“I would suspect that the temperature contrast between cool dipping sauce and hot, deep-fried food is appreciated by today’s diner,” Brady says. And the breaded products’ texture absorbs more sauce.
Shane’s Rib Shack lets customers choose among 12 sauces for chicken wings and tenders, and it also has four sauces for its barbecued ribs, pork, and chicken.
“Sauce can make or break a restaurant,” says Shane Thompson, the company’s founder. “It’s amazing to see how sauces can change the taste profile of food items.”
Atlanta-based Shane’s has even taken customers’ advice on flavors and had them vote on potential new sauces. At least two sauces were created that way.
Sauce is certainly important to barbecue aficionados.
“In Texas, how many ways can you make smoked brisket or ribs?” asks Chef Bryant Currie, program chair for the Dallas campus of Career Education Corp.’s Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts. “You have different woods for smoke flavor and different rubs and mixes, but what sets your flavor profile apart is to be creative with sauces.”
Sauces have played a valuable role in cuisine for centuries. In the classical brigade-style kitchen, modernized by noted French chef Auguste Escoffier, the saucier is third in rank behind only the chef de cuisine and sous chef.
Modern sauces have their roots in the classics, Currie says. Even mayonnaise, which we call a dressing, is classically considered a sauce. Mustard goes back to Roman times, and American ketchup was once dubbed a “table sauce.”
These days, sauces provide restaurants with “an easy way to customize a flavor profile to a customer’s specific tastes without a whole lot of changes to the restaurant’s preparation process,” Lombardi says. “It also provides a sense of variety to the menu.”
Some brands are seeing so much opportunity with special sauces, that they’re working with vendors to create their own line of dips and marinades. “Restaurant-branded condiments have a much lower purchase price and can significantly lower the operator’s food costs, especially in high-volume restaurants,” says David Halt, director of foodservice sales for Red Gold, which creates specialized sauces for foodservice brands. “Chains that have made the switch to their own branded condiments have discovered a totally new way to differentiate their brand from their competition.”
The growing interest in international and ethnic cuisine—thanks to media, immigration, and the ease of international travel—combined with bold, ethnic cooking by creative chefs bring many more sauces and dips to the attention of consumers.
None has gained mass appeal more than salsa, which translates to sauce.
“Every culture has specific condiments that compliment the food,” Currie says. “In Mexico, much of the culture is built around fresh vegetables, such as tomatillos and jalapeños, so that became part of the salsa.”
Salsa moved beyond its Latino roots to surpass ketchup as America’s favorite condiment years ago. However, that may be an unfair comparison, because there are so many types and styles of salsas, depending not only on nationalities but regions.
Most Mexican and Southwestern restaurants feature salsas as either a topping or dip. At Chipotle, for instance, diners may choose one or more of four salsas to put on their burritos or as a dip with chips. Other restaurants feature multiple condiments in salsa bars, which Lombardi calls the “granddaddy of restaurant customization.”