Melding Sweet and Herbal Flavors

By Adam Schreier, Contributing Editor Comments
Posted in Articles, Topics, Culinary
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The most-popular sweet and herbal combination has to be chocolate and mint. From the nighttime treat on your hotel pillow to your favorite barista’s flavored coffee, we love the marriage of chocolate and mint so much that it’s become a traditional way to say “thank you,” “sweet dreams” or “let’s indulge.”

Yet this pairing of sweet and herbal flavors is just the tip of the iceberg. Beyond the familiar confections, sweet and herbal flavors can combine to great advantage in beverages, sauces, dips, marinades and more. Herbal notes add depth and interest to sweet formulations that might otherwise be cloying, while sweetness helps herbs harmonize with meats, fruit and dairy.

For product developers and research chefs, these blends offer new ways to dazzle consumers’ increasingly sophisticated palates: Think spicy blackberry chutney with basil, apple-thyme jelly, or a carrot lava cake with green tea. Once you understand how to look for the natural affi nities between certain sweet and herbal flavors, the possibilities are vast.

The greater challenge is to move these combos into the mainstream. It’s not easy being green—and sweet— just yet. Despite the popularity of classic pairings such as mint and chocolate, most sweet and herbal mixes are relatively unfamiliar. For now, at most, you might sample lavender-flavored ice cream or mocha-mint crème brûlée in a restaurant.

As patrons develop their palates, though, expect to see more commercial products featuring sweet and herbal flavors, perhaps appearing first in premium food stores. After all, if consumers can enjoy black sesame mint ice cream in sushi bars, why not at home?

The herbal-sweet tradition

Sweet and herbal have gone together in many ways for thousands of years. Mead—an ancient fermented honey drink often flavored with hops, ginger and/or rosemary—was the beverage of choice for millennia until beer grew popular. Hard candies flavored with horehound—a shrub whose leaves have been used since Roman times for medicinal purposes—were enjoyed by soldiers during the Civil War and pioneers heading west. Sweetened herbal teas have morphed from a simple home remedy into a vast business in today’s food and beverage industry.

One way to introduce innovative herbal-sweet flavor combos is to build them into the foods people already know and love. Salsa is a crowd-pleaser that also happens to be versatile. Recently, I made a mango salsa with added cilantro for boldness that worked well. You can also experiment with crème brûlées. Their creaminess is an excellent vehicle for many new flavors, such as cherry, lime and basil.

Fortunately, the new adult generation—18- to 34-year-olds—is showing an interest in bolder tastes, new foods and emerging cuisines, according to Mintel (“Seasonings —U.S.,” March 2007). They are joined in this regard by many baby boomers, who are also leaning toward stronger flavors as they grow older. In addition, baby boomers tend to have more disposable income to spend on premium foods, new products and dining out. These groups are encouraging product designers to push the culinary envelope with innovative herbal-sweet blends.

Defining herbal

Working with herbal flavors is not any harder than working with other kinds of ingredients. To make herbal- flavored ice cream, for example, I would steep the herb in the cream before starting the freezing process, just as you would if you were working with vanilla beans. The more immediate question might be, “What exactly is an herb?” By definition, culinary herbs are the leaves of a non-woody plant, such as basil or parsley. In practice, though, a number of botanicals end up in this category, including many spices and floral ingredients. Some of the most popular—lavender, rose, orange blossom and jasmine—also pair well with sweet flavors.

Less important than clarifying the distinctions, I think, is a willingness to think outside the box. Chamomile is a flower; it’s also one of the oldest herbs known to man. I recently used it in a sweetened “nighttime cereal” designed to be eaten before bed. Chamomile isn’t typically associated with cereal, but it is associated with relaxation—and, when mixed with honey and orange flavor, it tastes great. The addition of chamomile, an herb with a sweet, almost honeylike flavor profile, helped pull the cereal’s overall taste together and made it much more craveable.

In fact, the healthy reputation of herbs could help sweet and herbal blends gain more attention. Besides the appeal herbs have as natural ingredients, many are associated with a health benefit, such as improving digestion or easing tension. With consumers more interested than ever in gleaning all the benefits possible from everything they eat and drink, adding herbs to your formulation could add to its marketability. Future studies on the possible health benefits of consuming an herb-infused food or beverage could point the way to new product claims.

Creating flavor layers

Herb teas obviously start with a certain “herbal direction.” Most dishes, however, do not. Rather than begin cooking with a certain herb in mind, I tend to build the formulation and add herbs and sweetness as I go to create subtle layers of flavor.

One way to experiment with herbals is to let them take a familiar recipe in new directions. A good example is lemon sorbet. Lemon and thyme go together in many dishes, and I’ve found that adding thyme leaves to lemon sorbet makes the flavor richer and more complex. I’ve also infused strawberry jam with rose and a hint of orange to give its simple sweetness more complexity. These types of flavor synergies not only give a product more depth, they also leverage the trend toward combination flavors, such as “banana-chocolate” or “hazelnut-toffee.”

To figure out which herbals enhance which flavors, look at other affinities. For instance, apples and pears go well with pork; so do rosemary and thyme. Not surprisingly, then, rosemary and thyme blend well in sweet formulations featuring apples and pears. In general, I find it easier to start with savory dishes and add sweet and herbal notes than to create sweet items and add herbal notes. This is made easier because these flavor combinations are more traditional—we use more herbal notes in savory dishes. Outside of this savory fare, the only other product where the American palate is familiar with herbs is teas.

That being said, I like to push the limit to create more trendy products and formulations—especially in desserts. For example, while most would think of maple and sage as an ideal breakfast meat combination, I like to experiment with such flavors in ice creams.

Not all herbs are strong-flavored. I like adding chervil to a sweetened goat cheese and fruit tart, for instance. In this creamy formulation, the delicate flavor of chervil adds interest without being overwhelmed by brasher ingredients.

The good news is that many herbs are available year-round in fresh and dried forms. Restaurant kitchens can make the best use of fresh herbs. In commercially produced items, fresh herbs aren’t generally an option, sending us toward herbal extracts or oleoresins.

Oleoresins are natural liquid spice or herb extracts containing volatile and nonvolatile components. In commercial applications, oleoresins can deliver the aroma, color and flavor of fresh herbs in an easy-to-use format that holds up to the demanding freeze/ thaw life cycle of flash-frozen products, like microwavable meals. In addition to frozen foods, oleoresins can be used in marinades, salad dressings, beverages, confections and many other applications. Oleoresins are traditionally “natural” products, but organic oleoresins, made with permitted extraction methods and solvents, are also available.

My experience when blending herbals with sweetness is that the challenge isn’t so much coming up with interesting combinations as it is figuring out the combinations that will appeal to most palates.

When seeking to incorporate herbal flavors into everyday food applications, it is important to keep in mind the desired end result. If you’re going for a cutting edge, trendy product, you will want the herbal flavor added to not only intensify the flavor, but also go beyond the traditional palate teasing, toward a more-noticeable flavor. While honeysuckle would provide a more mild addition to a sweet sauce, rosemary would provide a much greater kick.

If your end goal is a more seamless integration, in a dessert such as ice cream or sorbet, including herbal flavors, such as mint, can add a bit of warmth.

Others, such as jasmine and lavender, are not typically thought of when formulating sweet dishes. One could, however, formulate a nice sweet, yet spicy, lavender ginger glaze or sauce—this is an excellent example of pairing your herbals with the desired taste sensation.

Versatility across the board

Sweet and herbal combinations appear in every format, from drinks to dessert, and in every cuisine, from Indian curries to Mexican salsas.

Beverages. Sweet and beverage are closely tied, and herbs play an important role in many popular beverages. For example, cola flavor is a blend of spices (including cinnamon and cloves) added to vanilla and sugar.

Long before there were colas, though, liqueurs were made with herbal infusions. The green French liqueur, Chartreuse, an aromatic distilled alcohol flavored with 130 herbal extracts with a minty, spicy flavor, is just one example.

Herbal additions can help make alcohol sweeter or more pungent. This goes back to the subjectivity of flavor—whatever you want to achieve, you can. For example, if you want a bitter note in a vodka infused with grapefruit, you may not wish to tamper with the flavor too much. However if your apple-infused vodka is taking on bitter notes, you may want to go for a sweeter profile using herbal infusions.

To address the current trend of functional waters, I experimented with some flavored waters for kids that blended herbal and sweet. I mixed different juices with herbal extracts, including chamomile and green tea.

Ice cream and sorbets. A lot has been done with ice cream, such as incorporating lavender and rose. Sorbet is equally versatile and has the added benefit of beautiful color, depending on the ingredients you incorporate. In addition to the lemon-thyme sorbet mentioned earlier, I created a rose and lychee sorbet with a wonderful flavor. Other possibilities include black sesame seed and bergamot, but the list is not limited to these herbals.

Sauces. There are many herbal and sweet opportunities in sauces. In this category, you have the flexibility to go bold with zesty flavors. We’ve made cranberry sauces featuring chipotle and cilantro, and other fruit-spice combinations that dress up a variety of meats.

Desserts. In addition to the ever-popular mint, other herbs are showing up in fruit dishes, cakes and baked goods. Try sprinkling lemon verbena or tarragon on cut-up fruit, or topping berries with a sweetened basil cream. I’ve also created a chocolate cake with Earl Grey tea (which includes bergamot oil) and, more recently, the green tea and carrot lava cake already mentioned. It was delicious and different.

As consumer palates evolve, there aren’t any hard-and-fast rules about how best to combine herbal and sweet. Trust your creativity and explore. One thing is sure: Herbal flavors are some of our oldest and best friends in the kitchen. Paired with sweeteners—from honey to sugar to fruit essences—these versatile ingredients can quickly and easily bring new depth and interest to every dish and drink on the table.

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