard reaction, a complex chemical reaction between free amino acids, sugars, and other carbohydrates and causes browning. It simply tastes good (think roasted meats, brown crusty bread, coffee beans, and even chocolate). Moist-heat cooking like curries, stews, and long-simmered broths also break down proteins to release similar savory flavors.

Glutamate Redux

by Robert Danhi

Glutamic acid is one of the 20 amino acids that make up protein. Our bodies actually produce about 50mg of glutamic acid daily. Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is the chemical salt of glutamic acid. It also is one of the amino acids that serve as neurotransmitters (which include glycine, aspartic acid, and gamma-amino butyric acid [GABA]). Glutamic acid and GABA are the most abundant neurotransmitters in the central nervous system, especially in the cerebral cortex. The cerebral cortex is largely responsible for such higher brain functions as thought and interpreting sensations.

Naturally occurring glutamate is found in both plant and animal proteins and in many varieties of foods. There are many familiar foods that are packed with glutamates, including red ripe tomatoes, broccoli, dry aged cheeses, cured meats, fermented foods, and sauces—like fish sauce and soy sauce. However, to affect flavor, the glutamate must not be bound to other amino acids: hence the term “free amino acid.” The amount of free amino acids increase as fruit ripens, meat ages, and through fermentation.

Fermented fish sauces, similar to the sauces used in modern-day Southeast Asia, were consumed in ancient Greece and Rome. The fermentation process creates a sauce that has a high free-glutamate content. Even ingredients used for natural flavorings, such as, malt extract, and whey protein, contain significant amounts of glutamate.