Sauces get Sophisticated

by Kathie CanninG
Consumers clamor for authenticity in heat-and-eat dishes.
Juicy chicken steeped in a sweet mango sauce and accompanied by a tasty blend of Japanese sticky and long-grain rices. Maple-glazed carrots drenched in a velvety maple-syrup and butter sauce. Tender beef medallions submerged in a merlot-spiked sauce — served with seasoned redskin potatoes and whole baby carrots.
Tempting dishes on a pricey restaurant’s menu?
Not quite. Though packed with gourmet appeal and savory-sounding sauces, these culinary delights are but a few of the recently introduced frozen entrées designed to satisfy an increasingly sophisticated American palate.
Key to the creation of these heat-and-eat epicurean dishes are the sauces — and the flavor systems behind them.
Forget cheap imitations
“The last ten years has been a tremendous revolution in terms of what the consumer wants to eat,” insists Lucien Vendôme, senior executive chef for Kraft Food Ingredients Corp. in Memphis, TN. “The American palate is getting more refined, and the sauces have to [reflect] that.”
That revolution can be attributed, in part, to our nation’s impressive number of well-educated international travelers, as well as to the introduction of TV’s Food Network.
“People are much, much more aware of what’s out there,” stresses Michael Cain, food service chef for Givaudan Flavors Corp., Cincinnati, OH. “They go to those places that they read about or hear about, and they actually taste the real thing.”
“America is not happy anymore with some kind of homogenous name, like Italian,” notes Vendôme. “Italian what? Italian from Tuscan? Oriental from Thailand, Vietnam? They are much more demanding.”
Suja Finnerty, director of research and development for the Specialty Ingredients Group of ConAgra Food Ingredients Co. in Carol Stream, IL, agrees with Vendôme. “Ethnic flavors are becoming more and more regionalized,” says Finnerty.
Bid adieu to cuisine bearing generic Asian and Italian —even Mexican — labels. Say hello to dishes promising an authentic Szechwan, Sicilian, or Veracruz eating experience.
Moreover, consumers are demanding authenticity even in decidedly American refrigerated and frozen cuisine —prepared foods that pledge a “homestyle” taste.
Manufacturers are trying “to get some authenticity from the actual cooking process,” says Cain, “to get some of the sautéed note, to get some of the flavor profiles that you would if you cooked at home in a skillet in sautéed onion.”
From chemistry to culinary
Of course, a refrigerated or frozen dish must deliver the specific flavor combination advertised on the package or America’s neo-sophisticates will pass on a second purchase. Today’s cuisine creators, therefore, must adopt a mindset that’s a little more like a chef’s and a little less like a chemist’s to achieve this reality.
“The greatest challenge in creating sauces for refrigerated and frozen foods is to provide similar flavor profiles and flavor delivery as the fresh version sauces,” contends Jenny Riede, senior applications scientist for Beloit, WI-based Kerry Seasonings, a division of Kerry Ingredients.
“I think the food technologists are becoming much more culinary-oriented,” says Vendôme. “When they go to a restaurant now, they don’t just order a steak — they order the new sauce that they’ve never tasted before because they would like to learn from it and recreate with industrial ingredients.”
This culinary orientation has one major caveat, though. Food-ingredient experts and food processors might be able to think like a chef thinks, but manufacturing restraints prevent them from cooking like a chef cooks.
“In a good-quality restaurant, you have what you call building or layering of the flavors, says Vendôme. “It’s vertical — the more you taste and the deeper you get into the product, the more elements you find.”
In contrast, says Vendôme, manufacturers are forced to create a sauce “horizontally,” where components are mixed with other but do not build on each other’s flavors. “How do you deliver a flavor of sautéed mushrooms in a sauce without sautéing them? That’s the big challenge,” he contends.
Flavor companies have made impressive strides in mimicking cooking flavors. Combined with other ingredients, these products work to create a flavor system for the finished product.
“A flavor system can be designed to survive the rigors of the manufacturer’s processing, shipping, and consumer handling, or [can be] as simple as salt and pepper to enhance the natural flavor of the food,” says Kevan Vetter, manager of culinary product development for McCormick & Co. Inc.’s Culinary Center in Hunt Valley, MD. “The biggest challenge in formulating these types of products is how to get the best, most balanced, appealing flavor and texture with the best shelf life — be it twelve days or twelve months.”
“When you talk about a flavor system, it’s comprehensive,” says Vendôme. “In other words, if I were to put just ginger, garlic, and soy sauce [together], you will be lacking the cooking notes that are so typical in Asian cuisine, which come from stir-frying. By converting the cooking notes you get from stir-frying into an ingredient, that ginger tastes like it’s stir-fried ginger, not just raw ginger.”
Stefan Strehler, senior development chef for Givaudan Flavors, Cincinnati, OH, likens flavor-system development to creating a work of art.
“When you paint a painting, you have the canvas and a variety of colors,” he says. “When you just look at the flavors as the colors, that’s how you paint your picture. And then at the end you might highlight the light or the rain — like when you buy a Thomas Kinkade painting. This top note allows you to very specifically highlight certain aspects.”
Meat flavors can increase the richness of gravies in entrées or meals containing meat, notes John Bauman, vice president of WILD Flavors Inc.’s Culinary Business Unit, Erlanger, KY. WILD Flavors even has developed vegetarian “meat-type” flavors for companies that want one general savory meat-type flavor for use in multiple meat- and non-meat-containing SKUs.
The creation of new flavors — whether they mimic something familiar or are unfamiliar and more exotic to consumers — remains important in sauce development.
The quest for restaurant quality
In the years to come, consumers can expect the sauces in refrigerated and frozen foods only to improve as companies go all-out to duplicate restaurant quality. NP
Kathie Canning is managing editor for Refrigerated & Frozen Foods magazine.