Snap Kitchen, Austin, Texas, offers internationally-inspired bowls like the Mediterranean Mezze Bowl with beet hummus and cashew tzatziki and the Tex-Mex Chicken Bowl with apirulina crema and red salsa.

When Sergio Villegas mistakenly read a half Buffalo/half garlic order for chicken wings at Paisans Pizzeria & Bar, a suburban Chicago restaurant chain, he mixed the two sauces together and tossed the wings. The server made him redo the order for accuracy, while the staff sampled his new creation and liked it. Since then, he fine-tuned the recipe, now featured on the menu and described as “our signature mild Buffalo wings tossed with a savory garlic butter and topped with Parmesan.”

Trial and error is how many sauces are created. Culinary professionals add layers of flavor, often with a kick of heat, to take today’s consumers on the flavor adventure they crave.

“One of the easiest ways for chefs to address consumer demand for variety is with sauces,” says Kate Leahy, spokeswoman for Sunsweet Ingredients, Yuba City, California.

Home cooks, too, recognize the ease-in-use and versatility of cooking and condiment sauces. Manufacturers are responding through enticing innovations ranging from regional barbecue to globally inspired hot sauces.

Healthy options drive growth 

Consumer demand for condiment and cooking sauces helped the market reach $24 billion in sales in 2016, according to a report by Packaged Facts, Rockville, Maryland. Annual retail sales have been growing at a rate of about 2 percent and comparable growth is anticipated through 2021.

“Sauce formulators need to be aware that while consumers want to explore ethnic cuisines and flavor fusions, they are also looking to make better-for-you dietary choices,” Leahy says.

“Sauces are increasingly being marketed as organic and healthy, with new options such as low-sodium or low-sugar varieties supporting restrictive diets,” says David Sprinkle, research director at Packaged Facts.

“Marketing products as certified organic or carrying ‘free-from’ labels has become part of several trends that will help keep sauces and condiments popular with a range of influential consumers,” he says.

Premiumization of flavor profiles, ingredient sourcing and authentic recipes are driving growth of the shelf-stable sauces category. Such specialty sauces represent about 20 percent of the category, and are expected to grow about 5 percent annually in dollar sales, according to the Specialty Foods Association. Cooking sauces, flavored mayonnaises and hot sauces contribute the most to sales, with cooking sauces accounting for about 40 percent of total sales. Not surprisingly, millennials’ affinity for convenient fresh meals is driving innovation and category growth.

The flavor shift

Research shows that ongoing multicultural changes in the US and a desire for authentic recipes are expanding the category with exotic flavor profiles. For Daniela Barreto, manager and chef of Brazilian-themed Estadio Grill, Chicago, it is a combination of three tropical fruits – açaí, passionfruit and guarana – that serves as a backdrop for her exotic secret “Brazinha” hot wing sauce.

“Sophisticated chili pepper and fruit combinations are quite popular,” says Jean Shieh, marketing manager, Sensient Natural Ingredients, Turlock, California. “Consumer preferences are shifting from burning heat to medium/mild heat with interesting background flavors.”

Roger Lane, marketing manager-savory flavors, Sensient Flavors, Hoffman Estates, Illinois, says increasingly those are floral.

“Floral notes are beginning to trend across the sauces category,” he says. “We’ve seen their popularity grow in the beverage segment with hibiscus, cherry blossom and lavender, and all three of these flavors complement sauces. Their subtle flavor notes are difficult to identify, but create a premium experience.”

Judson McLester, executive chef and ingredient sales manager, McIlhenny Company, Avery Island, Louisiana, agrees. “The subtle trend is to merge overlying flavor trends with the familiar, while also providing a unique tasting experience,” he says. “Product familiarity and most of all, memorable flavor delivery are paramount considerations.”

All types of peppers remain popular, though regional chilis enable marketers to differentiate products.

Opposites attract

With the sweet-heat trend, it’s not just sweet, as in sugar. Rather, sauces are being formulated to have flavorful sweetness.

“This trend has been around for quite some time, but we’re seeing it combine in a more global way,” Lane says. “We’re now seeing Mexican chilis combined with agave, Indian chilis with maple syrup and Middle Eastern flavors with honey.”

Toasted coconut is what Geo Phelps, owner, Chili Rocks, Cincinnati, uses in his CoCo Ghost Pepper Hot Sauce. The sweetness of the coconut helps lessen the heat of habanero and ghost chilis.

All types of peppers remain popular in sauces, though regional chilis, often those that are hard to find in the mainstream supermarket, enable marketers to differentiate products beyond the hot sauce condiment.

“Aji panca from Peru, cascabel from Mexico, urfa chili from Turkey, and even the perennial Hatch green chili from New Mexico – all of these have really gained momentum this past year,” Lane says. “Each of these chilis has a unique flavor profile. Typically adding a creamy or cheesy note works well to temper their heat and allow their flavor to be appreciated. Sometimes adding a sweet note helps balance flavor, too.”

“Many of these peppers impart actual flavor rather than just heat,” adds Scott Walnofer, senior director of culinary, Kerry, Beloit, Wisconsin. “Guajillo chili has dark berry notes while the aji pepper has a sweet flavor profile somewhere between a cooked mango and an apricot.”

Jerry McDonald, vice president of culinary, MiDAS Foods International, Oak Park, Michigan, says, “People are demanding specific chilis by name and also moving beyond the simple pairing of sweet and heat. There is great demand for depth of flavors, paired with the heat. 

“Fermented, pickled and cured flavors can provide depth to the heat,” he says. “Bright flavors, too, pair well with heat. This includes citrus, Earl Grey tea, sakura, cilantro, ginger and coriander.”

Rethinking the classics

Mature condiments with established recipes are being revisited, according to Sprinkle of Packaged Facts, with innovative sauce manufacturers offering twists on the classics. For instance, many mayonnaise brands now offer wasabi, chipotle, pesto, garlic, horseradish and ginger flavors, among others.

“Ketchup varieties include chipotle, ghost pepper, sriracha and sun-dried tomato,” Sprinkle says. “Mustard might feature garlic, bleu cheese, oregano, or, of all things, ‘everything bagel’ flavors.”

For instance, Fine Foods of America, Kansas City, Missouri, offers a dozen varieties of Fine Vines Artisanal Ketchup. To stand out, the ketchups come in 9-oz. glass jars rather than plastic bottles. They are meant to be used as a topping, like traditional ketchup, but can also be much more. Varieties include alderwood, black truffle, smoked Serrano and Thai ginger.

This past summer, Adam Woolven, head chef at Island Grill, a sustainable restaurant in Lancaster, London, encouraged diners to reach beyond the ketchup for a condiment with a little more kick. That would be one of his many homemade chutneys and jams.

One of his favorites is a tangy tomato and chili jam. The jam gets its unique flavor from fish sauce, which contributes a hearty umami taste. It is balanced by the addition of a dark brown demerara sugar. The mixture is then given an addition of red wine vinegar. The layers of flavors come from the chili peppers, garlic cloves and fresh ginger that are cooked with the vine-ripe plum tomatoes.

“Consumers, especially younger consumers, are driving innovation on menus and on grocery shelves,” says Lindsey Oostema, senior marketing specialist, Synergy Flavors, Wauconda, Illinois. “They want authenticity and nostalgic flavors but with a modern and upscale twist. For example, ranch dressing is a staple but a manufacturer could make a premium, all-natural refrigerated version top-noted with a cucumber essence for an upscale, refreshing spin.”

Sweet fruits like mango pair well with many chilis and spices.

Barbecue rules

“Barbecue sauce demand showed healthy growth the past five years as consumers increasingly tried new flavors, especially spicier varieties,” Sprinkle says. “Price gains involved premiumization of barbecue sauce, as well as the development of organic products.”

Regionally produced barbecue sauces using local ingredients continue to be a bright spot in the condiment aisle. Sauces from the Carolinas skew tangy and spicy from the use of vinegar, cayenne, black pepper, crushed red pepper, hot sauce and yellow mustard. St. Louis barbecue, on the other hand, tends to be quite sweet with a bit of acid from a heavy tomato base. Kansas City barbecue uses a similar base but adds more layers of flavor with smoke and molasses. In the Southwest, Texans favor spice and heat, with a hint of sweetness.

Around the world, barbecue gets bolder. In Latin America it’s all about red chilis and cilantro, while in Korea, black and chili peppers combine with the Asian flavors of soy sauce, sesame and ginger. The Middle East tends to be more fragrant than spicy heat, relying on the flavors of cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, cumin and garlic.

Ssamjang sauce is a type of Korean barbecue sauce that is gaining popularity with the food truck trend. Its main ingredients are doenjang, a slow-fermented soybean paste with a rich umami taste, and gochujang, a red chili paste.

New territory

Sauce innovation is often about adding a new layer of flavor or swapping flavors.

“Zhug is likely to become the next hot sauce, as regional Middle Eastern foods are on a rapid rise,” McDonald says. “Cold and creamy dressing-style sauces complement zhug, as they offset the heat.”

“I often add some mushroom powder to sauces because it gives a savory umami flavor without being something many people can put their finger on,” says Aspen Burkhardt, a regional account manager at LifeSpice.

Za’atar gives Pomodoro an unexpected twist, according to Christopher Warsow, manager of culinary applications, Bell Flavors and Fragrances, Northbrook, Illinois. The sesame adds richness while the thyme gives it a pungent herbaceous note.

“We’ve created a ranch dressing spiked with Japanese togarashi,” Warsow says. “The citrus notes add depth to the ranch, while the dairy balances the heat.”

Warsow’s Eastern European heritage drives him to use bay leaves to add non-characterizing background notes to rich sauces. He also likes to use thyme to enhance the “warmness.”