The key to rich and intense flavour, stocks and sauces are the bedrock of many classic and everyday dishes. But with the time and skills required to create them not always easy to find in a busy kitchen, ready-made products can be invaluable. Diane Lane reports
According to Mark Rigby, executive chef at Premier Foods, there are four main reasons why ready-to-use (RTU) sauces and stocks exist, and there are savings to be made in each area.
"First, there is the time it takes to prepare them," he explains. "Stocks can take up to 12 hours to make using traditional methods, whereas using a ready-made paste can take just minutes. As well as being time-consuming, there are health and safety factors in having a stockpot on the stove for such a length of time.
"Second, using a ready-made stock or sauce ensures consistency time after time.
"Third, if you have a low level of skill in the kitchen, these products are quick and simple to master.
"Purchasing pre-made products also ensures you have better control over your profit levels and ultimately the level of satisfaction you are giving the consumer."
For Nigel Crane, managing director at Essential Cuisine, while convenience is an important factor in freeing up chefs' time, it should never come at the expense of quality.
"High-quality stocks are the cornerstone of any good kitchen, the place where great plates begin," he says. "And while an excellent bought-in stock can enhance a dish, a substandard stock can equally destroy it.
"Checking out the ingredient list and yield can give chefs valuable insight into which is the right stock for their needs. Cheaper versions can skimp on the stock, and rely on artificial enhancers such as MSG or excess salt to boost the flavour, meaning chefs will then need to use more in seeking the required taste."
Store-cupboard essential Charlotte Bryant, marketing executive at Major International, agrees. "The old saying that you can't make a silk purse from a sow's ear speaks volumes when thinking about your base and sauce products," she says. "Every chef will have a base stock that they use, primarily chicken, beef or vegetable, as it really is the store-cupboard essential. It's the starting block of all dishes.
"Factors such as salt content should influence the buying decision for stocks. Many stocks on the market today claim to have reduced their salt, but you should look closely. Also, allergens and additives should be checked, as more and more consumers are going gluten-free or vegetarian."
Steve Jeavons, grocery purchasing manager at Fairway Foodservice, considers such factors to have increasing importance for certain sectors of the industry.
"Food in the cost sectorhas come under much scrutiny over the past few years, with programmes such as Dispatches and Horizon examining the nutritional content and quality of the meals we eat when we eat out," he says.
"Therefore, we would urge chefs and caterers to look for support in the form of pre-made sauces, gravies and bouillons in order to comply with nutritional regulations and to give them the much-needed time to focus on other aspects of the meal."
As consumers become more experimental with sauces when cooking at home, they are looking for more variety and choice from their out-of-home eating, according to Rigby.
He says: "As a result, it is becoming more acceptable to use and experiment with ready-made stocks and sauces in the foodservice industry as a way of keeping up with consumer demands. Both stocks and sauces are the foundation for a range of dishes, from Indian curries and Chinese stir-fries to traditional British casseroles."
The importance of a good sauce is also highlighted by Roy Shortland, development chef for Dolmio and Uncle Ben's.
"Sauces can make an enormous impact and are often the difference between a great meal and a substandard one, while customers are becoming ever more discerning about what they expect from food when eating out in general," he says. "The challenge is that, in a busy world, caterers do not always have the time or the resources to make sauces completely from scratch, and ready-to-use sauces can be indispensable."
Peace of mind Susan Gregory, head of food at Nestlé Professional, is well aware of the challenge caterers face when it comes to producing sauces.
"Ask any busy operator and they'll tell you that producing scratch-made sauces for what is likely to be a wide variety of dishes can be both time- and cost-prohibitive, making it unrealistic for the majority," she says. "The reality is that ready-made sauces are commonplace in today's kitchens. They are quick and easy to use and provide chefs with the peace of mind of knowing that they'll deliver a consistent quality every time."
Rigby urges caterers to remember how versatile ready-made sauces can be. "So many different ingredients can be added to the same sauce to create different dishes week after week," he says.
"Take a simple tomato sauce and add different herbs or spices for some variety, or try adding shallots and red wine to gravy to create a delicious sauce for beef. Tomato-based sauces are always a hit and a particularly good ingredient for caterers facing strict space constraints, as the sauces can be used across a number of dishes such as spaghetti bolognese, lasagne and pasta bakes."
Cis Nijenhuis, senior brand manager at Heinz Foodservice, points to the recent growth in the foodservice market of burgers, hot dogs, pizzas and sharing platters as an opportunity for caterers to make the most of condiments.
"It is important for outlets to ensure their offering is going to differentiate them from other establishments," he says. "Creative seasonal menus that promote signature burgers or speciality sausages can help enhance a customer's dining experience and really get them talking.
"And it doesn't stop with food; condiments and sauces are an important ingredient when it comes to an outlet's food offering, as they can be used to enhance flavours and allow customers to modify their meal to their own taste."
Hotter and spicier At Atlantic Foods, Nigel Parkes, purchasing and marketing director, says that the most frequent request the company receives is to make a sauce hotter or spicier.
"It's difficult to say exactly why this should be," he says. "It could be that consumers are travelling farther afield and engaging more with local cuisine or the fact that, here at home, concepts such as Nando's are driving the trend successfully; but, whatever the reason, consumers' tastes are certainly more varied and sophisticated today.
"Although the UK sauce market has diversified it has not gone as far as in the USA, where they have various fruit flavours and lots of other variants, like honey, as well as different degrees of heat. I could see the UK market going some way down the route that the USA has taken with regards to variations in flavoured sauces and different heat strengths."
Gregory points out that, just because a sauce is ready-made doesn't mean chefs can't add their own ingredients.
"Increasingly, we're seeing operators taking RTU sauces and using them as a base for their own creations in line with current food trends and packaging them up in an authentic way to give the impression of home-made," she says. "Operators whose core business is burgers, for example, are adding spices, herbs and chillies with red wine vinegar to our tomato sauce to create zingy relishes.
"Similarly, it's perfect for Mexican sauces simply by adding kidney, black-eyed or pinto beans, and fresh vegetables like peppers, extra onions and chillies. What this demonstrates is that ready-to-use sauces will always have their place in the kitchen as they can be so easily adapted to current food trends."
MARK RIGBY'S RTU SAUCE COOKING TIPS
To create a sauce for roast beef, combine gravy with red wine, shallots and your choice of herbs.
Use barbecue sauce as a base for vegetable ratatouille with courgettes, aubergine, peppers and onion - perfect as an accompaniment to a range of meals or as a vegetarian main course served with rice.
For a tasty chicken casserole sauce, combine chicken gravy with chopped tomatoes, red wine, fresh herbs and white wine vinegar.
Use balti sauce with potatoes, cauliflower, onion and garlic to create an authentic aloo gobi - the perfect vegetarian accompaniment for an Indian meal.
Sweet chilli sauce can be used across a variety of Asian-inspired dishes, including Thai-style salmon: marinate the salmon in lime juice and chilli, before stir-frying with the sweet chilli sauce and serving on a bed of noodles.
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