If I were to add one thing to Samin Nosrat’s salt, fat, acid, and heat as the essential elements of good cooking, it wouldn’t be a flavor at all—it would be texture. Balancing texture is an essential skill taught in cooking schools, yet it still often takes a back seat to other considerations. The best chefs constantly keep the full range of textures in mind as they create dishes, going beyond just the well known (crunchy, soft) to those we often forget about (fluffy, grainy, squishy, airy, elastic, prickly). A dish that showcases a wide range of textures in surprising and pleasing ways is so much more interesting, with each bite offering a slightly different sensation. Layered textures can be added to the list of magical properties (hotter ovens, lots of butter and salt) that make home cooks wonder why food tastes so much better in restaurants.
Luckily, layering textures has gotten a lot easier lately with the rise of numerous on-trend spice blends that add both flavor and texture to menus. These blends often incorporate ingredients like seeds, ground nuts, fried aromatics like garlic and shallots, dried seaweed, or even just coarsely-ground salts and peppers to give foods a final crispy, crunchy bite that pops in your mouth. In today’s kitchens, they’re becoming as common as sprinkles on a sundae bar.
Take furikake, the Japanese seasoning mixes made with ingredients like sesame seeds, nori, dried fish, salt, and sugar, plus additional flavors that can range from citrus peel to wasabi to chili pepper flakes, depending on the variety. The crunchy, umami-rich seasoning has grown over 500% on menus in the past 4 years, driven by its use on on-trend dishes like poke and rice bowls, brussels sprouts, sashimis and crudos, and trendy toasts. Shichimi togarashi, or Japanese seven-spice, with its chili peppers, black and white sesame seeds, hemp seeds, poppy seeds, and roasted orange peel, has plenty of textures going on and is being used in a similar way to furikake. At Chino Chinatown, a Chinese-Latin mashup concept in Dallas, togarashi not only adds crunch to the elote appetizer, but it’s also used as a rimmer for the chorizo vodka bloody mary on the brunch menu.
Dukkah, the Egyptian nut-and-spice blend that’s typically used to dip breads or vegetables, is growing even faster on U.S. menus, up nearly 668% in the past 4 years, driven by the overall interest in Middle Eastern and North African cuisine. At Jester King Brewery in Austin, TX, the menu has included local bone marrow topped with dukkah made with pecans for a crunchy foil to the soft, rich marrow, all served with house yogurt and flatbread. I’ve been eating dukkah for months after a friend in Alaska sent some in a care package – it became my go-to topping for every soup.
In return, I sent her a bottle of everything bagel seasoning, another trendy, crunchy option showing up across the menu. We first covered its use as a flavor in one of our trend reports in 2017; at the time, half of consumers said they were interested in the blend, which usually includes poppy seeds, sesame seeds, garlic, onion, and coarse salt. Now we’re seeing it show up in everything from dips to fish entrees to chicken wings and even ice cream. At one time, Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams even offered an everything bagel “gravel” (a wonderfully textural word) to top ice cream.
Another on-trend option that includes crunchy garlic is chili crisp, the Chinese condiment that mixes fried peppers with ingredients like fried garlic and shallots, nuts, ginger, cumin, and MSG for a crunchy, oily, umami-packed flavor-and-texture bomb that can inspire a slight obsession in some people. If your operation caters to a younger demographic, consider trying it on a dish or even putting it on the table or condiment bar; according to our recent Condiments, Sauces, & Dressings Keynote Report, a quarter of Gen Z and Millennial consumers want their condiments to be as spicy as possible.
Ready to start leveraging this trend? Consider adding texture enhancers like seeds, nuts, fried veggies, and aromatics, or other crunchy ingredients you have on-hand to your standard house spice blend, or give them a more prominent place on your line. If you grind your own spices and blends, don’t grind them down to a powder and, instead, leave some of those mustard or fennel seeds whole. And look for other ingredients that could be broken down and used in your own seasoning blends, like dried breads, snack foods like pretzels or potato chips, crunchy beans and peas, and even baked cookie or cake crumbs.
And make sure you call out the texture on the menu – the word “crunch” alone now appears on 10% of menus and we expect it to grow another 12% in the next 4 years.Mike Kostyo is the resident Trendologist at Datassential