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Creative Condiments and Sauces

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By Rachel Zemser, CCS, Contributing Editor

It used to be an easy choice—you could buy your tomato sauce smooth or chunky and that was about it. But those simple saucy selection days are over, and now the dizzying number of sauces are not only in the pasta aisle, but in the ethnic section of the supermarket, as well. With every sauce from Chinese barbecue to tamarind paste, a consumer can now easily and conveniently recreate almost any dish—no matter its country of origin—via a ready-to-pour, heat and eat sauce or condiment. 

Sauce versus condiment

The words "sauce" and "condiment" are often used interchangeably to describe a flavorful liquid or paste-type ingredient that is added to vegetables or protein to make it more flavorful and/or more unique, but there are characteristics that differentiate the two. A condiment is typically used to describe a thick, intensely flavored sauce or paste that can be used to accent a dish or as a dipping sauce. A  sauce is usually thinner and more mild-tasting,- and is a major part of the dish itself. For example, ketchup is a condiment; tomato sauce is a sauce. From a technical formulation standpoint, a condiment typically has higher salt, higher sugar and an overall lower water activity. Because of this, condiments have a much longer shelf life and can be processed at lower temperatures, or even cold-filled if the pH is low enough and preservatives are added. Luckily, the very barriers that inhibit microorganisms also give these products unique flavor and texture. Highly concentrated salts, sugars and spices found in condiments play a dual role of both flavor and function. On the other hand, simmer sauces and marinara typically contain more water  and are not quite as intensely seasoned. The higher amount of water and resulting thinner product make sauces more susceptible to bacteria growth; thus, they must be processed via high-heat pasteurization or retort.

Classic sauces

The classic and most common sauces on the market, the benchmarked ones with the most variation, are barbecue, marinara and salsa. Go to any supermarket aisle and count the variety of flavors and quality available. There are high-end sauces in the $5 to $13 dollar range, and economy varieties that cost between $1 and $3 per jar. Consumers often wrongfully assume these products have a lot of preservatives and “unclean" labels, but actually, most of the mainstream tomato-based sauces on the market are thermally processed, at high-enough temperatures to keep unopened product shelf stable, eliminating the need for microbial inhibitors. Food scientists also continuously strive to clean up labels by using unmodified food starches, natural flavors and sweeteners like sugar, honey and agave versus the less-consumer-friendly high-fructose corn syrup.  Even if calories and carbohydrates stay the same, a sauce manufacturer can still highlight the “made with natural ingredients" portion of their label. The latest Paleo diet trend calls for even lower sugar, minimal carbs and clean vegetable or protein ingredients. This trend will probably lead to more of the classics with less of any type of sweetener—even the natural options.

Ethnic sauces

As consumers become more educated about ethnic foods, they are demanding more variety in the sauce aisle. Both the sauce aisle and the ethnic sections of the supermarket are becoming larger as chutneys, curry, and hoisin all fight for shelf space with moles, chimichurris and Chinese barbecue sauces. These ethnic items used to be hard-to-find imports, but now U.S. co-packers are making their own lines of upscale ethnic sauces that have cleaner labels and modern artwork designed to entice even the most unadventurous consumer to try new flavors. Ingredient companies have responded to manufacturers' need for ethnic and flavorful ingredients. “We have a line of all-natural herb and oil blends that can be infused into any sauce, condiment or marinade. We also do customized herbal blends per the manufacturer's special ethnic requests," says Scott Adair, executive chef, Supherb Farms, Turlock, CA. The company offers a range of ethnic flavors, including Jamaican jerk, Latin sofrito, ancho lime, Moroccan harissa, and Thai red and green curry. "These ethnic sauces may hail from other places, but the food safety rules are the same, and the right processing conditions must be used to create shelf-stable product," he says. "Their processing condition depends on the ingredients, the water activity, the viscosity and whether it is going to be a shelf-stable or refrigerated product.

Processing options

Sauce or sauce “components" can be produced in several ways. The most flavorful way is to use minimal thermal processing and market it either as a short-shelf-life refrigerated item or as a frozen “hockey puck" in a meal kit (the sauce puck melts when the product mixture is heated in the microwave or on the stovetop). These limited-shelf-life methods produce the best-tasting sauces, but they are also the most expensive. Shelf-stable jarred sauces and condiments are thermally processed to sterility and are the least expensive way to produce sauces with optimal quality and nearly eternal shelf life. Unfortunately, this method utilizes high-heat thermal processing, which can affect the finished product quality.

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