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Dairy ingredients gaining a share of the spotlight

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By Aaron Jourden

It’s not hard to see why queso fresco, butter, buttermilk and cottage cheese are some of the fastest-growing dairy ingredients on Canadian restaurant menus. Each speaks to a larger trend that’s been evolving in the dining landscape over recent years.

Whether it’s more authentic approaches to ethnic dining or changes in the way consumers perceive healthy ingredients, these items are now emerging as four of the hottest dairy ingredients we may be seeing more of in the near future.

A Mexican cheese with fresh appeal

Queso fresco is the fastest-growing dairy ingredient over the past year on Canadian restaurant menus. The unaged white cheese is also the fourth quickest-growing of any ingredient on menus over the same period and the only dairy product to make this top 10 list.

A traditional cheese found in authentic Mexican cooking, queso fresco has a mild milky taste and firm texture that makes it great for crumbling over dishes. Light and salty with a bit of tang, it can complement light dishes with delicate flavours or help balance out heartier dishes like tacos or huevos rancheros. And since it doesn’t melt, queso fresco is well-suited for grilling. This cheese is also fairly quick and easy to make in-house.

Winnipeg’s Habanero Sombrero Taqueria, a food truck specializing in Mexican-style street food, finishes its marinated and slow-roasted carnitas tacos with fresh-crumbled queso fresco, while Chili’s Grill & Bar tops its ranchero chicken tacos with a flavourful trifecta of avocado, cilantro and queso fresco.

And while this cheese may be getting more notice thanks to the growing popularity of authentic Mexican cuisine among diners, operators are also finding uses for queso fresco with preparations outside of traditional applications. At Barrio Coreano, a Mexican-Korean fusion restaurant in Toronto, guests can snack on a dish of K-Mex slaw that brings together Korean-style cabbage, avocado, corn, queso fresco and ginger-sesame dressing.

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Butter’s back

Butter is on the rise, increasing more than 15 per cent over the past year thanks in part to a larger movement of consumers returning to full-fat foods. Not only does it provide a rich taste and texture, consumers are increasingly viewing butter and other full-fat foods that are real and wholesome as the next evolution of the health trend.

Looking at different mealparts, the incidence of butter on menus is growing the most among appetizers, followed by sides and entrees. Drilling down a bit deeper into the mealpart categories, butter is showing the most growth in preparations like fries and sandwiches.

Chefs are showcasing butter in a variety of ways, such as using it with artisanal breads for grilled cheese sandwiches, calling it out as an indulgent component to hearty entree salads and whipping it for a textural enhancement. Earls Kitchen + Bar, for example, offers a warm kale salad entree composed of grilled chicken, black kale, baby potatoes, roasted Brussels sprouts, cranberries and toasted almonds, all in a brown butter vinaigrette. On the dinner menu at L’Abattoir in Vancouver is an elegant first course option of baked Pacific oysters with truffle and whipped garlic butter.

Operators are also menuing compound and flavoured variations like basil butter, Buffalo butter and vanilla brown butter. Elephant & Castle features a butter chicken poutine on its starters list that features Buffalo chicken, seasoned pub chips, cheese curds and a rich punch of Buffalo butter gravy. Toronto’s The Drake Hotel Restaurant recently added a new 10-ounce striploin steak served with seasonal grilled vegetables, jus and rosemary butter. In a more ethnic spin, Biercraft Tap & Tapas Bar recently added a dish of pan-seared prawns flavoured with white wine, roasted lime basil and sambal butter.

Buttermilk trending up

Buttermilk is up 11 per cent on Canadian menus over the past year—a sign that operators are giving this old fashioned staple of rustic home cooking new attention for its myriad uses.

When looking at the increase of buttermilk by mealpart for the same period, interestingly, it shows the most growth in desserts such as pies and sherbets. This versatile ingredient also exhibits impressive growth in entrees and starters, playing equally well in sweet breakfast dishes as it does in savoury lunch and dinner favourites.

With its tangy flavour and thick, rich texture, coupled with the calcium and other nutrients found in milk, operators have myriad opportunities to use buttermilk across mealparts and menu categories. Baked goods, breaded coatings, frostings, marinades and soups are all fair game, but growth of this item likely ties to the recent emergence of fried chicken as a trendy specialty dish for new restaurant concepts, especially in the fast-casuals to food truck segments. We’re also seeing operators develop new and interesting variations of traditional buttermilk-based dressings.

Montana’s BBQ & Bar offers a Southern Fried Chicken Sandwich featuring a buttermilk fried chicken breast, chipotle mayonnaise, cheddar, creamy and shredded pickles. At Kelsey’s Original Roadhouse, guests can opt for a new Under the Sea Fry-Up featuring calamari, shrimp, red peppers, red onions and jalapenos all marinated in a buttermilk-mustard blend, then battered, fried and dusted in served with housemade sun-dried tomato aioli.

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A health classic poised for a comeback

Cottage cheese, a staple of 1970s-era dieting regimens, may be getting a fresh look from consumers. Touted as a versatile, wholesome ingredient that can be consumed on its own or incorporated into dishes, this fresh, textured cheese is high in protein and a source of vitamins and calcium. Considering its nutritional attributes—along with the success operators have found with positioning Greek-style yogurt as a wholesome menu item—cottage cheese could be poised for future growth.

And recent data supports that. Cottage cheese is the second fastest-growing dairy product overall and fastest-growing dairy product in entrees over the past year. While it’s commonly found as a healthy side option available with breakfast entrees, operators are also featuring cottage cheese in fruit plates and in desserts. It’s also often called out as a component in Indian dishes, particularly at fusion-style restaurants, and is a common ingredient in pasta fillings.

Toronto-based fast-casual chain What A Bagel offers a Heart Smart Breakfast featuring cottage cheese alongside poached eggs, fresh fruit and a whole-wheat bagel or bread. And Angela Pizzeria & Restaurant in Montreal features a Spanakopizza Greek pizza with a mixture of spinach, olive oil, eggs, cottage cheese and feta.

On the sweeter side, the Loaded Pierogi chainlet in Toronto offers dessert pierogis filled with a mixture of cottage cheese and cream cheese that are topped with cinnamon-spiced apples, caramel sauce and whipped cream.

Today’s evolving foodservice trends are certainly having an impact on the types of dairy emerging on restaurant menus. And while queso fresco, butter, buttermilk and cottage cheese have shown the most growth of late, an overarching takeaway is that these dairy goods fit a larger focus for operators and their suppliers to continually keep food and drink in line with what consumers seek out when dining. Dairy can play a central part in delivering on calls for new and exciting ethnic flavours and preparations as well as options that are healthy and nutritious.


About the author:

Aaron Jourden is Managing Editor for Technomic Inc., a Chicago-based foodservice research and consulting firm. Technomic provides clients with the facts, insights and consulting support they need to enhance their business strategies, decisions and results. Visit technomic.com for more information.

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