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Flavors of the DayFlavors of the Day

November 1, 2004

16 Min Read
Flavors of the Day

Industry trend watchers love floating theories as to why Americans spend 46% of their dining dollars on meals and snacks prepared outside the home. Some credit our palates' newfound adventuresome streak that sends us in search of "exotic" dishes. Others, while quick to praise today's "sophisticated" diner, lament the obsolescence of the family supper table. And don't forget the time crunch that's squeezing everyone out of kitchens and into restaurants.

Forgotten in the flurry of analysis is a fundamental factor that elevates dining above mere sustenance: flavor. The notion of eating to live has flipped on its head; today, Americans live to eat. A restaurant meal has to sate our stomachs and stimulate our senses -- and taste really, really good.

Foodservice factors

Foodservice relies on skilled professionals. But the same shortage of time and skill that drives consumers to outsource dinner has put the screws to foodservice as well. Thus, operators turn to suppliers to fill the gaps with products that free up hands in the kitchen. Foodservice operators want to "take the labor out, take the mistakes in weighing out and take a lot of the inconsistencies out," says Reid Wilkerson, president, McClancy Seasoning Co., Fort Mill, SC. "Because if you're running a large, multiunit operation, you need to reassure customers walking into your restaurant that they can expect to find the same things here that they did in another unit 2,000 miles away."

Consistency shouldn't mean complacency. Today's diners know balsamic from brie, and the onus settles on foodservice manufacturers to recognize the flavors riding the crest of the trend wave. Gone are the days when a product designer could decide "Cajun" or "pesto." Now, people speak less of flavors themselves than of the concepts that dictate where the flavor currents lead.

To your health?

Conflicting concerns can send dining currents in very different directions. Take health: Although not a flavor trend, consumer reaction to headlines about obesity and diabetes have compelled foodservice operators to do everything from whittling down portions to banning cream and carbs. As a result, says Amanda L. Hassner, chef de cuisine, Kraft Food Ingredients Corp., Memphis, TN, suppliers have compensated by offering bolder flavor profiles that distract diners from the smaller size of their favorite enchilada platter.

What's more, she adds, flavor houses have honed their skill at identifying and replicating flavor elements that go missing when we strip the skin off a chicken breast or skim the fat from a sauce. Milkfat, chicken fat and other "rich" flavors might not restore texture to slimmer food, but in concert with starches, gums and other texture boosters, they create the perception of body and weight without adding much weight to the body.

Still, "people are not skimping when it comes to indulgence," says Debbie Jarrettbangs, savory category marketing manager, International Flavors & Fragrances Inc. (IFF), South Brunswick, NJ. "When it comes to dessert in particular, the health trend goes out the window. People would rather give up something fried during the main course or appetizer in order to save room to indulge in a decadent dessert."

Consumers' enduring faith in what Jarrettbangs calls the "holy trinity" of dessert flavors -- chocolate, caramel and coffee -- stands as testimony. In fact, product designers are taking the heavenly trio to even higher levels -- where chocolate is no longer just chocolate, and one coffee isn't the same as the next. "You're seeing more delineation of different types of coffee flavors in desserts, and different types of caramel, from dulce de leche to a traditional caramel," she points out. "You're even seeing three different flavors of chocolate in the same dessert."

That's not to close the pearly gates on fruit, whose presence might help justify after-dinner indulgence. "Fruit is often added either as the garnish to a dessert, or is important as a flavor component itself," says Jarrettbangs, adding that the strategy of incorporating fruit flavors into sumptuous desserts is catching on. "I've never seen so many fruits paired with coffee and caramel as I see now, and although you might not imagine the flavors would work, the combinations are wonderful," she adds.

Layers of flavor

Kevin McDermott, IFF executive chef, mentions another unexpected fruity combination -- a match between the sweet tang of apple and the burst of horseradish -- that transforms the flavor profile for a fillet of sea bass. While fruit, spice and seafood might seem unlikely, McDermott and Jarrettbangs vouch for its sweet/savory harmony -- and for the ascendancy of the sweet/savory trend. Restaurants feel comfortable serving items like sautéed chicken with a pear-cinnamon reduction, or scallops in a vanilla cream punctuated with black pepper, and consumers feel comfortable eating them. Red meats and heavier proteins can swamp such delicate pairings, but for lighter meats and seafood, McDermott says, "acidic and fruit notes, as well as fruitwoods and smokes, really fit."

The sweet/savory approach allows discrete layers of complementary flavors to emerge over the course of the meal, generating sensory complexity. Another flavor trend, which Jarrettbangs calls "spicy-plus," achieves the same end by adding flavor layers to amplify chile's heat. "The cash register is really ringing with hot spices right now," says Wilkerson. Current chile consumption stands at 125% 1970s levels -- and spicy-plus concepts promise to keep those bells jingling.

Sometimes the layers reinforce chile's pungency, as when you match chile with wasabi, or with intense ginger notes. Added herb-infused vinegars, tropical fruits or wine strikes more of an intriguing balance among heat, acidity and calmer notes. Marie Callender's, Aliso Viejo, CA, lays down spicy-plus strata on sticky ginger-chicken wings with sweet/spicy chipotle-ginger glaze, while El Torito Grill, Long Beach, CA, adds a layer of lime to its jalapeño-lime vinaigrette for fire-roasted vegetables with goat cheese. And at Panera Bread, St. Louis, the braised pork and caramelized onions in a carnitas panini get spicy-citrus layers from a lime-inflected ancho-chile sauce.

Of course, the weight of too many layers can crush the whole profile. Wilkerson calls it the "dartboard" method of menu planning: Just toss a handful of flavors onto the plate and see how many hit the target. Cram any more than three descriptors onto a dish, he believes, and you're treading into dangerous ground.

"There is definitely a line that can be crossed," adds Hassner. "On one side is creativity and innovation, and on the other side, it's just plain weird."

The more we practice the art of flavor-layering, the better we become. "We went through a period about 5 or 10 years ago where the rage was fusion, and the trend was to combine very disparate flavors just for the sake of being different," says Jarrettbangs. "And now we have moved away from that because chefs are smarter about layering complementary flavors."

Keeping a sauce or marinade's layers in close check keeps its complexity from suppressing menu flexibility. "You want to make sure that a sauce can cover all your lunch items, all your dinner items and even some of your breakfast items. So, one easy application that can blend well with a lot of dishes will give you the best results," adds McDermott.

The world is your menu

For new flavor layers, foreign foodways offer fresh choices, and chefs are as captivated by ethnic cuisines as the rest of us. However, our focus has widened. Once upon a time, when we spoke of ethnic cuisines, "we had it narrowed down to Chinese, Mexican and Italian," Jarrettbangs says. "Now the trends are broadening into bigger themes -- pan-Asian, nuevo Latino and Mediterranean." She credits tourism for giving consumers "more exposure to regional flavors across the globe instead of just single-country flavors." As kung pao shrimp and General Tso's chicken go down smoothly, the curiosity shifts to Korean bulgogi, or to the difference between a Southern Thai curry and a Bengali one.

The nation's flavor focus can tighten as well as broaden, and as it pulls in closer on "generic" Chinese, Mexican and Italian, diners discover that only in some regions of Mexico do fiery chiles take center-stage, and that a Piemontese menu will more likely feature potatoes baked in butter and bacon than a plate of pasta with tomatoes and olive oil.

Perhaps our most surprising regional culinary discovery lies in our backyards. According to Jarrettbangs, consumers are revisiting specialties from America's regional cuisines, from Kansas City barbecue and Tillamook Cheddar to Cincinnati-style chili and Vermont maple syrup. While she notes that the most exciting developments in this trend come mainly out of regional white-tablecloth restaurants, "by the time these specialties make their way across the country, the next wave would be incorporating them into chain-restaurant menus." And that process, she adds, "isn't taking as long as it used to."

Restaurateurs would do well to yolk the nostalgia for American regional foods to our acceptance of emerging ethnic cuisines. "You can't move too far away from things that are familiar," says Wilkerson. Americans crave adventure, but their mealtime tolerance for it has limits. Couching adventure in the context of the recognizable can extend those limits. We're more likely to experiment with pumpkinseed mole when it's served beside Maryland crab cakes, or atop a sautéed chicken breast.

Not your mother's chicken

As an unofficial menu requirement in almost every restaurant in America, a boneless, skinless chicken breast offers foodservice operators a vehicle for test-driving today's flavor trends. It offers an example of how manufacturers can deliver trends by designing a chicken entrée from the ground up, adding successive layers of flavor. McDermott suggests laying the foundation with a simple marinade with "a nice balance" of onion, garlic and herb. The profile must be universal enough to complement -- not compete with -- any rubs, sauces, glazes or other flavor agents applied subsequently. "Start with a wonderful-tasting but neutral marinated chicken breast," Hassner says, and finishing sauces "dimensionalize" that protein "nightly, seasonally or even within the same menu."

Hassner also points out the importance of buttressing the savory character of the chicken itself, perhaps by reintroducing the taste of chicken-skin, drippings and enhanced poultry flavors. "Then season appropriately, according to the desired flavor profile," she continues, "and authenticate the flavors by using a flavor that replicates an ideal method of cooking for that profile."

That's no minor matter. "I think that we have come to a point where a well-seasoned piece of chicken is not enough," adds Hassner. "Even though consumers are cooking less, they are more aware of cooking methods and the different flavors that result from roasting or braising or grilling, and the variations within methods, such as grilling over charcoal or grilling over hardwood. Foodservice needs to respond to this educated consumer. It is important to provide these cooked notes when the foodservice operator, for reasons involving limited time, space, equipment or labor, cannot."

Vacuum tumbling ensures that the chicken picks up the flavors, while a functional salt/phosphate system in the marinade provides the moisture-holding capacity. The salt encourages moisture retention, whereas the phosphates prevent the formation of actomyosin, a protein infamous for exacerbating purge. McDermott warns against using too much of a good thing, noting that excess water turns tender chicken spongy. Besides, USDA regulations cap phosphate levels at 0.5%.

After the marinade lays down the flavor foundation, spice-rubs, dusts and powders create the next tier. Rubs traditionally get their effect from dried herbs and spices. McDermott says that large-scale foodservice operations need rubs that are stronger and more reliable than spices alone. "So we'll combine spices with flavors to deliver a better, bolder, bigger effect," he says. The former supplies color and visual appeal, while the latter does the heavy lifting. In rubs that call for toasted spices, flavors of roast cut a laborious processing step and add another layer of cooked notes.

Rubs can also stand in for texture. "For nutritional reasons, most people are going to want a skinless piece of chicken," says Hassner, "but when you think about a Thanksgiving turkey, what's the best part? It's the skin." So she's formulated rubs for skinless and lean meats that, with the help of modified starches, set into proto-crusts in the oven. "The crust helps seal in the juices, providing more moisture in the absence of fat, and it provides a very satisfying crunch, which propels the flavors into your mouth," she adds. The effects have proved so convincing, she notes, that some don't believe the crust-rubbed chicken breasts were skinless.

Now that we've built the flavor layers with versatility in mind, Hassner says, "the foodservice operator can take some risks with the flavor of the finished dish because the chicken is not committed to any one profile."

So, if the restaurant flaunts a tropical theme, a manufacturer can design something fruity to accompany its marinated, spice-rubbed "Trade Winds" chicken. "The rub might have some of the chiles that are so popular now," Jarrettbangs imagines. "It could also have some thyme, maybe some black pepper. We could keep it that simple. Then, by the time it's finished grilling and it's ready for the sauce, maybe a mango salsa could repeat the flavors in the marinade and the rub -- the onion along with the fresh mango, some ginger, and you might repeat the thyme. You carry the flavors through from the beginning to the end, finishing with the bright notes from the salsa."

Another method is pairing chicken, not with one sauce, but with a sauce-and-dip sampler. "It appeals to people's sense of adventure," Hassner says. "And the customer has that all-important control. She can choose which sauce and how much goes on each bite." She would pack her sampler with salsa variations: fruity, tomatillo-based, roasted-vegetable or chile-packed. She'd also give a playful nod to both a classic American barbecue sauce and a ranch-style dip, lacing the former with chipotle and the latter with a tangy, powdered Cheddar flavor. International representation would arrive in a Thai coconut-curry sauce made from a base of starch-thickened chicken broth and stabilized coconut concentrate and seasoned with garlic, ginger, chile, lime and light lemon-grass flavors. "When you serve that kind of variation, you continue the festive 'sampler-tray-party-in-your-mouth' feeling throughout the course of the whole meal," she explains

An appetizing idea

With the rise of small plates and tapas-style dining, distinctions between menu categories are melting as quickly as a goat-cheese fondue. Even so, the usual lineup of appetizers offers plenty of opportunities to audition new flavor combinations. Because appetizers give consumers flavor options without mealtime monogamy, diners are more willing to experiment with them, too. "You just need to find something that people have comfort with," McDermott says, "and if you start with that, then you can test everybody with some of those bolder flavors."

That's why favorite bar-bites, such as chicken wings, potato skins and popcorn shrimp, now show up with envelope-pushing twists, like chile-adobo dipping sauces and ginger-citrus glazes. Jarrettbangs also thinks that appetizers can help endear the finer points of regional Mediterranean flavors to American consumers, too. The cuisine has a long history of serving appetizer-like meze, and many of the traditional meze items -- grilled or roasted vegetables, pita and focaccia wedges, hunks of fresh mozzarella and goat cheese -- are approachable to wary diners and tailor-made for creative seasonings and sauces.

The success of hummus demonstrates the concept's potential. "Hummus is such a great medium for flavor," Jarrettbangs says. "We've worked with extending hummus into a roasted-red-pepper flavor, roasted garlic, we've added sautéed onions, fresh cilantro. These are all ways to bring value and flavor to dips that are more than just dips."

Dip isn't the only draw, and Jarrettbangs is quick to note that the same spice rubs for a grilled- or roasted-chicken entrée do double duty on grilled or roasted vegetables, or even grilled pita and flatbreads. "I think there's a real opportunity to do a better job of flavoring the actual appetizer item," she says, "whether it be a dusting of something when it comes off of the cooking process or a rub before it goes in, so the flavors from the appetizer can marry to the condiment."

What about integrating flavors into a breading or batter? It might not be the most-effective strategy, Hassner cautions: "A batter has to do so many things -- coat the food, contain the food, have the right texture and crunch. It has to taste good, too, of course, but asking the batter to taste like something other than a really good-tasting batter -- such as a cheese or a citrus-grill flavor -- poses a technological hurdle that is much easier to overcome if you simply flavor a topical seasoning blend or a sauce." One successful way to flavor a batter involves flavoring the predust so that the batter protects the volatile flavor from the fryer's high heat.

Just desserts

Cheesecake is America's favorite dessert, despite its neutrality: a mildly sweet graham crust and a cream-cheese base more notable for texture than standout flavor. But those same fundamentals suit it to any "now" profile, from dulce de leche and café latte to standard New-York style. "If you follow cheesecake profiles over the last 5 or 10 years," Jarrettbangs says, "you won't find a better flavor vehicle. You can swirl it, layer it, add candy pieces to it, put a topping of fruit or whipped cream or nuts on it, and you can certainly make it caramel, chocolate, coffee or all three," she says. "It's one of those menu items that can go in any direction, and it has."

On a trip to Cuba, it picked up a taste for mojitos, rum-based cocktails flavored with lime, mint and island cane sugar. To bring a little Havana to a cheesecake, Jarrettbangs suggests adding a little shaved lime peel to the crust. The peel serves more as a colorful signal whereas the flavor comes from a lime-peel flavor powder. Then, she continues, "we're going to take a traditional cheesecake base and add some additional lime," this time a liquid or spray-dried option stronger in a lime-juice profile.

"And let's say that cost is a concern, because we're designing this for a QSR restaurant," Jarrettbangs adds. "You could then incorporate cream, egg and butter flavors to lower the cost of your cheesecake filling because, as we know, dairy-product prices are really on the rise." To top it all off, she would spread it with a thick, icing-like whipped-cream topping flavored with mint. "That really gives you the icy, creamy, sweet experience in a much more indulgent fashion than you'd have in the drink," she says.

McDermott reminds us not to forget the rum. Spike a sauce with a rum flavor, he says, along with a note of caramelized sugar. "Those are all techniques that we use and create flavors based on."

And now there are techniques that product developers can use, too. Their clients in foodservice, and their clients' clients placing orders in restaurants across the country, will hope it's a trend to last.

Kimberly J. Decker, a California-based technical writer, has a B.S. in Consumer Food Science with a minor in English from the University of California, Davis. She lives in the San Francisco Bay area, where she enjoys eating and writing about food. You can reach her at [email protected] .

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