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WSJ: Mmm, the Flavors of Fermentation
Love me some good kimchi or piling on the Sriracha.
Mmm, the Flavors of Fermentation
By ELLEN BYRON
No one says, "I feel like fermented food tonight." But pungent, tangy flavors—all results of fermentation—are increasingly sneaking into grocery-store aisles.
Packaged-food makers, grocers and chefs say more Americans are developing a bigger taste for fermented foods. Flavor experts even envision a world where spicy kimchi replaces pedestrian sauerkraut on American hot dogs. Already, fermented flavors are popping up on snacks and condiments such as Lay's Sriracha potato chips, Heinz balsamic vinegar flavored ketchup and Trader Joe's Spicy Seaweed Ramen noodles. The Subway sandwich chain is testing a creamy Sriracha sauce.
Demand is especially strong from baby boomers, who face a weakening ability to taste and are drawn to stronger flavors, and the 20-something millennials, who seek new and exotic tastes.
"There's no question both consumer groups are voting this way," says Mark Schiller, president of the Duncan Hines grocery division at Pinnacle Foods Inc., which makes Vlasic pickles. "You'll start to see much more assertive flavor combinations."
The move reflects how tart, sour and bitter flavors are beginning to dominate American cuisine. "Everything was sweeter before," says Kevin McDermott, North America executive chef at International Flavors and Fragrances Inc., which concocts both natural and artificial flavors and scents for major food and consumer-products companies.
Fermentation broadly describes a natural preservation process that boosts beneficial bacteria, which generate deep, rich flavors. An array of foods and beverages relies on fermentation, including sourdough, yogurt, cheese, sauerkraut, kefir, kombucha, beer and wine. The flavorful taste generated by fermentation often doesn't carry many calories, and the probiotics involved can help boost digestive health, experts say.
Flavor specialists at IFF are developing new flavors to seize on this trend, especially as more of their clients want to add a hint of fermented flavor to mass-produced products.
At IFF's test kitchen in South Brunswick, N.J., staff chefs recently prepared pickled zucchini with an IFF-concocted natural kimchi flavor, which gave it a tangy zing. The goal is to incorporate "Korean-type flavors like kimchi into a very middle-American, consumer-friendly concept," says David Horrocks, a research chef at IFF. Using a kimchi flavoring, rather than the authentic (and hot) version, helps food companies translate the popular Korean dish to mainstream American palates, he says. "It's something that can be familiar and approachable but really new, too," Mr. Horrocks says.
Recreating naturally occurring fermented flavors in a lab isn't easy, experts say. "What I marvel the most about is the complexity, especially with something like kimchi," says Paul Ricciardi, an IFF flavorist. "You have the heat, of course, but you also have the nice cabbage nose and the umami note that is so important."
Tabasco is another head scratcher, Mr. Ricciardi says. Mimicking the nuances of the popular hot sauce is one of the biggest challenges Mr. Ricciardi says he is facing as more food companies seek hints of the spicy, fermented flavor for their products.
"We have everything we need to make it, but the trick is getting them at the right balance so nothing sticks out," Mr. Ricciardi says.
Tony Simmons, president of McIlhenny Co., which produces Tabasco, laughed when he heard about efforts to recreate his family's famed red sauce. "We're a premium brand, we'd prefer not to have people find a way to create our flavor on the cheap," he says. Tabasco's Original Red Sauce gets its complicated flavor from its elaborate fermentation process, Mr. Simmons says.
Last year H.J. Heinz Co. introduced balsamic vinegar flavored ketchup—its first new flavor in a decade—to capitalize on American consumers' growing appetite for fermented flavors. In January, Heinz's Lea & Perrins brand introduced marinades with fermented flavors in a bag for convenience.
"There's a group seeking more intense, hotter and spicier flavors and another group who is interested in experimentation and a broader range of flavors," says Haven Cockerham, Heinz's vice president of ketchup, condiments and sauces. "Absolutely both are interested in balsamic ketchup."
But are Americans ready for a Heinz version of kimchi? "It's a trend we're aware of and watching," he says.
The interest in kimchi and "the savory side of fermented flavors" prompted Trader Joe's to introduce three kimchi products since 2012 including freeze-dried kimchi, a refrigerated kimchi and the spicy seaweed ramen, says Matt Sloan, vice president of marketing.
In February, Lay's potato chips introduced a Sriracha-flavored chip as part of a contest. If enough people vote for the flavor, it will become a permanent part of the Lays lineup, the company says. Sriracha, a popular Thai sauce made from fermented peppers, is one of the most complex flavors Lays has introduced, says Jennifer Saenz, senior director of marketing for Frito-Lay, a unit of PepsiCo Inc. "Over the last three to five years, consumers' desire for complex flavor has only grown," she says.
No matter that many Americans have never heard of Sriracha. "A majority of the population is still discovering what it is," says Ms. Saenz.
Food labels aren't likely to start proclaiming "fermentation" any time soon. The word often brings grimaces.
"If we would call something 'fermented,' consumers would have a shock and wonder whether we were feeding them something they're not supposed to eat," says Saumya Dwivedi, a senior research specialist at IFF.
Instead, when leading focus groups Ms. Dwivedi sticks to the adjectives she hears consumers use as they describe the fermented flavors they taste: tangy, pickled, briny.
Williams-Sonoma has no such linguistic qualms. The home and kitchen goods retailer organizes its expanding collection of fermented foods and kits under a "Fermentation" heading on its website. "Ferment" is scrawled across a $99.95 hand-thrown, white fermentation pot.
"We didn't steer away from the word at all," says Allison O'Connor, Williams-Sonoma's vice president of merchandising.
Next month, Williams-Sonoma plans to offer a free fermentation class in its stores, focusing on burger and hot dog toppings.
Noting more consumers are taking up home pickling, Vlasic last summer introduced its Farmer's Garden line of pickles hand packed with carrots, garlic cloves, peppers and herbs and uses no artificial flavors.
Farmer's Garden uses Mason jars and bears a label that is "as small as possible"—4 inches by 1½ inches—to give it a more homemade look, Mr. Schiller says. "The whole idea behind this is to be reminiscent of something you'd find at a farmer's market or in Grandma's kitchen," he says.
This summer, Vlasic plans to introduce new pickles with stronger flavors. "There's definitely opportunity for relishes to be bolder and more exotic as well," says Mr. Schiller.
.Chef Paul Virant is the author of a book for home fermenting, "The Preservation Kitchen." The menus at his two high-end, Chicago-area restaurants center around fermented flavors. His team cans about $35,000 worth of produce, or about 4,000 jars, each year.
The sour notes generated during fermentation help balance the flavors of his cooking, he says, which includes Brussels-sprout kimchi and duck confit with fermented rutabaga. "People are pleasantly surprised when they try it," he says.
A version of this article appeared April 11, 2013, on page D1 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Mmm, the Flavors of Fermentation.