Sauces, condiments, and dressings—created centuries ago to disguise not-so-fresh foods—are now a global multibillion dollar industry. No longer afterthoughts, they’re a recipe’s passport to distinction. These days, we see sauces donning grocery store shelves down many aisles, in forms ranging from powder to ready-to-eat.
We also see consumers demanding bolder flavors, faster routes to a home-cooked meal and healthy, wholesome, “clean” labels. Sauces, salsas, dips, and dressings fly off grocery store shelves as shoppers seek options to get dinner on the table with little effort and limited time.
Whether in a bottle in the refrigerator case, on the dressing shelf, or incorporated into a prepared meal, there is no denying the appeal of the sauce. Crafty culinologists know how to employ both pre-made and scratch-made sauces to deliver high-impact flavor and convenience for consumers.
With today’s focus on global events, customers are ever curious about the increasing variety of previously uncharted ethnic cuisines. These new cuisines are driving interest in new flavor profiles and ingredients. In the sauce category, this means sauces that provide “high impact,” like harissa, gochujang (the Korean hot sauce that’s being called the “new sriracha”), updated versions of the classic pesto, and reduction sauces are seeing an upswing in sales.
In addition to continued interest in world flavors, consumer curiosity in restaurant-driven culinary techniques is moving into new sauce development, with a revival of sous vide, pan- and fire-roasting, smoking and barbecuing, and braising in full swing. It’s no wonder these more advanced techniques are being employed in research kitchens. Such processes provide a depth of flavor and complexity that is hard to match.
The challenge with using these techniques in large-batch production is that, while consumers clamor for the unique, the bold, and the innovative, they also demand convenience. Those more advanced cooking techniques, appealing though they are, take time.
The good news is that this challenge has driven sauce and condiment innovation, with smaller (more flexible) companies re-imagining those pivotal elements of a dish. One trend-setter, Sharone Hakman, chef and founder of ChefHak Inc./Hak’s BBQ Sauces, is meeting the demand by branching into a line of cooking sauces that boast authentic flavor and a home-cooked experience in a fraction of the time and cost it used to take to make these traditional ethnic meals at home.
“When it comes to developing new flavors, we look at what is trending and ask ourselves, ‘What is unique and beautiful—what might a consumer want, but maybe not have time to make at home?’,” says Hakman. Hakman has noticed increasing consumer desire for unique dishes, like Thai green curry, authentically made with lemongrass, Thai basil, and galangal.
“As a consumer, they might not know how to make a green curry or might not want to shop for, or invest in, the ingredients,” explains Hakman. “But they can cook the chicken; so, we can provide them the authentic flavor they want and the convenience they need. They just add a pound of meat or vegetables to a pan with the pre-made simmering sauce, and dinner gets done.”
As with other foods today, sauce labels need to stay as “clean” as possible. In addition to the demand for great flavor and convenience, consumers want the product to be made from “natural” ingredients. Today’s shoppers are more label-savvy than ever, which means developers need to formulate without artificial ingredients or flavors.
“People want convenience,” agrees Hakman “but they don’t want processors to take any short-cuts. So, while we could use less expensive ingredients—for example dried herbs—we know our customers see value in fresh. We use fresh ingredients whenever we can.”
Nipping at the heels of the fresh and natural trends is the continued focus on health. For sauce developers, this means finding ways to cut calories, fat, and other ingredients perceived as not-so-healthy. But such products still must deliver exemplary flavor and ease of use.
Product makers are tackling this task in various ways. For example, several companies that historically dominated the bean dip category, such as Sabra Dipping Co. LLC, recently have thrown their hats into the salad dressing ring by introducing bean-based dressings. They specifically are touting these products as packing more nutritional value than their oil-laden counterparts.
At CuliNex LLC, a product development consultancy in Seattle, the bean trend is not so much about reducing oil or adding nutrition but about new flavors and helping clients expand their brands into new areas of the grocery store.
“[Our research has shown us that] focusing on the beans as a nutritional element or improvement is not as important to consumers as new and innovative flavors are. So, we took an innovative approach to flavor development [for our client] instead,” says Webb Girard, culinologist.
At Hak’s, the team takes a slightly different approach by focusing on the types of ingredients they use to set their products apart. Hakman decries dressings and other products he sees as misleading, positioning themselves as healthful due to being olive oil-based, and then “not really delivering the health benefits the customer expects.” He cites some dressings that will be predominantly soy or canola oil and have only a little olive oil added, yet feature olive oil prominently on the label.
“Before we launched our salad dressings, we studied the market,” says Hakman. “People seem to have lost confidence in bottled dressings. While salads are healthy and ‘on trend,’ many consumers will take the time to make a beautiful salad—and then dump [a high-calorie] Thousand Island dressing on it, and the healthy aspect is gone. Our take on a healthy dressing is an all olive oil-based dressing that provides great flavor.”
Bits and Pieces
When formulating sauces, dressings, and condiments, there are key overriding considerations a developer needs to keep in mind. Attributes such as texture, particulate size, visibility, and viscosity all play primary roles. Then there’s the target customer. For example, a pasta sauce created to appeal to affluent single adults might call for a complex, thick sauce with visible fresh herb particulate and plenty of chunks of vegetables.
On the other hand, a sauce for kids might be more successful if it is smooth, uniform, and particulate-free. While the base ingredients can be the same, a simple change in processing will modify the appeal of the finished product for its targeted consumer.
Component form also is a necessary watch-point. Dried herbs, for example, can create stronger flavors; in most cases, however, those herbs will dissipate during cooking and have little-to-no visual identity impact. Fresh or IQF herbs can provide the desired visual component, yet their flavors are delicate and can disappear during long cooking processes. There’s a need to balance flavor with visual impact and cost implications to find the right mix for a formulation.
Thickeners, meanwhile, can have a varying impact depending on processing method. Traditional, roux-based sauces can get by with old-style culinary thickeners, such as wheat flour or cornstarch. Sometimes, however, gums and other starches that can stand harsher temperatures, longer cook times, and low pH need to step in to do the heavy lifting. You can use these specially formulated starches and gums singularly or in combinations to achieve the desired consistency and keep up with the rigors of processing.
The lifespan of ingredients you use and their interaction also are important factors. If a formulation has a high percentage of dehydrated ingredients, there is the possibility the product will continue to thicken as it sits on the shelf. Time also impacts flavor: developing it, strengthening it, or dissipating it. A careful shelflife study will be needed to determine how flavors develop and change. Some ingredient amounts or formats might need to be adjusted to keep flavors pure through the life of the product.
Hakman finds that tasting and testing the product not only from the first to the last batch is important, but also should be conducted at different points through the product’s shelflife. This is critical, he stresses, to maintaining product consistency. “Flavors change over time. It’s the nature of using fresh ingredients. So, tasting at all stages of manufacturing, as well as throughout the life of the sauce is important.”
Agitation, heat, and cold are other key players to consider on the bench. Ingredient choice comes back into play as each of these processes is contemplated. Large-batch processing means keeping particulates suspended long enough so that, as equipment portions product, the pieces remain evenly distributed. While on the bench, a light whisking or quick pulse in a blender might be sufficient to keep particles suspended. Maintaining that same complete, even suspension during scale-up might not be as easy.
In some cases, light but constant agitation to keep items suspended throughout the process might be all that’s needed. In other cases, high-shear mixing, homogenization, or employing a hydrocolloid might be necessary.
The thermal process can mean success or failure for some of the more delicate sauces. Finding the right combination of heat and time to achieve the desired result could, for some items, mean a high temperature for a very short period of time. For other formulations, it could mean a lower temperature for a much longer time.
Cheese, when used as an ingredient in a tomato sauce, is a good example. If the cheese is heated to too high a temperature, it could be at risk for separation. Still, this might not be a problem, if there is only a small amount of cheese in the recipe. Consumers might not notice if separation occurs. However, if the proportion of cheese is relatively high, then the issue becomes much more apparent.
“Seeing particulates at the bottom of the jar and a layer of oil at the top of the jar can become a turn-off for consumers, and they might end up deciding not to buy the product based solely on how it looks,” notes Ann Contos, product development manager for Barilla America Inc. “To solve this issue while getting the right flavor impact, a combination of real cheese; flavoring products, such as a cheese powder; and natural dairy flavoring, combined with careful heat control, can be employed to deliver cheese flavor without sacrificing flavor, texture, and visual appeal.”
Achieving desired shelflife is always a concern for developers, so goals and techniques vary depending on the developer. Hak’s maintains the company’s “clean and natural” ingredient commitment though a program of rigorous testing. “Because of this commitment,” says Hakman, “pH, viscosity, color, and acidity are all still important, and so it is important to keep a close watch on each of those aspects. For us, it’s about not relying on additives to inflate shelflife.”
To adhere to Hak’s goal, the sauces, dressings and condiments’ testing program is vital for providing knowledge about how long the product will stay wholesome and remain looking—and tasting—great.
“We test and test, and the shelflife we achieve naturally is the declared shelflife of the product,” Hakman says proudly. “Currently, the shelflife of our barbecue sauces is two years—without additives. We think that is plenty.”
CuliNex, while also striving to keep labels clean, does recognize that sometimes a little help might be needed to hit a desired shelflife. “For some products, for example salad dressings, hitting pH for shelf stability is relatively easy,” says Girard. “This is because most salad dressings already are acidic. Other products need help in the way of added acid, such as a little bit of lactic or citric acid, to hit the desired pH level. It can be tricky, because added acid means you have to rebalance flavors and possibly employ maskers or flavor enhancers, like yeast extracts, to get the flavor you want.”
Hakman found strong demand for his sauces among foodservice and industrial processors as well. A sauce, after all, can make or break a prepared meal.
“Because our products are all-natural, they transition smoothly into prepared meals and food service. They also are easy to use in frozen applications. For the developer, this includes important questions about food waste and percent of budget, as food and labor cost can drive a decision to use a prepared sauce. If they find they’re overspending making sauces in-house, bringing in a pre-made sauce can save money and time, and reduce waste.”
Anne-marie Ramo is a Seattle-based research chef and food writer with more than 25 years of experience in flavor development; sauces, seasoning blends and marinades; home meal replacements; and formulation of meat products and further processed meat products. She was director of culinary development for Revolution Foods Inc., executive chef of Fork in the Road Foods LLC, and served as executive chef for Aidell’s Sausage Co. Ramo is a regular industry contributor and writer, and co-authored The Great Meat Cookbook (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, October 2012). You can read more of her work at www.preparedfoods.com or contact her at email@example.com.
Sauce on the Line
Processors of RTE products requiring sauces might want to consider a custom-developed product. This can give the benefits of making a sauce in-house, yet from a carefully and professionally crafted formula that fits all the needs and consistency required. “Having a professionally developed sauce as a part of your overall formula allows you ultimate control,” notes Hayley Bell, a culinologist at product development consultancy CuliNex LLC. “It’s possible adjust flavors to suit your consumer’s palate, but you can also dial in other attributes, like moisture. This way, when combining a sauce with, for example, pasta or beans, it’s possible to adjust moisture levels to ensure the pasta or beans stay firm and intact, yet also to ensure that the finished product remains completely sauce-like in texture.” Making a custom-developed sauce in-house also helps to reduce cost and boost flavor, according to Hannah Dressen, also a culinologist at CuliNex. She cites when, in developing a mushroom sauce, it’s possible to determine if it’s practical to use a lower-cost IQF or dried button mushroom for the visual appeal, and how to use an ingredient like porcini mushroom powder to develop a richer mushroom flavor.
Package innovation is not to be overlooked when it comes to developing successful sauces, condiments, and dressings. After all, one never gets a second chance to make a first impression. While it is traditional to think of sauces as suitable for glass receptacles, more manufacturers have been seeking packaging alternatives outside of glass to avoid labor, breakage, and food-safety issues. Consumers, too, are not always accepting of the bulk of glass; they are looking for portability and flexibility in their packaged sauces. Sharone Hakman, chef and founder of ChefHak Inc., found that, for the company’s salad dressing line, the traditional glass bottle “wasn’t going to cut it.” Instead, he sought a distinctly untraditional approach. “It all goes back to convenience,” he explains. “Consumers especially want convenience in salad dressing. Our research told us that a common consumer complaint is that they have a dozen flavors of dressing in large bottles in their refrigerator door that they end up throwing away. So, singles—six single packs in a package—take it and go, in BPA-free packaging was our answer.”
Going a step further than clean label, the fastest growing consumer concern is not only what is in a product, but its impact on the world. Consumers today are much more aware of their food sources and want to know the story behind whatever they buy. “This is where it becomes our job as a brand to try to become good storytellers,” says Ann Contos, product development manager for Barilla America Inc.
“We have to be able to inform our consumers not only about the ingredients we chose to put in the sauce, but the [greater] benefits the product provides, from sustainable sourcing to non-GMO.”
Contos further stresses that such stories must not only sound good, but must be true. “For Barilla, this means focusing on quality, fresh ingredients, and staying true to Italian culinary tradition. To meet this higher standard, Barilla takes sourcing to the next level, not just procuring the highest quality ingredients, such as tomatoes, but also working with growers to ensure they support sustainable farming practices and are working with non-GMO ingredients. Recipes also must fit within the healthy Mediterranean lifestyle.”
Spread the News Millennials, Gen Z Drive Food Market Resurgence of Healthy Oils and Fats
Healthy oils and fats are trending, and the US food industry might be butter—uh better—for it. For more than 30 years, there has been unrelenting advice from dietary guidelines to cut fat and saturated fat from the American diet. But such notions have soured overtime and mindsets are changing. In particular, Millennials and Generation Z consumers are the most inclined to view any type of fat not only as permissible, but as offering positive health benefits, according to “Food Formulation Trends: Oils and Fats,” a new report by market research firm Packaged Facts.
“This is the culinary revolution of the Instagram generation,” says David Sprinkle, research director, Packaged Facts. “These young adults are unencumbered by the low-fat crazes of the 1990s and 2000s, and do not have to overcome negative perceptions about fat in general. Instead, they are able to readily embrace and seek out specific plant-based and animal-based fats for their health benefits, including fat from avocados, olive oil, eggs, butter, and omega-3 rich fish such as salmon.”
Packaged Facts forecasts that during the next few years, the foods most successful with these younger consumers will be those that contain minimally processed fats and oils that are free of GMOs and may even be organic. The report found that millennial and younger consumers, in particular, seek to avoid overly processed foods and ingredients, potentially boosting the appeal of natural, unrefined oils.
When more description is included, it is likely to indicate naturalness and less processing, such as “raw,” “virgin,” “extra-virgin,” “unrefined,” “expeller-pressed,” and “cold-pressed” rather than “hydrogenated,” “refined,” “fractionated,” and “solvent extracted.” For example, when it comes to dairy products, the natural, full-fat versions of butter, milk, and cheese are more likely to be sought out because they are more natural and less processed.
“Butter is reemerging because it gives a stellar performance as a familiar ingredient that facilities clean and simple ingredient labels,” says Sprinkle.
In addition, Packaged Facts expects the popularity of plant-based specialty oils to benefit from increased availability of lesser known types of oil and wider, more mainstream, distribution of those already having established appeal. For all plant-based oils, continued interest in unrefined, cold or expeller-pressed oil is anticipated. These characteristics are important to Millennials when it comes to selecting fats and oils for pantry-stocking, use in home-prepared dishes, purchased prepared and processed foods, as well as restaurant meals.
Technomic has been tracking trending flavors for quite some time now, watching as they evolve from the introductory stage into a menu mainstay. As the company look beyond flavor, its analysts now wonder which ingredients are emerging on the innovation scale? Chicken and bacon are, by far, the most popular proteins on sandwiches, but what’s next?
“The Technomic Lifecycle is pushing the envelope by showing us real-time ingredient innovation,” says Bernadette Noone, vice president at Technomic. “We’ve noticed with the growth of consumers’ desires to remain healthy, that tofu is the leading cutting-edge protein used in sandwiches. Other ingredients like Muenster cheese, truffle aioli and English muffins were also identified as innovators in the sandwich category.”
On the other hand, Technomic often finds that ingredients can be mainstream in some meal categories, while being unique and competitive in others. A perfect example would be “chipotle mayo.” When paired with chicken sandwiches, it is often found in the mainstream part of the lifecycle, while adding it to steak sandwiches places it on the introductory and growth scale.
The Technomic Lifecycle tracks flavor and ingredient penetration levels across concept categories with varying levels of innovation, from chef-driven restaurants to national chains. It dynamically projects trends for thousands of menu categories, and helps operators find the right ingredient type before they go mainstream.
Technomic’s MenuMonitor analyzes more than 7,000 commercial and noncommercial menus tracked quarterly to identify menu opportunities, including seasonal promotions, new menus and LTOs. For more than five years, Technomic’s Lifecycle has tracked flavors through their stages of adoption, and Lifecycle now boasts more than 30 ingredient types to analyze. As a dynamic part of MenuMonitor, it can pull predictive insights on a limitless range of dishes in seconds.
To learn more about Technomic’s online services, including MenuMonitor, please visit Technomic.com.
What’s Hot? Sauces, dressings fuel top menu flavor trends
Each year, the National Restaurant Association surveys nearly 1,300 professional chefs—members of the American Culinary Federation (ACF)—to explore food and beverage trends at restaurants in the coming year. The annual “What’s Hot” list provides a quick look at food, beverage and culinary themes on restaurant menus in 2017.
According to the survey, menu trends that will be heating up in 2017 include poke, house-made charcuterie, street food, food halls and ramen. Trends that are cooling down include quinoa, black rice, and vegetarian and vegan cuisines.
Among the top 25 food trends were five references related to sauces, dressings and marinades and spices. Those were street food-inspired dishes (e.g. tempura, kabobs, dumplings, pupusas; No. #2 leading trend), house-made condiments (No. #7 trend), authentic ethnic cuisine (No. #8 trend), African flavors (No #10 trend), and ethnic spices (e.g. harissa, curry, peri peri, ras el hanout, shichimi; No. 11 trend). Coming in then at No. 22 was ethnic condiments (e.g. sriracha, sambal, chimichurri, gochujang, zhug).
“Menu trends today are beginning to shift from ingredient-based items to concept-based ideas, mirroring how consumers tend to adapt their activities to their overall lifestyle philosophies, such as environmental sustainability and nutrition,” said Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of research for the National Restaurant Association. “Also among the top trends for 2017, we’re seeing several examples of house-made food items and various global flavors, indicating that chefs and restaurateurs are further experimenting with from-scratch preparation and a broad base of flavors.”
“Chefs are on an endless quest to redefine how consumers eat,” added ACF National President Thomas Macrina, CEC, CCA, AAC. “By masterfully transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary, culinary professionals are at the forefront of changing the culinary landscape.”