Savory, moist, flavorful, succulent. The preceding adjectives could have been pulled from reviews of the hottest gourmet restaurant in town, or they could describe the latest refrigerated and frozen prepared entrees and side dishes.

Ethnic flavors such as Thai green curry liven up noodle dishes.

Savory, moist, flavorful, succulent. The preceding adjectives could have been pulled from reviews of the hottest gourmet restaurant in town, or they could describe the latest refrigerated and frozen prepared entrees and side dishes.

That's because yesterday’s TV dinners have given way to well-seasoned skillet meals, steam-cook entrees and marinated meats. Flavors range from exotic curries to smoky chipotle salsas to creamy vodka sauces. No matter what the flavor, they all have something in common - the use of sauces, marinades and gravies. Today, ingredient experts say there are few limitations on what refrigerated and frozen food processors can do with these flavor, texture and moisture boosters.

Dialing up ethnic flavor

The most important thing for processors to realize is just how versatile sauces, marinades and gravies can be, says Kim Holman, director of marketing for Wixon Inc., St. Francis, Wis.

Holman adds that a recent study asked consumers to recommend improvements to supermarket meat departments and 40 percent indicated they would like more variety.

“I think this is very representative of many categories. Flavor can very quickly add variety,” she says.

Wixon executives say they find inspiration from around the world for offerings such as Mushroom Sauce with Porcini, Portabella and Shitake, Southwestern Black Bean and Kung Pao sauces.

“The No. 1 trend is the infusing of ethnic flavor profiles into sauces and marinades,” Holman says. “Consumers are more educated and highly traveled than ever before. They want to replicate what they have tasted abroad or seen on TV. Consumers are tired of ‘plain’ or ‘just garlic’ or ‘just lemon.’ They want a bit more excitement to their meals.”

Also helping processors deliver this flavor “excitement” is Kraft Food Ingredients (KFI). KFI’s “Cuisines of the World” flavor line comes in several ethnic profiles categorized according to area of origin. The Cuisine of Asia line can be used as a foundation to create regional profiles such as Szechwan, Tandoori and Thai flavors, while other lines feature Mexican, Caribbean and French cuisine flavors.

“I think a lot of companies are raising the bar in the areas of flavor and functionality in sauces, particularly in the frozen meal sectors,” says Zach Sanders, senior research scientist at KFI, Memphis, Tenn. “Sauces are becoming more authentic and unique flavor wise.”

At Gilroy Foods & Flavors, Omaha, Neb., Senior Executive Chef Sean Craig says the company’s GardenFrost vegetable purees can be added to a variety of frozen entrees to create customized flavor profiles as well.

“Marinades, gravies and sauces are excellent ways to bring food to international destinations,” he says. “For example, a rich mole poured over a simple grilled chicken breast is authentically Mexican, but that same piece of poultry marinated with flavors like lemongrass creates a uniquely Thai experience.”

GardenFrost purees come in a variety of mix-and-match flavors including Latin Blend, Fire-Roasted Jalapeno, Ginger Puree and Garlic Puree. Each can be used to add a single flavor note to a dish, or in combination to create an overall profile.

Functionality with flair

While it may seem that adding an ethnic zing is sauces, marinades and gravies’ most important attribute, these ingredients can add other important functionalities to prepared meals and side dishes.

“The functionality of sauces has improved over the past few years,” Sanders says. “They tend to be more microwave-friendly and not gel up into ‘paste-like’ concoctions like they previously did.”

Adding stability to proteins and providing cling or adhesion to spices also is part of their job, says Denise Fallaw, category technical manager for Cargill Texturizing Solutions, Wayzata, Minn.

Cargill offers a complete line of xanthan gums that meet varying viscosity and texture requirements, she adds. The company’s newest product, Satiazane CX800QD, increases emulsion stability and prevents sauce separation and breakdown.

“It modifies the flow of sauces and gravies to enhance creaminess and provide stability,” Fallaw says. “[It also] reduces moisture migration and ice crystal formulation during storage of frozen foods, so sauce retains a thick and homogenous appearance during reheating.”

She adds that processor customers are looking for sauces with no separation, that maintain intended viscosity and flow and remain stable in steam table product use.

Well-balanced profiles

Also important is a sauce, gravy or marinade’s ability to balance the innate flavor profile and texture of the dish. For meals that contain a protein, this means using sauces, marinades and gravies to bring out the “meaty” flavors that can get lost in the process cycle.

“Many restaurant chefs and consumers cooking at home use meat-based stocks, fats or oils in making sauces,” Sanders says. In order to recreate this flavor and texture, Kraft Food Ingredients offers a Pan Drippings line that can add meaty flavors to sauce applications.

“The Pan Drippings line of products can also bring value to marinated proteins by retaining some of the fatty, meaty flavors that can be lost in the manufacturing process,” Sanders says. “Our Chicken Pan Drippings can add a savory, fatty note to an application that adds value.”

Gilroy’s Craig adds that sometimes balancing “meaty” flavors comes from adding a single flavor note that rounds out the dish’s overall profile.

“Particularly for gravies, it’s important to achieve the right balance in savory flavors,” he says. “For example, we focus on what makes roasted brisket taste unique compared to a grilled steak - and because we are also a vegetable ingredient company - we can improve upon those base flavors with ingredients such as caramelized onion, roasted garlic or fire-roasted chiles to name a few.”

And, ideally, all of this can be done while maintaining as clean a label as possible.

“Customers are increasingly looking for clean label products as more consumers are demanding ingredients they recognize on labels,” Craig says. “We work closely with our customers to make sure our ingredients meet their label requirements.”

Adds Mariano Gascon, vice president of research and development for Wixon, “Healthy mindset in foods is here to stay. The interest in low sodium and low sugar keeps growing. Consumers want to ‘feel good’ about what they are eating and feeding their families.”

Although clean labels please consumers, processors have another concern.

“Cost is one of the most prevalent hurdles in developing many sauces, gravies and marinades,” says Sanders. “Customers are demanding high impact flavors at as low of a cost as possible.”

One way to battle the cost is to utilize highly concentrated flavors in the development phase, he adds. Products such as KFI’s Intensified Charbroil and Pesto flavors provide “significant flavor impact at a minimal usage level.”

Gilroy’s Craig feels the biggest sauce formulation challenge is the availability of ingredients. After all, creating ethnic flavored sauces, gravies and marinades means using spices found all over the world.

“Due to our expertise, we have relationships all over the world for sourcing more scarce ingredients,” he says - a good thing since the ethnic sauce trend shows no sign of abating. If anything, says Holman, consumers are looking for more variety and specificity in their ethnic dishes.

“If it is going to be ethnic, then make it authentic,” she says. “Tell me where it is from in Italy, not just that it’s an Italian sauce.”

Sidebar: From the refrigerator ... with love

Research shows that consumers are craving ethnic flavors more than ever before and - for the first time in years - are spending more time in the kitchen. Pre-made, chilled sauces, marinades and gravies provide one of the fastest and easiest ways for consumers to add a dash of exotic flavor to their proteins, pastas, veggies and legumes. Still, according to at least one industry expert, the refrigerated sauce niche is under developed.

“I think the interesting area is refrigerated,” says Krista Faron, senior analyst at Mintel Research Consulting, Chicago. “We’ve already seen a lot of traction with chilled soups; that could serve as a stepping stone to more chilled sauces, gravies and marinades.”

One company that has taken the chilled sauce idea to heart - literally - is Sauces ‘n Love, a Somerville, Mass.-based processor that makes jarred sauces from fresh, homemade ingredients.

Founded in 1999, Sauces ‘n Love’s Original Pasta Sauce line now includes more than 12 chilled varieties and is distributed nationally. This year the company’s newest product Parsley Chimichuri sauce won a sofi Award for Outstanding New Product from the National Association of the Specialty Food Trade.

Co-founder Tessa Edick tells R&FF why she feels Sauces ‘n Love has found success.

“Our sauces really take the thinking out of cooking. We like to say they are for ‘pasta and beyond.’  You can use them in applications such as seasoning chicken or fish or to add to soup and stew. Or even to dress up leftovers to bring for lunch the next day.”

Sauces ‘n Love uses only fresh ingredients and all sauces are made according to authentic Italian recipes. The company launched Scarpetta, a separate shelf-stable line exclusively for Web sale, but the rest of its products are distributed nationally at Whole Foods stores.

“We had a great opportunity to re-invent the category when we started out,” says Edick. “When we entered the market, none of the big manufacturers were doing it with integrity. Our sauces taste like they are homemade or made in a local shop.”

Also adding to the brand’s consumer appeal is the use of Bisphenol-A-free, reusable, freezable and microwavable packaging.

“People are a lot more aware of being environmentally friendly today,” Edick says. “The reuseable jars are an added value. They can use it for storing leftovers.”

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