Ready-to-use sauces are more diverse then ever, drawing inspiration from worldwide cuisine, and can play a useful role in today's time-strapped kitchens. Diane Lane reports
Winner of the 2012 UK Restaurant Manager of the Year award, International flavours have been impacting on menu development for years. The more familiar flavours of Western and Southern European cuisine have been commonplace on menus across all sectors of the UK industry for some time but the global range of flavours in the mainstream is ever increasing, and nowhere is this more apparent than with sauces.
This trend is highlighted by the latest Menurama report, which analyses menus from the UK's top 115 multiple and branded chain food service operators and cutting edge independents. It is carried out twice a year by food service consultancy Horizons.
While its top 20 main course sauces still feature many long standing European favourites, the list is looking increasingly global. "In terms of cuisine style there's quite a spread on there, including British, American, Mediterranean, Mexican and Oriental," says director of services Paul Backman.
Two previously more ‘exotic' sauces that appear to have joined the mainstream are sweet chilli and peri peri, now both frequently appearing on casual dining menus. Popularised with the growth of Thai food, sweet chilli sauce was picked up by Menurama at pub group Scream as part of a Thai-style stir-fry; on burgers at Yates's and Pitcher & Piano; and incorporated into sandwiches at both Pret A Manger and Greggs.
- a taste of mexico
In terms of key flavour trends, Mexican food, or Tex-Mex, is making a dramatic impact on UK consumers right now, according to Mars Foodservice.
"In terms of key dishes, as the fastest growing cuisine in the UK you can't go wrong with Mexican, but you don't have to go down the stereotypical route of fajitas and tortillas," says Roy Shortland, development chef for Dolmio and Uncle Ben's, whose Deep South-inspired, ready-to-use sauces - Mexican Salsa, Chilli Con Carne, Hickory BBQ and Texan BBQ - cater for those who aren't keen on anything too spicy, one of the challenges facing the Mexican category in particular.
"In the commercial market, it is not feasible to use the same traditional techniques as the ancestral communities of Mexico and our ready-to-use sauces are not laying claim to this level of authenticity. But what they do is explore flavours used in Mexican cooking and give consumers a taste of the country and eating style, adapted to the British palate. They can be used straight from the jar, hot or cold, as a finished sauce or a base for a caterer's own recipe, as well as a marinade, dip, sandwich filling or a jacket potato topping," he says. For Susan Gregory, head of food at Nestlé Professional, Mexican and South East Asian cuisines have really come to the fore in the last 12 months.
"This trend can largely be explained by consumer tastes becoming more sophisticated and people trying new experiences," she says. "Plus the emergence of these cuisines on the high street with the increase in popularity of chains such as Wagamama and Wahaca means more people are exposed to them."
As a Peranakan Chinese from Singapore, Monica Chia, founder of Karimix, which makes hand-cooked relishes, chutneys, pastes and sauces from South-East Asia, was brought up on the flavours of the region and is passionate about the fusion of ingredients that make up its cuisine.
"With more people venturing to places such as Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam for their holidays, the cuisines from these countries are becoming more familiar to the consumer," she says.
"Responding to popular trends is important as it means you will be able to maintain a fresh food offer, add appeal to your menu and maximise profits, but many South-East Asian recipes demand an array of fresh ingredients such as tamarind, lemongrass, galangal and lime leaves, which are not always readily available so chefs need to ensure they won't incur high ingredient costs and potential wastage in their quest to satisfy customers.
" For a more familiar taste of Asia, Knorr's partnership with Blue Dragon sees pastes, concentrated sauces and ready-to-use sauces available in varieties such as Thai Green Curry, Hot Sweet Chilli and Black Bean. Sarah Branagan, category manager for sauces at Unilever Food Solutions, says: "Asian-inspired dishes remain one of the most popular cuisines to be eaten out of home and with more consumers keen to try 'street-food' concepts it's vital that chefs are equipped to deliver an authentic taste."
While Shortland recognises there are preconceptions about ready-to-use products in food service, the Mars See It For Yourself campaign - following a project with University College Birmingham (UCB) which put 10 different recipes using the sauces to the test - aims to show caterers that the sauces can play a key role in today's commercial kitchens, which are often pressed for time, do not always have a high skill base and have to meet a growing number of dietary requirements.
He says: "Caterers have become less precious about admitting they call on ready-made sauces at times, paving the way for ready-to-use sauces to play more of a role in time-strapped kitchens."
Time and money savers Gregory says pre-made sauces have a vital role to play in the cooking process. "Pre-made sauces can save both time and money. Generally speaking, pre-prepared products tend to be significantly cheaper than scratch made, which against a backdrop of a general tightening of purse-strings across the country, is a very real consideration for caterers today.
"Buying sauces such as Maggi Rich & Rustic saves both time and cost of reducing down tinned tomatoes with herbs. Basic tinned tomatoes may appear cheaper on the surface, but when you add the costs of other ingredients such as tomato purée, onion, garlic, herbs and other seasonings, coupled with the cost of labour and energy usage, reducing these down to create a sauce can cost up to 50% more.
- "Additionally, with nutrition remaining a key focus for many of us, caterers are under increasing pressure to analyse every ingredient used in their dishes. Tomato and other vegetable-based cooking sauces offer the perfect opportunity to be presented as a healthy option on menus."
While Gillian Williamson, category marketing manager at Macphie - whose range of ready-to-use sauces includes Bechamel with Butter, Red Wine, White Wine and Hollandaise - lists Mexican, South American and Korean as emerging flavour trends, she says: "As much as we see consumers being adventurous, classic staples on menus will always be popular. Italian cuisine continues to be the number one choice when eating out. Dishes such as lasagne, spaghetti bolognaise and pizza are firm favourites on restaurant and pub menus and this trend looks set to continue."
Authenticity at St Edmund Hall, Oxford University
When John McGeever joined St Edmund Hall, Oxford University as head chef two years ago, he was faced with the task of modernising the menu in order to revive the interest of the wide audience he caters for seven days per week.
"Every day we feed a captive audience of about 600 students, fellows and guests and one of my greatest challenges is to maintain their interest by using interesting flavours," says McGeever. "Many of our customers come from diverse cultural backgrounds and in the two years that I've been here, I've noticed they are becoming more discerning in their choices. It is no longer sufficient to serve 'Chinese' or 'Indian' meals as they are a sophisticated bunch and understand the differences between regional cuisines."
McGeever recently developed a range of South-East Asian recipes using Karimix sauce products as a base, with the added benefit that most of the range is gluten-free. He says: "The students are quite vocal and I am always accessible for feedback but when Roast Cod Mussaman with Spiced Noodles, King Prawn Laksa with Basmati Rice, and Citrus and Lemongrass Chicken on a rice cake each sold out of 100 portions, I didn't need to ask what they thought of them."
On using a pre-prepared sauce, McGeever says: "At the end of the day, keeping the students happy is my main objective and by embracing the experience of others I can save prep time in the kitchen, and because of the high quality of the products, I can increase spend â¨per head by up to 20% because I trust they will deliver on flavour and I know my customers won't be disappointed."
"I've travelled extensively in the Far East and whenever possible I try to make my own sauces from scratch but these are so authentic, I really can't justify the time it takes to source the ingredients and prepare and cook to this standard."
Top 20 main course sauces
7. Sour cream
9. Red wine
10. White wine
14. Sweet chilli
17. Tikka masala
18. Peri peri
20. Jack Daniels
Source: Horizons Menurama, Summer 2012
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