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August 11, 2008
Condiments enhance flavors and textures and permit instant customization of foods. Every cuisine has its typical condiments, developed through time to mask, enhance and ultimately make craveable foods.
Condiments can include both dry mixtures and sauce-like blends. Some dry mixtures blend herbs and dry seasonings like smoke flavors, salt, dried cheese or chiles, or other flavors. Some wet condiments add fluid components like vinegar and water to the seasonings and other ingredients. Aseptic, retort and hot-filled options are on the market today.
Although tomato ketchup, yellow mustard, basic mayonnaise and pickle relish might not instantly elicit excitement, recent variations on these all-American condiments have added new levels of pizzazz.
The versatility of a condiment is critical to foodservice operators. Variations on standard condiments can pair up nicely with fried appetizers, fresh seafood or on a sandwich as a spread, or even complement a center-of-the-plate entrée. Condiments can be used as a finishing sauce, glaze or marinade, too.
Ketchupperhaps the most-mainstream U.S. condimentprovides a good balance of flavors that mask some flavors while enhancing savory foods, such as burgers and fries. The salt, sugar and acid in ketchup are in perfect harmony to complement a wide range of meal components.
Ketchups format works well with innovative flavors. But accenting ketchup with a flavor like chipotle is almost commonplace now. Other exciting flavors of chiles, such as, ancho, poblano, habanero, Villa Argentileon hot pepper (Greece), Vallero hot pepper (Mexico) and serranonot to mention sweet pimento bell peppersadd diverse flavors, too. Smoky flavorsin the case of smoked chilesand a slight amount of heat make products craveable. Combinations of chiles can create bold flavors with manageable heat.
Chiles combined with chocolate are considered cutting-edge. One possible application of these flavors would be an out-of-the-box condiment that combines the sweet, bold, bitter and acidic flavors of dark chocolate with chiles from the various regions of the world.
When many people think about chiles, they think hot sauce. Such products, in many stylesin varying flavors and heat levelsare in abundance.
Chiles like habanero, jalapeño, serrano and cayenne are blended with various ingredients like vinegar (cider, white distilled, malt, red wine) or a citrus juice (lime, lemon, orange) to create hot sauces. The vinegars acidity brightens the flavors in the hot sauce.
The viscosity of hot sauces can vary from thicker, barbecue-sauce-style glazes to thin, vinegary types. Thicker hot sauces typically have more purées or solids, and possibly sugar content, to achieve such a consistency.
The combination of a thicker hot sauce with melted butter or margarine makes a great glaze for fried wings. A touch of honey can also be added to diversify the sauces flavor and consistency.
Mayonnaise is another versatile condiment. The color and flavor is easy to enhance with the addition of various pestos, chiles, pastes or spices like paprika (smoked, Hungarian, Spanish or Mexican). Mayonnaise melds well with wasabi and variations of horseradish. Adding relish or sofrito (a Latin American flavoring agent, often with onions, garlic, tomatoes and chiles cooked in oil) to mayo adds a new dimension, creating a condiment suited to use as a dipping sauce or as a sandwich spread. The punch of heat and bold flavor in such flavored mayos is certainly on trend.
Mustards are bold by nature, but a bold, complementary ingredient can boost the flavor. Honey mustard, with the sweetness of the honey rounding out the sharp mustard flavor, is a perfect base to start with when adding herbs. Add fresh herbs like basil, thyme, rosemary and marjoram for a tasty, innovative mustard with fresh cues. Adding agave nectar to Dijon-type mustard adds some sweetness and a savory note, and provides a trendy alternative to honey mustard.
Mustards can be added to a plain mayonnaise, vinaigrette or barbecue sauce, adding a positive sour note with a hint of spice. Including bourbon, tequila or rum can add a spark of flavor and a unique touch. Mustard can even help emulsify a condiment made with canola, olive or other oils.
Standard pickle relishes have been a mainstay condiment for years. This category of condiments can also include salsas and chutneys, as well as muffuletta olive spreads, ranging from mild to spicy.
Of all the worlds culinary cultures, the Asian kitchen is certainly well known for its selection of condiments. While varieties vary widely from country to country, Asia has some mainstays. For example, soy sauce regularly sits on Japanese and Chinese tables to boost the flavor of many dishes, adding an umami sensation and promoting savory notes. In Chinaparticularly the Sichuan Provincehot and spicy chile-infused oils add addictive flavor to foods. And Southeast Asian fish sauce contributes a notable, fermented accent to dipping sauces and other applications.
Asian sauces have multiple applications, notes Martin Yan, a certified master chef, author and host of the television series, Yan Can Cook. He says the top six Asian saucesSriracha sauce (a sweet-hot Thai sauce), hoisin, sweet and sour, plum, soy sauce and black vinegaract as base components and can stand alone, too. These sauces are the base for hundreds of combinations, he says.
Yan suggests adding Sriracha to mayonnaise to get a garlicky sauce with some red color and a hint of heat, to boot. Sriracha is also traditionally added to Vietnamese pho soup. Hoisin, a versatile savory and sweet sauce, works in dipping sauces. In addition to the acidity typical to vinegars, black vinegar adds a more-assertive flavor. Asian base sauces are perfect as building blocks when pursuing craveable condiments.
The most-common Asian condiment is undoubtedly soy sauce, which comes in many different varieties based on color, aging times and ratio of ingredients used during brewingall of which affect the final flavor. Longer fermentation times, as seen in dark soy sauces, create more-complex flavors. Darker soy sauces are also typically less salty.
The fermentation process instrumental to the manufacture of soy sauce converts sugar to alcohol and breaks down the soybeans protein to develop its flavor. Carefully managing the use of yeast or mold creates the desired flavor, color and texture of soy sauce.
Indonesian kecap manis is a sweeter, thicker soy sauce made with palm sugar thought to be the root of Americas favorite condiment, ketchup. The term kecap is generally used for any number of fermented sauces.
Fermentation also yields pickled foods like kimchi, an often-spicy Korean mixture of fermented vegetables and spicesoften including dried, ground chilesserved as a side dish but typically treated like a condiment, with diners adding it to stir-fries, rice, noodles and other foods to taste.
Chutney is southern Asias answer to Latin American salsa and European and American relishes. Indian chutneys combine sweet and spicy ingredients like bold seasonings (fenugreek, coriander and cumin), fresh vegetables (including chiles) and fruit. Chutneys are cookedand for retail markets, often have added vinegar to lower pHand range from mild to very hot. Popular chutney types include mango, coconut and tamarind, but any number of novel combinations of fruit, chiles and seasonings can yield products of interest.
Japans miso was originally a way to preserve soybeans for future use; now it is a key ingredient in a number of different condiments, including misozuke (pickled daikon radishes or cucumbers), dipping sauces, spreads and dressings.
Vietnam provides much inspiration in the use of condiments. Pho is a traditional entrée soup served as a bowl of rice noodles in clear beef broth with thin slices of beef (lean flank, fatty flank or brisket). Then the diner customizes the dish with the addition of any number of garnishes and condiments, often including Thai basil, scallions, lime, cilantro, bean sprouts, sliced chiles and hoisin and Sriracha sauces.
Another region producing many diverse and currently popular condiments is Latin Americafrom Mexico through Central and South America and the Caribbean.
Salsa is usually first on many peoples list as a typical Latin America condiment, and it tops the list in American households, as well. Versions can range anywhere from the tomato-sauce-based, thick salsas commonly found at many restaurants and supermarkets to delicious, well balanced salsa verde made with tomatillos and serrano chile. Not only does each Latin American region have its own versions and methods for making salsa, but the people who live there still make their own, leading to an amazing number of variations. Mango salsa, which also includes tomatoes, cilantro, lime juice and cumin, complements fish, chicken, pork or even vegetarian dishes with its bold, zesty flavors.
Mexico provides another group of condiments used for tacos that require no cooking: cilantro, onion and lime wedges. Almost all taquerías serve tacos made fresh and topped with chopped cilantro, diced onion (rinsed) and a squeeze of fresh lime juice to help balance the commonly used fatty cuts of meata combination that could make a nice relish-type condiment. Rinsing the onions takes away some of their sharp flavor, but extenuates the crunchy texture.
The Caribbean islands are home to one of the most-famous of all condiments, a traditional seasoning called jerk. Jerk can refer to the method in which the meat is rubbed with seasoning and grilled over an open fire. However, it is also the flavor from the jerk seasoning. A mix of allspice, pepper, Scotch bonnet pepper, thyme, salt and sometimes cinnamon can be used not only as a traditional seasoning for protein before grilling, but also sprinkled over sautéed fish or added to a salad vinaigrette to contribute a Caribbean flavor to almost anything.
In Argentina we find one of the fastest-growing condiments in terms of popularity, chimichurri saucea mixture of herbs like parsley and oregano, garlic, vinegar, and oil that is used in different forms. It can function as a meat marinade but is most commonly used as a condiment to top grilled meats, poultry and vegetables, and chorizo sandwiches. Adding garlic, oil and herbs to grilled meats produces a heightened umami flavor combination.
It is critical to pay attention to flavor from concept through commercialization to ensure quality, consistent flavors and desirable outcome. Balance (bitter, umami, nutrition, fat), acidity, sweetness, intended flavor and texture, color, and saltiness should factor into the design process and throughout manufacturing. One can argue that, of these, the three most important components affecting flavor are salt, acidity and sweetness.
Umami is closely associated with monosodium glutamate and nucleotides. The taste of deliciousness can be expanded to include other ingredients that add a savory likeness and contain high concentrations of protein and enhancement: Yeast extract, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, soy sauce, mushroom extract, parmesan cheese, whey and fermented fish sauces all enhance the flavors of a condiment. The correct use level is importantyou do not want any one ingredient to be polarizing.
Certain flavor systems or tricks of the trade, such as layering different types of flavorslike combinations of distinct top notes, Maillard reaction flavors and compound flavorsare used in flavor houses to maximize flavor impact. A chef may use the same type of process. The scientific approach is based on analysis of flavors and their molecular structure, while the approach of a creative chef is based on flavor and the effects on a particular application. Both disciplines seek the same end resultadding different types of flavors to foods for maximum impact:
Top notesa mixture of chemicals focused on the aroma of the product you are trying to reproduce;
Reaction or process flavorsbased on the Maillard reaction, flavors formed by cooking proteins with carbohydrates;
Compounded flavorsthe art of building flavors complemented by flavor chemist knowledge.
A condiment can make or break a dish. And innovative spins on traditional, accepted condimentsas well as interpretations of ethnic versionscan create new levels of interest, perhaps creating a new taste sensation. After all, it is all about flavor.
Charlie Baggs is executive chef and president, and Newman Miller is corporate chef, of Charlie Baggs, Inc., Chicago, a foodservice consulting company, and both are members of the Research Chefs Association. For more information on Charlie Baggs, Inc., visit the company website at charliebaggsinc.com or call the Innovation Center at 773/880-9108.
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