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Salad’s Crisper Focus Intentional builds and crunchier greens mark today’s salad innovation

A renewed appreciation for crisp lettuce is driving innovation in salads. Midtown Grille in Raleigh, N.C., offers a modern take on a craveable classic in its Iceberg Salad with applewood bacon, deviled egg, blue cheese and buttermilk.
PHOTO CREDIT: nocredit

Salads have been watching the bowls trend with great interest. With a little envy, too. Bowls have skyrocketed over the last few years, firmly affixing themselves on menus as exciting options, boasting layers of textures and flavors. Salads, meanwhile, have stayed somewhat the same. Menu stalwarts. Weekday lunch choices when diners are trying to be “good.” Bowls are jazz hands. Salads are Muzak. But salads know they can do what bowls do—they just want their shot. They can be thoughtfully constructed; they can incorporate a variety of flavor-forward ingredients. And they can bring much-needed innovation to a category ready for a makeover.

“I think bowls, as well as the broader impact of world cuisines, have changed up what people expect out of a bowl and, in turn, a salad,” says Maeve Webster, president of Menu Matters, an independent foodservice consultancy. “Bowls tend to do a far better job than salads have, traditionally, in thoughtfully marrying flavors, textures and visual impact. Of course, some salads do this well, but many come off as a bunch of stuff thrown on top of lettuce—not overly appealing and easily overlooked with all the innovation happening in other categories. Now, with the increased focus on superfoods and functional eating, the impact of protein demand, and interest in bold, complex flavors, salads are undergoing an evolution.”

The bowl movement, then, along with the new mindful mission of flavor-building and layering, has cleared the path for this new age in salads. Chefs reinvigorating the category are turning to crisper greens, like romaine and iceberg, as their foundation for creative salad builds. Consider the When in Romaine salad by José Andrés at Beefsteak, with five locations in the Mid-Atlantic. It starts with romaine, and for heightened flavor experiences within the salad, incorporates a cucumber salad, seaweed salad and toasted seaweed. Cherry tomatoes, radish, sprouts and scallions round out the profile. The house Wedge at Maple & Ash in Chicago sees a crisp iceberg wedge topped with spicy onion rings, marinated tomatoes and glazed bacon, all dressed with a combination of blue and ranch dressings.

The Harvest Salad at TR Fire Grill is a study in thoughtfully constructed flavor and texture play—from the batter-dipped Brussels sprouts and smoked asparagus to the roasted tomatoes and golden beets.

The Harvest Salad at TR Fire Grill is a study in thoughtfully constructed flavor and texture play—from the batter-dipped Brussels sprouts and smoked asparagus to the roasted tomatoes and golden beets.

Not only do these crisp greens lend firmer structure to a larger mix of ingredients, they also deliver the crunch. Romaine and iceberg are key to this trend, making the pendulum swing from tender, soft greens, like baby lettuces and spring mixes, to crisp, refreshing ones. Tender greens have held the limelight for a number of years now, loved for their glowing health halo and earthy, vegetal flavor profiles. But in making them the star of salads, chefs left behind the crunch. Now, the crunch factor is back, dialing up the satisfaction of these modern salads while serving as sturdy springboards for crowd-pleasing combinations. Some growers are even introducing new lettuce hybrids that boast the crunch of iceberg with the nutrient density of romaine, making that classic salad component even more appealing.

Crisp lettuce is also generally favored by younger consumers. This preference is helping stoke interest in today’s salad innovations. “Until recently, if you wanted to be sophisticated, you would go with baby greens,” says Dan Long, chief culinary officer and co-founder of Mad Greens, a salad-themed fast casual based in Golden, Colo., with around 30 units nationwide. “That was a signal to the world that you were serious and sophisticated. Now, you can use iceberg and romaine and still be serious—as long as the build has creative ingredients with a cohesive flavor story. That’s where the perception has changed.”

Crunchy greens also deliver satiety. “Consumers are tired of the relentless messaging around leafy greens,” says food trends analyst Kara Nielsen. “With romaine and iceberg, the water content is higher. Crisp salads make you feel like you’re eating something. Some of them also lend themselves well to grilling—fire and char make for an enticing salad.” Charring or grilling heartier lettuces also helps build interest and complexity in a salad, which is at the heart of this emerging trend.

An intentional approach marks today’s salad. At The Vine in New York, Laurent Tourondel creates a masterfully balanced Vegetable Chopped Salad with modern ingredients like baby beets and radishes.

An intentional approach marks today’s salad. At The Vine in New York, Laurent Tourondel creates a masterfully balanced Vegetable Chopped Salad with modern ingredients like baby beets and radishes.

Salads with Intent

Mindfulness is an overarching theme informing a number of flavor trends today. Bowls, certainly, reflect a thoughtfulness of intent. The veg-centric movement also showcases that careful intention. In both instances, flavors are coaxed out through charring, grilling, roasting, glazing, pickling and braising. Textures are juxtaposed in ways that prevent palate fatigue, from a soft layer of quinoa or burrata to a crunchy layer of pickled carrots to a smooth drizzle of chimichurri. That modern mindfulness is starting to be applied to salads.

“The modern salad build is an explosive trend,” says Pam Smith, nutritionist and culinary consultant. “There hasn’t been much development around salads, and now bowls and veg-centric have intersected, showing not only what can be done, but what diners are looking for. A Southwestern salad on a menu today, for instance, is more composed—maybe a crispy romaine heart or baby iceberg tossed in a buttermilk-chipotle icebox dressing, then layered: a salsa verde swiped on the bottom of the salad plate, black beans, roasted corn, crispy tortilla and avocado pico de gallo,” she adds. “It becomes an integrated flavor experience.”

Mad Greens offers more than 40 salad-building ingredients, many of them demonstrating the modern bent of this trend—from Olomomo Cherry Vanilla Pecans and roasted broccoli to grilled peri peri shrimp and honey smoked salmon. “Often, a lot of thought isn’t given to the lettuce itself, and how it interacts with other ingredients,” says Long. “That’s such an important part of this trend today. The default can be spring mix or arugula, and those can be great against pork belly, for instance. But with the trend toward more nuanced dressings, like a yuzu vinaigrette, then romaine might be a better choice.”

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About The Author

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Katie Ayoub is managing editor of Flavor & The Menu. She has been working in foodservice publishing for more than 16 years and on the Flavor team since 2006. She won a 2015 Folio award for her Flavor & The Menu article, Heritage Matters. In 2006, she won “Best Culinary Article” from the Cordon D’Or for an article on offal.