Chefs share their favorite go-to ingredients and techniques for creating flavorful, on-trend dressings, marinades and sauces.

What’s the next sriracha? Named after the city of Si Racha in Thailand, the condiment, with its profile of heat and a touch of sweet, has changed the way consumers view and use hot sauce. It has also sparked the race for innovation in the pourable food topping category — dressings, marinades and sauces — and has product developers turning to a new set of ingredients for innovative recipe and formulation ideas.

The third dimension

“It is not enough to be spicy hot. Be three dimensional,” said Judson McLester, executive chef and ingredient sales manager, McIlhenny Co., Avery Island, La. “For example, think chamoy, which I prepare by combining smoky ancho chiles with apricot preserves, lime juice and salt.

“My favorite marinade is one for skirt steak, where I combine lime juice, olive oil, cilantro, garlic, salt and Tabasco chipotle sauce. The brightness of the lime juice keeps the cilantro and garlic tasting fresh, while the Tabasco chipotle instills a smooth, smoky note with a mild heat.”

Smoky, as well as earthy flavors, are increasingly making their way into the condiment aisle. This includes paprika blends, white peppercorn and toasted coriander seed, according to Rob Jensen, founder of Jensen’s Kitchen LLC, Syosset, N.Y.

Most culinologists have their favorite flavor ingredients. Some will always work a little soy sauce into a recipe, while others swear by cracked peppercorn. For Guy Meikle, corporate chef, Mizkan America Inc., Mount Prospect, Ill., that would be garlic confit.

“Garlic confit adds body, sweetness, richness and roasted notes, successfully rounding out almost any dish, sauce, cream, vinaigrette or dressing,” he said.

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Bacon-wrapped rotisserie skewers served with white barbecue sauce.

Sweet heat evolves

Mark Emery, product development chef, Gordon Food Service, Wyoming, Mich., believes there’s still a lot of opportunity to be creative with sriracha, particularly in sweeter profiles.

“Sriracha will see continued use as a flavor ingredient, but might take a back seat in naming conventions with other complementary ingredients,” he said. “Incorporate flavorful heat, which can come through fermented chiles, as well as smoky or fruity peppers. Sweet flavors that mingle well with heat include honey and molasses. Vinegar and citrus are also very complementary.”

Mr. Meikle agreed sriracha is evolving and is the driver of sweet with heat combinations. He believes the most craveable condiments achieve a harmonious balance of saltiness, acidity and sweetness. 

“The sweet-heat trend replicates what sriracha does, but adds a dimension of flavor, taking the palette on a wild ride,” he said. “A favorite sweet-heat flavor fusion is ghost pepper, lemon and honey vinaigrette. The sensory adventure begins with the bright acidity of the lemon, then transitions into a light burn with cranberry notes from the ghost pepper and finishes with the grassy, floral sweetness of the honey.”

Ghost peppers are recognized as one of the hottest naturally occurring, non-hybrid peppers known to man. They are up to eight times as hot as habaneros.

Ghost peppers make sense in condiments, where other vibrant ingredients can round out the overall flavor profile, according to Jeffrey Cousminer, research development manager, Stonewall Kitchen, York, Maine. This is exemplified in the company’s recently launched ghost pepper salsa, where tomatoes add sweetness and mellow the heat.

“We are also working a lot with miso, the traditional Japanese fermented soybean paste,” Mr. Cousminer said. “Miso works well in savory sauces and dressings because it provides umami along with its own unique flavor profile.”

The consensus is sophisticated heat and sweet combinations are driving innovation.

“Green serrano chile and mango make a great dressing,” said Jean Shieh, marketing manager, Sensient Natural Ingredients, Turlock, Calif. “The fruity notes and medium heat of the serrano chile pepper smoothly integrate with the sweetness of mango. Another favorite is ancho chile teriyaki as a marinade, which delivers smoky notes with chocolate undertones.”

Another example comes from TW Garner Food Co., Winston-Salem, N.C. Texas Pete Fiery Sweet Sauce combines spicy cayenne pepper flavor with sweet molasses.

“The flavor is so versatile that you can use it either as an ingredient or as a condiment, especially on an Asian dish,” said Ann Garner Riddle, chief executive officer. “There’s a great deal of interest in flavors from the Mediterranean and Middle East. Many of them are quite hot, but the combination of ingredients elicits a complex flavor.”

Innovative ingredients

Though heat may be the norm, there’s plenty of room for innovation in non-spicy toppings. Both savory and citrus combinations are proliferating in the category.

Formulators are looking beyond lemon, lime and orange, according to Frederick Heurtin, chef, Golden State Foods, Irvine, Calif. They are discovering such fruit ingredients as Buddha’s hand, orange blossom and preserved lemon.

Citrus fruits may amplify flavors without adding sodium. At the same time, they add a subtle layer of flavor. For example, citrus melds well with avocado, which is trending in refrigerated dressings, according to Benjamen Woodbridge, marketing research manager, Litehouse Foods, Sandpoint, Idaho.

So is Greek yogurt. Citrus complements Greek yogurt, which is increasingly being used as a base for condiments because of its lower fat, higher protein nutrition profile.

A trend that has caught the eye of Michael Gunn, director of culinary, The Schwan Food Co., Marshall, Minn., is barrel-aged flavors, which includes soy sauce, vinegar and maple syrup. This complements the blurring of the line between kitchen and bar.

“Chefs are incorporating hand-crafted, small-batch bitters, whiskeys and other cocktail components into their dishes,” said Mr. Gunn. “This is an opportunity for a developer to bring a degree of localism and artisanal flair to their products.”  

Chef Michael Lachowicz of Restaurant Michael and George Trois, both in Winnetka, Ill., has seen the circular trend of classic sauce work come and go at least a half dozen times during his 25 years as a saucier.

“Each time this has occurred, an interesting twist has been a part of the resurgence,” Mr. Lachowicz said. “This time around I am noticing classic meets modern in regards to the alcohol being used in base reductions before the addition of stock or demi-glace.

“While in my early training using alcohol in sauces was very standardized, with the common list being red or white wine, dry vermouth and maybe cognac,” he said. “Now there are bolder alcohol reductions that incorporate contrasting tastes, such as a sweet port wine and absinthe, or dandelion wine and Calvados.”

The contrasting tastes function synergistically. They play out like yin and yang in the mouth.

“This awakens the taste buds for the next bite and can be very refreshing,” Mr. Lachowicz said.

Marie Cantelaube, head chef, Blue Osa retreat and spa, Costa Rica, who recently authored the cookbook “Eating Clean in Costa Rica,” said, “One of my favorite secret kitchen tricks is to use fresh vanilla. It has to be fresh. It works so well in a white sauce with a little lime. This combination is exotic, rich and smooth to the palate. 

“Another is honey when making marinades for chicken,” she said. “The combination of honey with hot or sour just works. Honey is so sweet and beautifully caramelizes the meat.” 

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Cuban-inspired chilau sauce by Spice Crafters, Orlando.

A flavorful story

The concept of artisanal authenticity lends itself very well to the condiment category, according to Mr. Meikle, from Mizkan America. And that contributed to the popularity of sriracha.

“Telling the story of flavor involves going back to the roots of food, where it originated, how it was cultivated and the methods by which it was prepared,” he said. “Millennial audiences, in particular, want flavors that spark their imaginations and tell a story. This gives them incentive to choose a food.”

For example, Mizkan now offers Barengo Balsamic Vinegar of Modena, which is crafted from grapes grown in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy using techniques passed down through generations.

Mr. Meikle agreed that people love polarizing, supercharged flavor combinations because they stimulate the palette in unique, unexpected ways and often tie in multi-ethnic ingredients and artisanal authenticity.

“One of my favorite examples is fried chicken coated in a bourbon, red jalapeño and maple syrup sauce,” he said. “This sauce contains deep caramel notes derived from the maple syrup layered with sharp floral notes from the jalapeños, with hints of earthy and vanilla notes from the bourbon, delivering an explosion of flavor.”

Culinary foundations

Innovative condiment creations are also being driven by the desire for cleaner labels with easy-to-understand ingredients and healthful profiles. To accomplish this, formulators are reaching into their culinary bag of tricks to add zest and zing to products that appeal to the most discriminating label reader.

For example, condiments have long been a source of excessive sodium. “The days of relying on salt as the ‘magic bullet’ to provide a boost of flavor are long gone,” said Mr. Gunn. “One of my favorite flavor-boosting ingredients is miso powder. It helps bolster that foundational umami flavor we get with added salt. I also like roasted onion base. Adding a little to a formula boosts the roasted or sautéed characteristics of kettle-cooked condiments. Another favorite is lemon juice, just enough to brighten the flavors of the condiment.”

Mr. Jensen believes food toppings should complement food, not overpower it. With this mindset, he created Kettle Cooked Peppers and Onions flavor enhancer, condiment, dip, sauce and marinade. Made with 100% pure olive oil, this pourable product contains no added sugars or preservatives and comes in original and sriracha flavors.

Peppers and onions are caramelized in small batch kettles. The heat allows for non-enzymatic browning of the natural sugars, which produces a more immediate, intense sweetness in the product. The sriracha variety is the original product formulation, just with some kick.

Regional flair

For some companies, that go-to flavor speaks to the region, adding authenticity.

“As Mainers, we like to use maple syrup and maple sugar as a sweetener to provide a recognizable point of difference from more generic sweeteners,” Mr. Cousminer said. “We use it in jams, dressings and sauces, fruit butters, mustards, even in an aioli to provide that ‘touch of New England.’”

Michael Anderson, founder, Spice Crafters LLC, Orlando, is introducing chilau sauce — a Cuban-inspired tomato-based enchilada sauce that has evolved over the years in central Florida — which he calls a “Tampa thing.”

“Chilau not only represents a historic time and flavor of Tampa Bay, it represents cultural diversity and a lifestyle of down-home cooking, seafood and family,” Mr. Anderson said. “Today’s consumers are seeking more of what’s different and delicious. I think we are only scratching the surface of what flavors are to come through combinations of ingredients from different cultures and varied cooking styles.”