It may be a cliché, but a good stock really is the foundation of any good meal. Angela Frewin reports on both the time-honoured and trendy new products out there
Investing in a quality stock brings guaranteed dividends because, as Sarah Robb, channel marketing manager at Premier Foods, attests, "stock is the main source of flavour in a dish and the foundation for most sauces."
So scrimping on the stock front can prove a false economy. "A robust, flavoursome stock is the cornerstone of any good kitchen," says Nigel Crane, managing director at Essential Cuisine. "As the base of a dish, sub-standard stock can quickly destroy all your hard work."
However, not all kitchens have the time or skills to make their own. "With the cost implications on labour and raw ingredients, caterers can rarely spare the resources to buy fresh bones, cut and roast all the vegetables, use wine and port in the reduction, cook for eight hours, strain and reduce with more alcohol and then finish the sauce to order," explains Rob Owen, executive development chef at Creed Foodservice.
Ready-made stocks and sauces can help caterers ride the gravy train with a consistent and convenient solution that also, adds Owen, reduces the food hygiene and health and safety issues that can arise from leaving a stock-pot boiling for long periods.
"We anticipate demand for ready-made stocks and sauces will continue to grow as the quality and diversity of formats and varieties increases," agrees Sandro Bevilacqua, vice-chairman of Continental Quattro Stagioni, whose La Salse Zini frozen Italian sauces include a mushroom and black truffle flavour that is popular with high-end restaurants. All eleven flavours come in an innovative granular form that is easy to portion.
The newest format on the block - Knorr's beef, chicken or vegetable jelly bouillon - is billed as "the closest to scratch-made stock available" and its quality, flavour, ease of use and versatility in glazes, marinades and sauces has been endorsed by both the Craft Guild of Chefs and Mark Sargeant, chef-patron of Folkestone's Rocksalt restaurant. "Knorr Professional jelly bouillon looks the same as if I had made my own stock from scratch," enthuses Sargeant. "It dissolves quickly and easily and the flavour is great."
An economical approach is to choose an all-rounder that works across the menu. "There is a trend for caterers to find one stock or sauce that fits all," explains Owen. "This is generally achieved by finding a suitable vegetarian, gluten-free stock or sauce and adding the cooking liquor of whatever product is being used to differentiate the taste of the stock or sauce."
This strategy can help limit the number of separate specialist dishes required to meet the growing demand for special diets. "When choosing sauces, it's important that caterers take into account the growing number of customers with allergies and special dietary requirements," advises Ben Bartlett, brand ambassador for Lion Sauces. "It's best to go for products that are suitable for as many potential customers as possible." The biggest trend - for gluten-free - is rapidly becoming the benchmark for all new product development and, notes Owen, many suppliers are busy eliminating all key allergens, along with high salt levels and artificial additives and preservatives.
"With research showing coeliac disease affects up to 630,000 people in the UK, catering for intolerances is one of the biggest needs to emerge in recent years," agrees Rodriques at Nestlé, whose new Maggi gluten-free vegetarian gravy mix is designed to please a wide base without sacrificing the deep, roasted flavour of its original gravy.
Essential Cuisine's gluten-free stocks and glaces have an eye towards a market that Mintel predicts will swell to £512m by 2017. Its intensely flavoured glace stock reductions (recently joined by duck, pork and wild mushroom flavours) also dovetail with the burgeoning £5b all-day casual-dining market, which NPD Group predicts will dwarf all other out-of-home sectors by 2016.
"This shift in eating habits means meals are being brought together a lot quicker and, as a result, cooking times are going right down," explains Crane. "Because of this there is a need to get flavour in fast, meaning impactful flavour profiles are becoming much more important." The glaces can be used as stand- alone drizzles, dressings and glazes to enhance jus, reductions and sauces.
Ready-made sauces offer chefs the easiest way to cater for changing palates without overcrowding the ingredients cupboard, notes Clare Blampied, managing director at Sacla' UK, which recently launched its Sacla' Professionale foodservice line of Italian sauces and pestos to the hospitality sector.
And they are a ready-made route into emerging food trends, adds Macdonald at Bay Tree, whose latest world cooking sauce is a Japanese katsu curry.
Bryant at Major attests to the public's growing appetite for global tastes: "Most definitely, more ethnic and oriental flavours are on the increase, such as tandoori, Moroccan, Korean and Vietnamese, along with spices such as piri piri and fajita." According to Euromonitor International, consumers are in thrall to hot, spicy flavours, with sales of hot chilli sauces booming worldwide and Nando's and Encona each accounting for 30% of the UK market.
The casual-dining boom has made ribs, burgers and potato shells hot menu items and Tom Styman-Heighton, development chef at Funnybones, urges caterers to use its on-trend Le Mexicana and Encona sauces (which include new Peruvian amarillo chilli and Mexican smokey jalapeno flavours) as dips, salsas and condiments to up-sell a meal.
The enduring Tex-Mex craze has, adds Bartlett, extended barbecue-inspired dishes beyond the outdoor summer season, making barbecue sauces (such as Lion's hickory, sticky and maple and bourbon flavours) year-round staples as marinades, dips and toppings.
Likewise, Uncle Ben's and Dolmio cooking sauces (available in globe-spanning flavours from the Americas, Italy, India and Asia) can multi-task in a host of applications from table sauces to dips and dressings. "Our ambient ready-to-use sauces can be used as bases for everything from pot pies, burgers, barbecue pork and tacos to curries, stir-fries and salads," says Mars development chef Roy Shortland. "The best way to get the most out of them is to be original and a bit clever, using the sauces as meat and fish marinades, as soup bases or even as cold sauces on salads."
"The great thing about ready-made sauces is their versatility," agrees Bartlett. "They don't have to be used in isolation - you can use them as a base for recipes, combine them to create unique dishes, and use them to add a signature twist to your tried-and-tested favourites." A simple idea, advises Bryant at Major, is to brush sauces and marinades directly onto bread, potatoes and pizza bases.
Pre-made does not preclude adding your own ingredients and ready-made products provide a perfect platform for chefs at all skill levels to build their own personalised sauces and dishes, says Robb at Premier (whose best-selling stock is Bisto Beef Bouillon).
"Adding ingredients to Bisto Gravy, such as red wine, shallots and herbs, will create a delicious sauce from the foundation of a taste that consumers already know and love," she says.
"Consumers are now, more than ever before, seeking variety and choice from their out-of-home eating because ready-made sauces and stocks, available in a wide range of premium tastes, have become everyday cupboard essentials at home."
"Every chef worth their salt needs consistent products to work with, with a good colour, clean label, succulent flavour and rich aroma," says David Bryant, managing director at Major International. For him, a good-quality stock offers natural ingredients and authentic flavour profiles because, "it's difficult to produce a good classic sauce from a stock base filled with additives and a high salt content. Chefs want natural, clean flavours and a stock to which they can add their own seasoning."
Read the label in detail, advises Rob Owen at Creed Foodservice: "You should be looking for a clean deck of ingredients with no flavour enhancers such as MSG. It is always a good sign when the first ingredient on the label mirrors what the flavour of the stock is - for example, beef stock should have beef as the primary ingredient, ensuring a true flavour.
"Another tip is to check the yield, as some may seem more expensive at first glance, but when calculated to portion costing, the cost is more realistic and that is the figure that counts."
Ease of use makes powder the most popular stock format, says Owen. "Chilled and frozen formats of stocks and sauces are generally ready-to-use versions, which provide a quick and simple product," he explains. The trade-off is a larger price tag and fridge or freezer footprint.
"Ambient formats have to be reconstituted with either boiling water or brought to the boil with a specific measured amount. So with larger yields and extended shelf life, the ambient format it still regarded as the go-to option."
AAK Foodservice/Lion Sauces
Bay Tree Food Company
Continental Quattro Stagioni
Unilever Food Solutions/Knorr
Mars (Uncle Ben's/Dolmio)