Flavor Trends, Strategies and Solutions for Menu Development

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Cutting Edge Flavors These distinctive ingredients delve deeperinto on-trend flavor explorations

The lamb meatballs at Steel & Rye incorporate the creamy tang of Greek yogurt along with harissa, egg and pine nuts to create a luscious Mediterranean-style dish.
PHOTO CREDIT: nocredit

What’s on the horizon in flavor-building ingredients? This list might surprise you, including not only exotic elements like yuzu and bottarga, but also old favorites  like dark chocolate and even celery. They’re being used in interesting new ways that play up their unique contribution to the flavor profile of a signature recipe. Still, you may notice some themes—from the tartness of citrus and yogurt, to the funk of seaweed and black garlic—that play into the current obsession with the sour, the salty and the fermented. Here are a dozen that do all that and more.

1. All Things Yogurt
One ingredient that is benefiting from rampant interest in all things sour and tangy is yogurt—especially now that thick, creamy Greek-style yogurt has become so popular. In fact, the NPD Group recently gave yogurt a shout-out in foodservice, where total dollar volume of yogurt shipped through broadline foodservice distributors grew 10 percent in the year ending September 2013.

Once confined to dessert, breakfast and Middle Eastern menu specialties, yogurt is now appreciated for its flavor and its creamy texture in dips, sauces and more. It’s also useful in marinades, where it helps tenderize proteins and allow other flavorings to cling. In addition to conventional and Greek yogurt, there is also labne, a type of fresh cheese that is made by draining whey from slightly salted yogurt.

The chefs at Animal in Los Angeles use yogurt to bring tang and richness to such sweet and savory preps as grilled quail with plum char siu, pear, apple, yogurt and pomegranate, and blueberry frozen brown-butter crumble with yogurt and bay leaf ice cream. And yogurt is still popular in Mediterranean-style preps, such as the Falafel Sliders with spicy yogurt at Chicago’s Southport & Irving, or the Lamb Burger on the lunch menu at Greenhouse Tavern in Cleveland, which is accessorized with stinky cheese fondue, Champagne shallot, olive-dusted pommes frites and tangy yogurt.

  • Fish Chimichanga with black beans & rice, tropical fruit salsa, avocado, spicy yogurt, crispy tortilla —The Mooring, Newport, R.I.
  • Octopus a la Plancha, white bean and almond purée, blistered shishito peppers, Greek labne and togarashi oil —Alison Eighteen, New York City

2. Anise Hyssop: Fragrant Flavor
Also known as licorice mint, this sturdy perennial member of the mint family is picking up momentum as an ingredient in cocktails as well as in sweet and savory kitchen preparations. Its fragrant leaves can be used as an herb, while the attractive, edible purple flowers can be scattered over salads or used as a garnish in cold soups or desserts. Because it grows wild in many cooler climates, it’s a favorite of foragers and the chefs that buy from them.

Like many herbs, anise hyssop has a long history of medicinal use in teas that were thought to settle the stomach or quell a cough, but it’s also delicious in cookies and other baked goods, as well as dressings and sauces, particularly for lamb. And it’s widely used in vegetable and fruit preparations, such as the Harvest Melon Gazpacho garnished with prosciutto, anise hyssop, mustard seeds and blackberries served last summer at Alison Eighteen in New York City.

  • Steamed Fairy Tale Eggplant with toasted peanuts, burnt onion sweet-and-sour glaze, boiled peanut purée and anise hyssop “pesto” —Asta, Boston
  • Roasted Beet Salad with honey vinaigrette, candied walnuts, goat cheese, anise hyssop —Levant, Portland, Ore.

3. Celery, Front and Center
Calling this workhorse vegetable out on a menu is almost like mentioning salt or butter. Rather than being used as a background flavor in mirepoix or broth, celery is being deployed for its fresh, vegetal flavor and distinctive crispness. Celery can be cooked, pickled, juiced. Its forms can include leaves, stalks and celery seed. At The Gallows in Boston, it’s braised until silken, as a bed for smoked trout with brioche toast and a poached egg. At Volt in Frederick, Md., celery hearts and leaves are turned into a delicate sorbet that accents a dessert of Meyer lemon, aerated white chocolate, ruby grapefruit pudding, coriander blooms, cardamom and cocoa. And at Chicago’s Publican, celery brings a tonic freshness to an appetizer of bouchon mussels steamed with Lambic, garlic and butter.

  • Smoked Whitefish Mousse, roasted garlic, pickled celery, fried capers, toasted baguette —The Butterfly, New York City
  • Creswick Pork Cheek Torchon, lentil-celery-radish-hazelnut relish, apple salad, apple “butter” —The Grove, Grand Rapids, Mich.

4. Black Garlic Comes Out of the Dark
Black garlic has been percolating around the edges since it was first introduced from Japan in 2005, but its sweet-meets-savory flavor—described as a perfect mix of molasses-like richness and tangy garlic undertones—is getting more and more right for the times.

Small wonder, since black garlic is the result of fermentation, the technique that has given the culinary world kimchi, sauerkraut and pickling. As such, it’s loaded with both umami and mystique, with a sticky, almost jelly-like texture and a flavor that is as mellow as caramelized garlic but with a touch of sweetness that’s reminiscent of balsamic vinegar.

Although it’s available from California in both whole clove and puréed form, chef Evan Hanczor of Parish Hall in Brooklyn has figured out a way to make his own black garlic using a dehydrator. He uses it to add umami to foods that aren’t naturally high in the stuff, such as confit chicken thigh and a vegetarian specialty of salt-baked celery root with black garlic, watercress, almond and rosemary.

  • Jicama Tacos with pickled mango, black garlic, candied lime, pink peppercorn, feta, cilantro —The Corner Door, Culver City, Calif.
  • Amberjack, mustard seed, radish and black garlic —Old Sage, Seattle

5. The Caraway Caper
This pungent, anise-flavored herb seed has a long history in Asian, European and Northern African food, so it’s not surprising to see caraway used wherever a jolt of flavor is desirable. And because it says “German” as easily as “Indian,” caraway is surprisingly versatile. For instance, at Riverwalk in Yorktown, Va., it’s used to create a unique take on a Reuben sandwich, in the Caraway Crusted Grouper Fillet with housemade sauerkraut, Swiss cheese and Russian dressing on marbled rye.

Caraway is also a great foil for other strongly flavored ingredients, including winter vegetables such as cabbage. Chef-owner Shane Ingram of Four Square Restaurant in Durham, N.C., uses a flavorful horseradish-caraway broth to anchor a grilled beef tenderloin with sauerkraut pierogi and broccoli rabe.

  • Caraway Pappardelle Pasta, sautéed mushrooms, Swiss cheese broth, chipped beef and whey —The Monterey, San Antonio, Texas
  • Stone-Ground Mustard and Caraway-Crusted Pork Loin —Cityscape, Kalamazoo, Mich.

6. Zesty Yuzu
This lumpy, aromatic Asian citrus fruit sits at the crossroads of two trends: the appetite for traditional Japanese flavors and the growing American hankering for sourness. Although mature yuzu is not terribly juicy, it is prized for its fragrant zest, which combines the best flavors of Meyer lemon, Mandarin orange and grapefruit.

While it’s difficult to find fresh yuzu outside of Japan, bottled yuzu is becoming widely available. Another form is ponzu, a dipping sauce made from the juice from green yuzu mixed with soy sauce and other ingredients. There is also yuzu koshu, a fermented paste made from chile peppers, yuzu peel and salt, which is used as a condiment for noodle and hot pot dishes, miso soup and sashimi.

Like all citrus fruits, yuzu brings a bright, zippy lift to other ingredients, especially spicy or salty ones. At Yuzu Fusion in Rosyln, N.Y., it’s mixed with sweet chile sauce on salad with either chicken or duck, and whisked into a spicy vinaigrette for a Tuna Mango Salad. And it’s the not-so-secret ingredient in the Yuzu Imperial Berliner Weisse, a small-batch specialty beer produced by the New Belgium Brewing Company in Fort Collins, Colo.

  • Seaweed & Tofu Beignet, yuzu kosho, lime —Alma, Los Angeles
  • Tuna Crudo with wasabi aïoli, radish, Serrano chili, yuzu and fried wonton —Trade, Boston

7. Seaweed: Flavor from the Sea
There’s more than fish in the sea; there’s also edible seaweed. The umami-loving Japanese and other Asian cooks have known this for eons, in the form of kombu (kelp), nori (seaweed shredded, formed and dried into a paper-like sheet) and hijiki (a brown sea vegetable). But there are more than a dozen varieties of sea vegetables that are coming to the attention of locavore-minded chefs, foragers and producers.

Products like dulse, samphire and sea beans (such as Salicornia or pousse-pierre) bring briny flavor, color, texture and a healthy backstory to menus. Witness the popularity of the Kale Dulse Salad at Rockin’ Raw, a vegan café in New York City that mixes the two über-healthy greens with spiced pumpkin seeds, shaved red cabbage and avocado, dressed in house vinaigrette.

Samphire (or sea asparagus), a grassy-tasting marsh vegetable that’s widely appreciated in the United Kingdom and Australia, is being used by chef Bryan Voltaggio to ramp up the salinity of a dish of young carrots baked in an aromatic salt crust with marsh samphire and sheep’s milk. And Restaurant Beck, in Depoe Bay, Ore., where chef Justin Wills is known for his use of hyper-local ingredients, serves an appetizer of pork belly with pickled sea beans and burnt hay ice cream.

  • Sourdough, seaweed butter, radish —Rolf and Daughters, Nashville, Tenn.
  • Beef Striploin Tataki, miso-sweet potato purée, nori rice crisps —Red Door, Chicago

8. Briny Bottarga
Beloved in Southern Italy and Sardinia (where it’s called butàriga), bottarga is the salt-cured, sun-dried roe of mullet, tuna or swordfish, but similar products are produced in Greece, France, Japan and the Iberian Peninsula. And at least one company in the United States—Anna Maria Fish Co. in Florida—is producing bottarga using traditional methods.

Salty, textural, earthy and luxurious, bottarga could be viewed as v2.0 of caviar on menus. In Sicily, it’s grated over pasta, vegetables and other foods to add a final ping of briny flavor and a bit of protein, but bottarga’s uses could be many. Chef Jody Adams of Rialto in Boston, makes salt cod gnocchi topped with spicy caponata and garnished with bottarga. And at Otto Enoteca and Pizzeria, with locations in New York and Las Vegas, it’s grated over toasted chickpeas with lemon and chile flakes for a special Feast of the Seven Fishes menu.

  • Egg salad, boquerones and bottarga on matzo —Estela, New York City
  • Spaghetti, olive oil and garlic with choice of Catalina Island sea urchin or Sardinian bottarga —Valentino, Santa Monica, Calif.

9. Whey to Go
It stands to reason that this byproduct of cheesemaking would come into its own, thanks to a growing interest in making cheeses in-house and the farm-to-table predilection for using every scrap of food. In fact, ricotta—one of the easiest cheeses to make—throws off a lot of whey, as do mozzarella and yogurt. What a shame it would be to discard this valuable source of protein and flavor.

Whey adds texture, froth and emulsification to cocktails, without the heaviness (and food safety concerns) of egg or cream. The White Dog at Bourbon Steak in Washington, D.C., mixes whey with vodka, grapefruit juice, lemon and sugar; it also goes into the eggless Gin Fizz at Ox in Portland, Ore.

Whey can also be used in desserts, such as puddings or baked goods, as a substitute for liquid in soups or stews, or in any savory recipe where a lighter version of cream or milk is desired to round out a sauce. It’s also a great product to use instead of water or stock to cook rice and starches, like the whey polenta that serves as a bed for squab with prunes and radicchio at Manresa, in Los Gatos, Calif.

  • Sourdough Passatelli with duck, whey, fermented hots —Ribelle, Brookline, Mass.
  • Hunter’s Stew with rabbit, oloroso, whey —TBD, San Francisco

10. The Savory Side of Sorghum
Growing interest in Southern ingredients has led to explorations with this naturally sweet syrup, which is often used like molasses. Introduced to the Americas by slaves from Africa, sorghum is a grass that is milled to extract the juice. When processed, the resulting syrup has a thinner consistency and is more sour than molasses, which is a byproduct of sugar cane. Sorghum grass can also be milled into flour.

Sorghum is traditionally used as a substitute or in addition to sugar in desserts, such as gingerbread, or to pour over biscuits in lieu of honey. But it can also be used to bring a touch of sweetness to savory foods, such as the sorghum gastrique served with duck breast at Soby’s, in Greenville, S.C., or the restaurant’s signature Sorghum Steak Sauce. It’s also delicious in cocktails, particularly those made with—surprise!—bourbon.

  • Roasted Rack of Lamb, cauliflower, radicchio, almonds and red pepper sorghum vinaigrette —Sweeney’s, Johns Island, S.C.
  • Red Wine-Braised Wagyu Pot Roast, sorghum-glazed carrots, cornbread, cornmeal cured pork chop, caramelized onion bread pudding, sorghum mustard glaze —Underbelly, Houston

11. Where There’s Smoke
Smoke has always been one of those elemental cooking flavors that customers crave and chefs try to capture. Lately the ante’s being upped from traditional barbecue meats and salmon into all kinds of other ingredients.

Mei Mei Street Kitchen in Boston serves a dish of smoked carrots with black sesame purée, ricotta cranberries and sunflower seeds. DC Coast in Washington, D.C., elevates grilled New York strip steak with a smoked onion potato gratin, grilled Swiss chard, chanterelles and red wine sauce.

Jonathan Sawyer of The Greenhouse Tavern in Cleveland is a big fan of smoke, from the Chef’s Garden’s Beets with barbecue-smoked apple, crispy red grain, fermented black and vanilla bean to the Blood Fettuccine with smoked broth, pepper, sheep’s milk cheese and seaweed crunchies.

Smoke is also a wonderful accent to cocktails, where it can be infused into everything from the naturally smoky depth of Scotch to smoked ice. At Bar Charley in Washington, D.C., The Stepdad is made by blowtorching a small spot on a cedar plank until it blazes, then capturing the smoke in an upturned glass, which the guest then fills with a mixture of Cognac and tobacco-infused bitters.

  • Black & White Risotto: turnip, salsify, parsnip, one-hour smoked egg —Dusek’s, Chicago
  • Island Creek Oyster with celery and horseradish juice, preserved lemon, malt oil and smoked oyster oil —Asta, Boston

12. Dark Chocolate Beyond Dessert
Chocolate can be overlooked as an ingredient in the savory kitchen. That’s too bad, because chocolate can bring all kinds of flavor nuances to food, along with gorgeous dark color and a texture that lends itself to smooth preparations like sauces. Chocolate is also riding the obsessivore trend, which favors all things artisanal and small-batch. And then there are the reported health benefits derived from dark chocolate.

At Trade, in Boston, the Black Bean Enchilada borrows from Mexican culinary lexicon, with its Taza chocolate mole sauce, cabbage slaw, avocado and queso fresco. And at Coqueta in San Francisco, Michael Chiarello menus grilled beef short ribs Catalan style, with fino sherry-chocolate glaze, pomegranate and Seville orange.

  • Devils on Horseback with Dee Jay’s bacon-wrapped date, almond, bitter chocolate, and roasted Fresno pepper —Greenhouse Tavern, Cleveland
  • Chioggia Beets, red wine vinegar, dark cocoa, fresh cheese —Volt, Frederick, Md.

About The Author

Joan Lang

A freelance writer and editor living in the Portland, Maine, area, Joan Lang has been writing about food for more than 30 years, beginning her career in the financial and B2B press. She formed her own food and editorial consulting firm, Full Plate Communications, in 1989. She is a graduate of the New York Restaurant School and holds degrees in architecture and journalism.