Sodium levels may be the next subject of scrutiny on restaurant plates, but before that happens salt is showing up in some unexpected places?like desserts and beverages?on mainstream menus.

Balancing sweet flavors with a little dash of salt is a trick pastry chefs have been using for years. Many candy aisle confections also showcase the push and pull of salty sweets, and now coffee house chains, yogurt places and casual dining restaurants are shaking more of the magic flavor crystals.

Salt Menu Trends: When did it start?

In sweets, caramel seems to be salt’s most popular companion. The flavor pairing started trickling onto menus in May 2010 when Starbucks tried a salty caramel bar cookie. Another early salted caramel sighting showed up in Mintel’s Menu Insights LTO Tracker in May 2010, when MaggieMoo’s Ice Cream and Treatery featured an elaborate concoction of chocolate ice cream and Goobers in a chocolate covered waffle cone, all topped with pieces of sea salt and caramel.

Starbucks really poured this trend to the mainstream when the brand introduced salted caramel as a coffee drink flavor in September 2010. Now salted caramel hot chocolate, mochas and espressos are highly anticipated autumn standards, drizzled with caramel and sprinkled with sea salt and Hawaiian turbinado sugar, for a pop of flavor and texture on top of this liquid confection.

Also in September 2010, Uno Chicago Grill added Bread Pudding with a Salty Caramel Sauce as a permanent menu addition. It took other foodservice segments nearly two years to jump on this salted caramel bandwagon, but now it’s being drizzled with abandon:

  • Haagen-Dazs ice cream stores greeted 2012 with Salted Caramel Truffle Sundaes, which were described as a “taste made famous by the French confection Fleur De Sel, this sundae consists of chocolaty truffles, salted caramel, and sweet cream ice cream topped with whipped cream and garnished with a chocolate-dipped pretzel.”
  • In April of this year, Red Robin added a ­salted caramel shake to its extensive shake line-up. Finished with red Hawaiian sea salt, this treat gets a boost of color, flavor and texture on top.
  • Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurant featured a Chocolate Mousse Cupcake from April 3 to May 13, 2012. The cupcake was layered with whipped chocolate mousse, topped with fudge and chocolate chips and garnished with a house made salted beer caramel.
  • Also in Spring, 2012, T.G.I. Friday’s added a Salted Caramel Cake, layered with vanilla bean pudding and caramel crunch, then drizzled with a salted caramel glaze.

In August 2012, 16 Handles debuted salted caramel frozen yogurt, “a low-fat twist on the rich taste of caramel complemented with a hint of salt. This delicious, indulgent snack combines sweet with salty to offer those who crave the rich, buttery taste of caramel with a unique frozen yogurt experience.”

Beyond salted caramel, salty sweetness is earning other menu mentions. Like with the Haagen-Dazs sundae above, chocolate covered pretzels deliver salty-sweetness in Marble Slab Creamery’s Chocolate Salted Pretzel Sundae, which pairs pretzel ice cream, fudge topping, mini-chocolate-covered-pretzels and whipped cream in a chocolate waffle bowl covered with chopped mini chocolate covered pretzels. Baskin-Robbins served up a 3-Point Chocolate ice cream with a salty caramel ribbon and orange colored pretzel balls as an LTO in February 2012.

Mintel Insight: Make Salt Worth Mentioning

These salty sweets are interesting not only in the way they show how a flavor pairing enters the mainstream, but also because they bring salt, an ingredient that is in most food, into the menu lexicon. Fancier salts (sea, Himalayan) are certainly worth a mention, and other operators are showing that salt is worth mentioning whenever it’s used in unusual ways. For instance, Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurant dusted a mixture of rosemary-sugar, salt and pepper on top of sweet potatoes, brown sugar cream cheese and barbecue sauce in a Spring 2012 LTO. Bahama Breeze serves steamed edamame with ginger-infused sea salt, a notable way to flavor a simple starter or side.

For more information about Mintel Menu Insights, contact us.

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