Whether a hot condiment such as Tabasco, sriracha, or gochujang gets folded into the coating for hot and “sexy” chips or into a newly crafted fiery dip, or if the goal is a dressing, a splash, or a pour of flavorful expression, condiments are trending big.
A quick examination of the diversity in today’s condiments reveals that the proverbial gloves are off and anything goes. Still, a close look at the base components involved helps the developer recognize how unpretentious even the fanciest condiments really are. Despite lengthy ingredient lists for some of them, most are made from one or more of only a few base elements: a featured and a supportive flavor, a thickener and/or a liquid, seasoning, and mouthfeel enhancers, all built on a base platform.
The featured flavor can be the base itself — tomato, mustard, or soy sauce, for example — or can come from a source supported by the base, such as an herb or spice (or their extracts); a fruit or vegetable (including chili peppers); chocolate or vanilla; or a reduction. These can be incorporated into a base that plays a supportive role, such as a flavorful liquid like stock, a vinegar, dairy, or dairy analogs.
More solid condiments, such as pickled vegetables, fruits, or salsas are created by pounding, chopping, or puréeing vegetables and/or fruits with spices and other aromatics. The cuisines of East Asia rely on condiments, sometimes fermented, such as soy sauce, fish sauce, chili pastes, and so on to create their signature flavors. In some cases, a boiled, steamed, or stir-fried item is simply dipped in a mix of these condiments.
Condiments bring so much to the table that they deserve to be more than just an afterthought. That applies not just to how they are made, but also in terms of the role they play in the overall composition of the dish. And as important as is the flavor resulting from the added components is the condiment’s carrier, its base.
One of the best-known carriers for condiments is mayonnaise or its eggless counterparts. Its thick consistency allows for the addition of good amounts of liquid flavorings without compromising viscosity. However, one of its assets, its richness, can turn into a liability. The vibrant green of a fresh herb pesto or the deep red of roasted pepper purees will turn into a muted pastel color once combined with dairy or mayo.
The natural viscosity of many dairy products or their analogs makes for a great “canvas.” For example, a pesto-flavored sour cream provides a good balance for a relatively plain and starchy baked potato. Replacing some or all the sour cream with Greek yogurt or quark will provide a comparable mouthfeel and the same flavor at a fraction of the calories.
Supportive flavors are part of most condiments, and also serve to provide balance. In the case of aromatics, they are added to augment but not overpower the featured theme. These can include bay leaves, ground pepper, and other herbs. A tomatillo salsa, for example, will often contain garlic, chili peppers, and cilantro to create a multichromatic flavor experience. Many East Asian dishes contain the trinity of ginger, garlic, and scallions as the base support flavor.
Sometimes, supportive flavors are not actual ingredients but cooking methods. Roasting, charring, or grilling some or all ingredients has a significant impact, yet the main premise of the condiment is still evident.
Seasonings are the final touch to a condiment. A very rich condiment will benefit from the brightening effects of an acid, and bitterness can be muffled with the addition of some salt and/or sugar. Ingredients like salt – especially the impressive variety of specialty salts, such as infused or smoked salts – citrus juice, or sweeteners can be added to amplify the flavors and bring balance.
POUR IT ON THICK
For a good adhesion and a lasting flavor perception, many condiments are thickened. The degree of viscosity depends on the condiment itself. A very pungent or spicy condiment is commonly left a little thinner or not thickened at all.
Restricting the fluid movement can be accomplished in numerous ways. Salsa Romesco from Catalonia or a Malaysian peanut sauce illustrates the thickening power of pounded, ground, or puréed nuts, for example. The inclusion of a fat source in a condiment provides a rich and creamy mouthfeel as well as some thickening.
Many cuisines employ the simple puréeing of ingredients to thicken condiments. San Antonio chef, restaurateur, and retailer Ming Qian produces her ginger dressing by puréeing fresh ginger in a high-powered commercial blender with vinegar, chilies, sesame oil, and other aromatics. This technique provides for not only a strong flavor but the perfect coating quality.
A drawback of many purée-based condiments is seepage or separation of the solid from the liquid phase. A vigorous shake of the container will quickly reincorporate all ingredients. Due to an inherent instability, most emulsified condiments include stabilizers in some form. Stabilizing a product can be achieved by something as simple as including mustard in a vinaigrette, for example. However, for a longer lasting effect, gums or modified starches can be included in the formulation.
BACK IN BLACK
Another Southeast Asian trend in flavors comes from Thailand and Vietnam: fermented fish sauce. King Phojanakong, Chief Taste Officer and chef for Small Axe Peppers, LLC hot sauces, notes that fermented fish sauce is finally finding favor with the American palate. Not necessarily used as a condiment itself, but as a component of them, fish sauce has a flavor-enhancing, umami capacity that is its most coveted characteristic. “Fish sauce is one of the oldest condiments,” Phojanakong says. “It dates back at least to Roman times, with their version known as garum.”
Soy sauces, another Southeast Asian staple, are making more inroads into cuisines beyond their region of origin. Soy sauces can be a powerful base for a number of condiments or act as added sources of body and depth. With a range of colors from gold to black available, they can be applied to a greater range of formulations without negatively impacting the final color.
Similar to Asian fish sauce via their inclusion of anchovy as a main ingredient, Worcestershire sauces are moving back into the public consciousness with expanded flavors and offerings, such as bourbon barrel-aged, chili pepper-infused, tamarind or carob-sweetened, and other upscale treatments.
“Now is an exciting time to be in the food industry, when in order to drive a customer towards a new product, price is not the main consideration,” notes Jeffrey Cousminer, owner and consulting culinologist of Food Alchemy Consulting. “More than ever, consumers are willing to pay a premium for condiments that offer potent points of difference.” Cousminer predicts strong growth for certified organic, locally or sustainably sourced ingredients, and continued extension of trends such as gluten-free, vegan, paleo, or keto into condiments. Examples include soy sauce analogs made from coconut amino acids, Thai satay sauce made from sunflower butter instead of peanut, egg-free mayonnaise using aquafaba, and even nacho cheese sauce substitutes made from cashews and nutritional yeast.
Jessica Zutz-Hilbert, co-founder of Red Duck Foods, Inc., echoes Cousminer, pointing to the difficulties of 2020 that led to an enormous increase in home-prepared meals. But she also notes that the rise in home cooking provides an opportunity for condiments to lend comfort and excitement to everyday foods. Red Duck Foods looks back at nostalgic flavors as it looks forward to current and coming trends in the development of new products.
“Most of us have food memories where we would use condiments to make our favorites even better, or even to make foods we didn’t like so much more enjoyable,” Zutz-Hilbert says. “No matter which condiment is used, or how we apply it, the flavors can help us relive the fun of our past without sacrificing the attributes we find important in 2021.” She stresses, however, that products with a transparent supply chain will be strong players. “More consumers appreciate the stories behind the products they bring into their homes.”
Terry Bleecker, senior vice president of Fresh From Texas, LLC, strongly believes there always is a place for new condiments on the market. Based on his two decades of experience in the continuous development and sale of successful new condiments, he points to the category as enjoying a strong business environment and encourages condiment developers to be as creative as possible.
“The companies that struggle are those copying tired brands that have not been refreshed in years and betting on the assumption that these brands will continue to sell because they always have,” Bleecker says. “Today’s consumers expect new flavors, better ingredients, and more exciting condiment applications.”
Bleecker concludes that the new generation of consumers continues to explore new flavors, especially those related to international cuisine. In 2000, most Americans could not tell the difference between Thai and Vietnamese cuisine. In 2021, consumers are welcoming and expecting new condiments inspired by cuisines from around the world and even specific regions of the countries these cuisines originate from.
One of the things that makes such regional cuisines unique is the condiments that each applies to its traditional dishes. Further, as more consumers embrace plant-forward or meatless diets, the application of condiments becomes even more important to impart flavor and uniqueness into their meals. Condiments will continue to evolve as dietary desires expand. Providing incredible flavors, understanding our consumers’ need for the next new thing, and offering condiments that bring dramatic appeal to the meal solution process will ensure continued success in a crowded condiment market.
Hinnerk von Bargen, CHE, is the author of “Street Foods” (Wiley, 2015). He holds a Master Chef certificate from the Hotel School in Hamburg and has been an associate professor at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), San Antonio, since 2009. Previously, he taught at the CIA's main campus in Hyde Park, NY, for 10 years. Additionally, von Bargen works with leading food companies to create new products. He has been featured in The New York Times, Women’s Health, Men’s Health, and other periodicals, as well as in “Culinary Boot Camp” (John Wiley & Sons, 2006). He can be reached at Hinnerk.VonBargen@culinary.edu.
Not all condiments are liquid or viscous. In the Sichuan region of China, some foods are accompanied by a mix of equal parts coarse salt and finely crushed Sichuan peppercorns for sprinkling or dipping. The salty kick is strong, but counterbalances the gradual numbness of the palate from the Sichuan pepper. Other regions in China accompany many meals with salt-cured fruits or vegetables for a salty, crunchy bite.
Smoked and infused salts applied as “finishing” flavors can bring strong herbal notes or a kick of umami to a product. This can be especially welcome when working with more subtle flavors, such as those in vegetarian dishes.
Quite a few accompaniments function as a condiment. These include relishes, chutneys, compotes, foams, flavored oils, and more. Today’s relishes are embellished with a myriad of flavors and ingredients, and are found accompanying everything from barbecue, roasts, and steaks to seafood or fish and even grilled vegetables. Chutneys have expanded to embrace with spice and pungency any and all fruits and vegetables, as have contemporary compotes.
The current trending of the Korean banchan culinary tradition is popularizing such “solid” condiments. These very small plates with different types of kimchi, cold salads, dried fishes, marinated tofu strips, pickles, slaws, and so on, are more than side dishes, or amuse-bouche or appetizers. When they are consumed as intended, alongside the meal, these accompaniments function as condiments, enhancing the main courses by providing additional flavor, texture, and mouthfeel.
King Phojanakong, Chief Taste Officer and chef of Small Axe Peppers, LLC hot sauces, notes that spicy condiments will continue to grow in popularity and play an important role in American cuisine. This is not only due to chili peppers’ ability to add an interesting kick to everything, but also because of the growing awareness of capsaicin’s health benefits. Recognizing that the enormous consumer interest in chili peppers extends to the type and source of each kind — the Louisiana tabasco pepper, the Peruvian aji, or the dreaded Reaper from Carolina, Small Axe Peppers focuses on a hyperlocal appeal, or the story behind the product. All of Phojanakong’s condiments are formulated to reflect and feature the region or even city in which the peppers were grown.