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Time in a Bottle – US Food Trends

10 September 2008

Bottled sauces earn their keep in surprising and expected places, helping build flavors, save labor and ensure consistency.

This article first appeared in the 1 September 2008 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).

R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. Visit the R&I website to find out more about the magazine or to search its recipe database.

By Allison Perlik, Senior Editor

At Ammos Estiatorio in New York City, Executive Chef David Ogren's secret weapon for finishing dishes isn't the expected squeeze of fresh lemon juice or a drizzle of good olive oil. His go-to ingredient? A few shakes of hot sauce.

The spicy condiment might seem more at home on Tex-Mex or Cajun-inspired menus than at an upscale Greek-fusion restaurant, but Ogren says its fermented acidity adds depth and complexity that isn't delivered by lemon juice or vinegar. At Ammos, the bottled sauce plays all sorts of cameo roles, displaying its versatility by kicking up a lemon vinaigrette that accents baked feta cheese and brightening a meaty veal-stock-and-red-wine reduction that accompanies Indian-spiced lamb.

"Throughout my career I've used hot sauce in everything," Ogren says. "It's all about that acidity and richness, the depth of flavor."

Granted, chefs are more likely to wax enthusiastically about house-made recipes than about their secret stashes of ready-to-use ingredients, but most kitchens likely harbor at least one or two bottled sauces.

For some operators, including Ogren, the reason for choosing a prepared product over a scratch-made version is as simple as the desire to capture the hard-to-duplicate flavor of staples such as hot sauce and Worcestershire sauce or ethnic specialties such as teriyaki, sriracha or sweet-chile sauce.

For others, bottled sauces go a long way toward saving time and labor, reducing product inventories and ensuring consistency.

"You want to convey to your guests that they're going to come back and get the same flavor profiles," says Executive Chef Ramon Delgado at Desert Diamond Casino in Tucson, Ariz., where dining choices include two 350-seat buffets, a 200-seat upscale steakhouse and an Asian-themed casual eatery.

Putting a personal stamp on ready-to-use sauces and glazes keeps recipes fresh and original. At Delgado's restaurants, caramelized chunks of char-grilled, individually quick-frozen mangoes add heft to a ginger-and-garlic-spiced orange sauce that complements chicken and pork entrées, while crushed, toasted peanuts lend welcome crunch to the Korean-style chile-garlic sauce that glazes roasted pork loin.

"Once you have recipes.rimag.com/recipe.asp?id=1841">http://recipes.rimag.com/recipe.asp?id=1841" target="_blank" rel="noreferrer">these sauces], you own them," he says. "I don't think any of our guests would say our food tastes like it comes from anyplace but our restaurants."

Hitting the Bottle

Carrie Nahabedian, chef-owner at Mediterranean-influenced American restaurant Naha in Chicago, is at heart a pragmatist, balancing that side of her culinary persona with the refined finesse that is a hallmark of her menu. She says that from time and labor standpoints, it doesn't make sense to make from scratch the sweet-chile sauce that is a key ingredient in the glaze for her popular chicken wings. A top-notch bottled product does the job just as well, she insists.

"We don't generally buy things in bottles and jars … but do you want to turn your restaurant into condiment-making central?" she says. "We're not an Asian restaurant. This way, we can use this ingredient and enhance it with fresh ingredients."

Besides pickled red chiles, garlic, sugar and water, the sweet-chile sauce she buys includes xanthan gum, a stabilizer and thickening agent that helps the glaze adhere to the chicken better than it would if she made it from scratch, Nahabedian says. She tempers the prepared product, which she finds cloying on its own, with fresh lime juice, cilantro, rice-wine vinegar and sesame oil.

Although Nahabedian has enough experience with Asian cooking to create a house-made sweet-chile sauce if she wanted to, chefs aren't always well-versed in the many ethnic cuisines that consumers seek. That's where bottled sauces offer welcome help in creating authentic flavor profiles.

"Having premade Asian sauces enabled me to put things on my menu that people were asking for that I didn't have a lot of experience in," says Executive Chef Rob McCabe of Lackmann Culinary Services at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.

To make dipping sauce for lemongrass-infused chicken dumplings at the campus' University Club, McCabe infuses coconut milk with lemongrass and stirs in ready-to-use red-curry sauce. He adds soy sauce, brown sugar, rice-wine vinegar and crushed peanuts to prepared hoisin sauce for a complement to flash-fried calamari.

All for One, One for All

Partially scratch-made sauces often take advantage of their bottled counterparts. At Nuevo Latino restaurant Nacional 27 in Chicago, the house steak sauce starts with puréed peppers, honey, balsamic vinegar, Creole mustard and the kitchen's signature N27 Hot Sauce (made from ancho and chipotle chiles blended with white vinegar and water). Worcestershire sauce and a popular Jamaican pepper sauce also are key components.

Richard Sandoval, chef-owner of Tamayo Grill in Denver, combines Worcestershire sauce with a purchased Asian sauce made from vegetable proteins in a marinade for steak skewers that also includes canola oil, lemon juice and beer.

"I use bottled sauces to bring more components to marinades," Sandoval says. "You can get all these different flavors from one sauce."

Operators also appreciate that bottled sauces have a longer shelf life than do the fresh ingredients required to prepare many recipes from scratch. That's why William Read, executive chef at Saint Mary's Health Care in Grand Rapids, Mich., sometimes prefers bottled cilantro sauce over the fresh herb.

At the hospital's deli, he combines the bright-green condiment with roasted garlic, chopped onion and fresh herbs to create a spread for wraps. Elsewhere on the menu, ready-to-use ancho or chipotle chile sauces mixed with sour cream or ranch dressing accent Southwest chicken sandwiches. On patient menus, stir-fries get a boost from the addition of pineapple, red-pepper flakes and fresh parsley to prepared sweet-and-sour sauce.

[Recipe: Sweet and Sour Lamb Ribs >>

"Don't get me wrong; we have a cook-chill tank where we do cook all our own soups, so we're doing like 70 gallons of 12 different kinds of soups in a two-week period that we make from scratch," Read says. But, he adds, there's a time and a place for using bottled sauces for the convenience they provide. "If it doesn't hurt the quality, why not?"

The Mother of All Sauces

Louisville, Colo.-based Rock Bottom Restaurant & Brewery prides itself on its house-made recipes, but when kitchens struggled to turn out consistent sauces from one location to another, the casual-dining chain needed a new strategy. The company turned to a vendor partner to create proprietary versions of three mother recipes-white velouté-style sauce, brown ale sauce and red tomato sauce-that now serve as versatile foundations for more than a dozen sauces on the menu, as well as daily specials.

Not only have consistency and flavor improved in the 18 months since the prepared products were introduced, but also the chain has seen reductions in food costs and labor needs, says Director of Research and Development Susan Ralston. Accuracy improved, too, because package sizes for the base sauces were designed in proportion to Rock Bottom recipes: Instead of asking the cook to measure out specific amounts of lots of ingredients, each recipe calls for one bag, two bags, etc.

Most finished sauces require only a few more ingredients to complete. The white mother sauce, for example, is mixed with a bourbon reduction, half-and-half and Gorgonzola cheese for a sauce that accompanies grilled filet mignon. To use on pasta, the same white velouté base is combined with roasted red peppers, ancho chiles, roasted garlic and vinegar.

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