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Chefs look to the future with 'heritage' techniques

SHAPE September 2017

Menumakers add new twists to menus with fermentation, pickling and canning techniques.

Fall Foodie

Chefs and restaurateurs looking to give their menus a distinctive, forward-looking spin are revisiting a trio of ancient food preparation and preservation techniques — fermentation, pickling and canning.

The trend — which encompasses in-house fermentation and pickling in particular — is being explored by an increasing number of menumakers. “Chefs across the country and in all segments of the industry have been embracing 'heritage' culinary techniques like pickling and fermenting foods to create bigger, bolder flavors,” says Amy Myrdal Miller, founder and president of Farmer's Daughter Consulting in Carmichael, Calif.

For example, Myrdal Miller says, “Americans are used to seeing pickles on their hamburgers, but now chefs are using pickled foods like kimchi to add flavor and intrigue to both familiar and new menu items.”

Fermented foods also are not new to American menus. Consumers have long been familiar with fermented foods like beer, bread, sausage and cheese. “But now we’re seeing chefs fermenting vegetables and fruit to create more assertive condiments,” says Myrdal Miller. “We’re also seeing fermented beverages like Kombucha and drinkable vinegars making their way onto menus.”

Inspired by the success of the in-house pickling trend, chefs are becoming more daring when it comes to sour flavors, says Scott Allmendinger, director of consulting for the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. Allmendinger expects that foods and beverages inflected with a sour component will become more menu-friendly, much as peppers and hot foods have done in recent years. Chefs also will find other uses for preserved and pickled fruits and vegetables in recipes, like curry flavored with pickled blueberries, he says.

The mantra, Allmendinger predicts, will be “How sour can you go.”


Pickling

Thanks in part to the growing interest in farm-to-table cuisine and old-fashioned skills, mentions of pickled vegetables on menus have doubled since 2011, according to Joe Garber, marketing coordinator for Chicago-based research firm Datassential. In fact, the National Restaurant Association in its What's Hot Culinary Forecast for 2017 said housemade pickles ranked 13th among its Top 20 Food Trends.

Like fermentation, the pickling process can contribute other flavors — acid, for instance — depending on what is added to the pickling liquid. It can also be used to communicate a restaurant's localized culinary philosophy by displaying colorful jars of in-house pickled vegetables on shelves in the dining room.

Restaurants can ferment and pickle nearly any food, from fruits, vegetables and grains to milk, beans, fish and meat. “I used to see roasted beet salads in Northern California,” Myrdal Miller observes. “Now chefs are using pickled beets in beet salads to cut the richness of the goat cheese that typically accompanies the beets.”

In Sacramento, she continues, “there’s a local chef who makes vegetarian beet burgers by brining, then roasting, slicing and finally searing slices of beets in olive oil. He serves the beet 'burgers' on brioche rolls with Manchego cheese.”

Fermentation

In an earlier interview, Matthew Britt, chef-instructor at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I., acknowledged the growing interest surrounding the fermentation process, adding that chefs are taking foods normally served in a fresh, natural state and allowing them to ferment in-house where they're able to “develop nuances of flavor. The longer something sits, the more flavors develop,” he says

The New Food Lover’s Companion defines fermentation as “a process by which food or drink goes through a chemical change caused by enzymes produced from bacteria, microorganism, or yeast.” And while the process can be relatively straightforward, it “takes a lot of management,” Britt says.

The growing consumer interest in eating more healthfully also is helping to drive interest in fermentation. The fermentation process changes the carbohydrate content of foods, turning what are often quickly metabolized carbohydrates — that is, sugars — into acid or alcohol for which there are some health benefit, Myrdal Miller says. “There are digestive benefits of fermented foods, especially for those that contain live, active cultures that contribute to gut health. Fermentation also makes some nutrients more bioavailable, meaning the body is better able to absorb and use the nutrients.”

The fermentation process also plays into the growing trend toward menuing bolder flavors. “Sour is the next spicy,” Allmendinger says. “It is exciting and dangerous — like heat and the Scoville [pepper] scale.” Fermentation also enhances umami in foods, he adds.

Fermentation is not restricted to foods alone — it also has had an impact on beverage development, as shown in the growing popularity of Kombucha, a tangy, non-alcoholic fermented tea, which purportedly contains health benefits.


Canning

In-house canning also is emerging as an on-trend technique in many kitchens. Rows of canned produce line the walls and shelves of many restaurants, which play comfortably into the farm-to-table trend. Consumers have shown they love local, and this nod to “homemade” can form part of a larger brand identity for many independent and chain restaurants.

In-house canning “identifies a restaurant as a farm-to-table concept that presumably promotes local produce and other ingredients. Most of the canned goods on display in restaurants on the West Coast and in the South feature fruits and vegetables, although in the Northeast you might even see pickled fish,” Myrdal Miller says.

But not all canned foods should be expected to generate consumer interest. “Canning your own green beans may not particularly excite customers, whereas a restaurant that cans its own chutney may prove to be more interesting,” Allmendinger says.

Meanwhile, restaurants that pursue any of those preparation and preservation techniques should proceed with caution. “At the restaurant level you have to be dedicated to it. You need to allot the appropriate space, adhere to HACCP controls, and have properly trained personnel,” says Allmendinger.

Nevertheless, with the growing consumer interest in bolder flavors and healthful alternatives, chefs and restaurateurs are bound to continue to explore new menu applications for these “heritage” techniques.


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