By Rachel Zemser, CCS, Contributing Editor
Today's consumers want to know where exactly their food came from, how it was prepared and who crafted it. A nameless person or corporation is no longer sufficientnow we want to know the artist" behind the dish. The more handcrafted or artisan" the better, because it means that someone loved the ingredients, used a unique or traditional" process, and monitored its every step to ensure that the finished product exemplifies the attention to detail that went into its creation.
This concept did well in independently owned restaurants and small-batch production, but once the large retail and restaurant-chain industries caught on developers and ingredient suppliers had to figure out the best way to recreate artisan for the masses. The challenge was how to recreate that handcrafted look while ensuring everyone always has the same culinary experience from Boston to Boise. The answer is better quality and uniquely processed ingredients.
An artisan, handcrafted fire-roasted salsa from an authentic independently owned Mexican restaurant would have uneven chunks of tomatoes with bits of black skin from the fire roasting, some randomly distributed throughout the salsa. The flavor would be fresh tomato with a hint of smoke. The onions, chiles and corn might also be fire-roasted, then everythingincluding beans for added interestcombined with some lime juice, fresh cilantro and garlic. Locale-specific ingredients, like Hatch chiles, Walla Walla onions and heirloom San Marzano tomatoes, also builds menu appeal. The final flavor demonstrates the salsa's handcrafted nature and attention to detail.
How can a salsa manufacturer recreate this fresh flavor and still put it in a jar or shelf-stable flexible pouch for foodservice? The high heat will kill off the fresh notes, and extra acid will have to be added to bring down the equilibrium pH for shelf stability. While it is difficult to achieve the same fresh flavor in a pasteurized salsa, an artisan version can be created by using specialty industrial ingredients like fire-roasted diced tomatoes, natural tomato and liquid smoke flavors, lemon and lime juice, and IQF cilantro. These premium ingredients are more expensive than standard industry tomatoes and dried herbs. But since the product will be subjected to high heat, it is important to start with high-quality, flavorful ingredients so more flavor will be retained. One way to save on cost is to blend together fire-roasted and regular tomatoes and boost the look of blackened skin by adding roasted barley grits to mimic the appearance of roasted vegetables in the salsa. The fresh-herb flavor may be dimished during the heating process, and a cilantro aquaresin can bring back some of those lost herb notes. Adding natural tomato concentrate can bring back some of that tangy, green flavor, and a very low level of liquid smoke can recreate that open-fire sensation. Manufacturers can control the heat level by using no-heat chiles and fine-tuning the heat level with capsaicin oil.
610 grams San Marzano tomatoes
184 grams Hatch green chiles
92 grams diced and seeded jalapeños
90 grams cooked pinto beans
65 grams corn, cut off the cob
150 grams Walla Walla onion
15 grams cilantro
60 grams lime juice
20 grams salt
30 grams garlic, peeled and minced
Procedure: Carefully fire-roast the tomatoes, garlic, jalapeños, chiles, corn-on-the-cob and onions on the grill (use charcoal for a smokier flavor). Turn the vegetables slowly for about 10 minutes to ensure even blackening of the skin. Cut the corn kernels off the cob after roasting. Pull off the vegetable stems and remove the seeds from the chiles. Pulse all ingredients, except the corn and beans, in a food processor. Final consistency should be a mixture of large and small vegetable chunks. Add the corn and beans and mix by hand.
Ingredients % by Weight
Fire-roasted tomato, 1/2-in. dice 9.103
Tomato, 1/2-in. dice 10.000
Fire-roasted tomato, 3/4-in. dice 19.103
Fire-roasted tomato purée 10.002
Green chile, roasted, IQF, 3/8-in. dice 6.671
Dehydrated pinto beans 6.001
Fire-roasted onion purée 5.001
Fire-roasted jalapeños, mild 4.001
Fire-roasted corn, dehydrated 4.001
Roasted garlic purée 2.100
Lime juice concentrate, 54 °Brix 1.600
Cilantro, QF 0.850
Roasted barley grits 0.500
Natural tomato flavor concentrate 0.200
Natural smoke flavor 0.010
Cilantro aquaresin 0.001
Capsaicin oleoresin 0.001
Procedure: Add all ingredients to the batch tank and blend well. Diced tomatoes can be pre-crushed to match the desired artisan look of the gold-standard product. Check the pH of the batch and adjust with lime juice to meet the FDA-approved pH range, most likely between 4.1 and 4.3. Run the salsa through a Contherm-style scraped-surface heat exchanger, which will help maintain piece size integrity. For salsa products, a high temperature and short time is ideal to maintain texture and piece identity (the actual temperature and time will depend on equipment specifics). After processing, the product can be filled into jars, cans or flexible pouches at a filling temperature of 195˚F to 200˚F and hot-held at 185˚F to 190˚F for 3 to 5 minutes in its container to ensure commercial sterility. Check product pH after 24 hours to ensure the appropriate equilibrium pH has been met. All temperatures and times for this thermal process should be validated by a processing authority to ensure commercial sterility based on the equipment being used.
Rachel Zemser, CCS, is an independent industry consultant and author of The Intrepid Culinologist blog on foodproductdesign.com. She has a B.S. and M.S. in Food Science, a Culinary Arts degree, and 15 years of industry experience. She is a member of the Research Chefs Association. For more information, visit theintrepidculinologist.com.