Flavor Trends, Strategies and Solutions for Menu Development

10 Flavor Builders: Up in Smoke Smoke’s distinctive air is wafting into new categories

Smoke from burning rosemary is captured in an elegant glass dome at Fig & Olive, lending a striking and memorable presentation.

If something is popular, it’s inevitable that operators will find a way to leverage that ingredient, preparation, format or profile across the menu. “Smoked” as a flavor profile is no exception. The increased demand for bold flavors has made smoked one of the flavors of choice to experiment with and apply more broadly. As a visual cue, smoke also plays well in the social-media world, lending a nice bit of drama if done tableside or while carrying the dish or drink through the dining room.

As a flavor profile, smoked is inherently American, from cowboy cuisine and Native American preservation to the regionally varied barbecue of today. Some items are closely tied to smokiness, such as salmon, ham and bacon. Today’s smoked options now range from condiments and seasonings to desserts and cocktails. Here are 10 trend-forward ideas for featuring creative smoked options on your menu.

Smoke will always be part of certain cuisines and applications due to heritage, authenticity and tradition, but as a preparation and flavor it doesn’t need to only apply to specific items. Smoked ingredients and presentations create visual, textural and flavor appeal. Some items will forever be linked to smoked flavors, while others will be unexpected additions or features. Smoked garnishes and condiments can be widely applied, and become serious workhorses back of house, while others may create unique seasonal specials.

Applications of smoke

Smoke is seeing a greater number of applications and functions on today’s menus:

  • Cocktail rims
  • Presentation effects
  • Garnishes for dishes
  • Elements in crusts and baked goods
  • Condiments, sauces
  • Preparation for meats and seafood
  • Flavor enhancers for fruits and vegetables
  • In-house treatments for unique crafted elements
  • Technique for seasonal ingredients


TAG Restaurant Group

Wagyu Bone Marrow goes well with oxtail marmalade and smoked aïoli at Guard and Grace in Denver.

1. Smoked Salts

Salt is critical to flavor but is often ignored in menu language as a significant flavor driver. Over the past 10 years, this condiment has emerged as a key element worthy of attention. When smoked, it can add uniqueness and premium value while also dialing up delivery of an assertive, memorable flavor.

  • Intuitive/French Fries with smoked salt, gremolata, spicy cashew aïoli or ketchup
    —Café Gratitude, multiple locations in California
  • Chocolate Pecan Tart with fresh blueberries, blueberry ice cream, candied pecans, bourbon-smoked sea salt
    —Dusek’s Board & Beer, Chicago

Beyond the many new types of salts now available to operators, smoked salts create even more depth and, as a garnish, visual interest. Used in moderation, smoked salts add a distinguishing touch.

2. Smoked Honey

Honey, today’s favorite superfood, has moved well beyond a natural sweetener for tea or a topper for toast. When smoked, honey is elevated from its natural essence to something more complex, with a lingering, sweet, nuanced flavor.

  • St. Helens Prime New York Strip with olive oil potatoes, grilled asparagus, smoked-honey glazed baby heirloom carrots with Cambozola butter
    —The Brooklyn, Brooklyn, N.Y.
  • Goat Cheese Fritters: Goat cheese, panko, bacon-date aïoli, smoked honey
    —The Exchange Pub & Kitchen, New Albany, Ind.

Honey is prized for its perceived health benefits, natural positioning and gorgeous appearance—as well as, of course, its sweet flavor. Smoked honey, however, lends a savory element to counteract the sweetness, and heightens the impact of this trending ingredient.

3. Smoked Aïoli

Aïoli is now just about as familiar to American patrons as mayonnaise. Smoked aïoli complements a number of dishes, bringing complexity to everything from veg-centric toast to roasted meats.


  • New York Hot Pretzel Steak Tartare: American kobe, smoked aïoli, pickled mustard seeds
    —Vandal, New York
  • 7X Wagyu Bone Marrow with oxtail marmalade, smoked aïoli, pickled mustard seed, preserved lemon, micro greens
    —Guard and Grace, Denver

Aïoli can be a subtle flavor builder, but smoked aïoli introduces another level. Smoking can bring out the individual elements of aïoli, making it more complex but still not overwhelming in a dish. Whether used on its own as the only smoked element or as a layer on top of other smoked ingredients, smoked aïoli offers a richer experience.

4. Smoked Vegetables

Plant-forward innovations have encouraged operators to get creative with developing new vegetable-based dishes that appeal to a patron base beyond vegetarians and vegans. Flavor complexity and intrigue are the name of the game, and smoking certainly plays well with both of those—from smoked eggplant purée to smoked heirloom carrots.

  • Tartare of Smoked Mushrooms and Beets with crème fraîche and currants
    —Charcoal, Venice, Calif.
  • Buffalo Cauliflower Sandwich: Slow-smoked cauliflower, Buffalo sauce, Gorgonzola, lettuce, tomato, buttermilk-dill ranch, brioche bun
    —Pork & Mindy’s, based in Chicago

Chefs are borrowing meat-centric preparations and applying them to produce—from beet carpaccio to cauliflower steak. Smoke enhances not only the flavor of vegetables but can have a significant impact on texture, creating a tender effect.

5. Smoked Cheese

Perhaps one of the most ubiquitous ingredients, cheese adds richness and premium value to the plate. Smoked cheese increases the intrigue factor while introducing subtle complexity. Cheese is appealing as-is, but smoked cheese becomes intensely craveable.

  • Apple Walnut Salad: Mixed greens, smoked blue cheese, shallot-basil vinaigrette
    —Bittercreek Alehouse, Boise, Idaho
  • Panzano Eggs Benedict: Two poached eggs, smoked mozzarella polenta cake, prosciutto cotto, Fontina, roasted tomato, prosecco hollandaise, basil pesto
    —Panzano, Denver

From subtle to bold, mild to intense, cheeses run the gamut, and it’s safe to say there’s a cheese for everyone. Smoked cheeses take the basic and dial it up one big notch. It doesn’t inherently change the nature of the cheese, it just amplifies those flavors and layers it with a little something extra.

6. Smoked Fruit

Despite the produce-forward movement, fruit tends to be left behind and underutilized. Operators that leverage smoke as a flavor enhancer for fruit have tapped into an excellent way to highlight these sweet ingredients.

  • Wedge Oak Farm Chicken Liver Pâté in a Jar with bacon fat, grilled Tuscan bread, smoked peach preserve
    —Lockeland Table, Nashville, Tenn.
  • Pork Belly with smoked apple butter, petite greens, cider reduction, apple chips
    —Café Navarre, South Bend, Ind.

Fruit, more often relegated to desserts and beverages, tends not to be as broadly used in savory applications. Some operators have done so with great success, but there’s opportunity to push further. Smoked fruit, like smoked honey, adds a sweet-savory note to dishes far different than anything created using vegetables.

7. Smoked Meat

Certain proteins are inherently associated with a smoked preparation, including ham and bacon. These and other smoked meats make sense to consumers, and they can readily be used to create craveable appetizers as well as entrées.

  • Amazing Grace: Smoked pork belly atop juicy meat, crispy onion straws, homemade spicy Sriracha pickles, Carolina mustard barbecue
    —BRGRBELLY, Chicago
  • Sichuan Tea Smoked Duck in five-spice sauce, smoked with oolong black tea leaves and deep fried; served with steamed buns, julienned scallions and hoisin sauce
    —Kirin, Berkeley, Calif.

Although bacon and ham may be the go-to smoked meat options, think well beyond these two categories. Smoked fowl, lamb, pork and game can appeal to consumers and springboard off of the popularity of other common smoked meat options.

8. Smoked Seafood

Smoked salmon is nothing new—it’s both culturally significant in many other countries and widely familiar to American diners. Smoking other seafood is less common, but worthy of consideration, from smoked trout dip as a bar snack to smoked mussels as part of a seacuterie plate.

  • Smoked Crab Fingers with red peppers, jalapeños, scallions, lemon butter and yuca puffs
    —Churrascos, multiple locations in Texas
  • Smoked Oyster Pizza
    —Gallucci’s Pizzeria, Lincoln City, Ore.

Smoked seafood—from crab and oysters to clams and bluefish—enhances both the sweet and savory notes and creates a denser texture that some diners prefer. Smoke is also advantageous in this category to bring a familiar flavor profile to less common seafood species.

9. Smoked Desserts

Smoke as a flavor is wholly unexpected in the dessert category, which is precisely why operators should consider its application in this menu part.

  • Ice Cream Sandwich: Hazelnut-coffee ice cream, chocolate-hazelnut cookie, smoked milk chocolate ganache, Irish whipped cream
    —Butchertown Hall, Nashville, Tenn.
  • Banana S’more: Caramelized banana, warm chocolate cake, smoked meringue, coquito sauce
    —Le Bernardin, New York

Smoked flavors in a dessert do not move that item from sweet to savory, but they add an unexpected complexity to this category. Within desserts, smoke flavor notes can come from smoked salts, nuts, fruits, sauces and more.

10. Smoked Cocktails

Within the cocktail category, smoke can be used as a visual effect or a flavor enhancer. Both are impactful applications in an unexpected menu section. Whether applied directly for visual interest or as a more subtle flavor enhancer, smoked flavors can create a deeper result that’s far more adult than sugary-sweet options.

  • Lucy B: Yaguara Cachaça, Rhum Clément Mahina Coco, lime, smoked pepper agave
    —Barcelona Wine Bar, based in Fairfield, Conn.
  • Sabrosita: Plantation Rum, Ancho Reyes Verde liqueur, smoked grapefruit, touch of sugar
    —Bit House Saloon, Portland, Ore.

As with desserts, a smoked flavor can be achieved within cocktails by adding different types of ingredients, from smoked salts and spices to smoked fruits and vegetables. Smoke in cocktails can be viewed as part of the continued shift from sweeter profiles to more nuanced flavors.


From the November-December issue of Flavor & the Menu magazine. Read this issue online or check if you qualify for a free print subscription.


About The Author


MAEVE WEBSTER is a leading consultant and thought leader for foodservice manufacturers, operators and other professionals. She has spearheaded hundreds of major industry studies during her 20-plus years as a foodservice specialist. Today, Maeve focuses her consultancy on helping manufacturers, operators, commodity boards and marketing firms understand, prioritize and leverage food and consumer trends. Key areas of focus include consumer behavior, trend analysis, product design/testing and menu optimization. Maeve specializes in helping her clients not just to understand data but to also pull out the most critical threads and stories within the data that can inform both tactical and strategic decision-making. In addition to running her Menu Matters consultancy, Maeve owned and operated a café in Bennington, Vt., for four years. It was awarded “best coffeehouse” in Bennington each of the years it was in operation. She has an MBA from the University of Illinois Chicago and a culinary degree from Le Cordon Bleu in Chicago. She is a regular speaker at industry events and a contributor to major media outlets and industry publications, including Flavor & The Menu.