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Savory Dessert Ingredients Create Opportunities for Experimentation

Salty inclusions pave the way for other nontraditional flavors on restaurant dessert menus.

Salty inclusions pave the way for other nontraditional flavors on restaurant dessert menus. - infographic image

Carrot cake and pumpkin pie have long been established as popular desserts featuring savory ingredients, but they are getting a lot of company on dessert menus as consumers warm up to innovative flavor combinations.

“The idea of savory elements mixed with sweet items is no longer as exotic as it may have been five or 10 years ago,” says Maeve Webster, founder of research and consulting firm Menu Matters.

There are some good reasons that savory ingredients—especially salty inclusions—have been gaining traction on restaurant dessert menus. When salt is combined with chocolate, for example, it makes the chocolate taste creamier on the tongue, says Christine Couvelier, global culinary trendologist at research and consulting firm Culinary Concierge.

“It is actually intensifying the flavor of the chocolate,” she says, much like lemon and herbs in desserts “make the sweetness pop.”

Chefs have increasingly been experimenting with a wide range of savory ingredients, including chilies, roasted tomato, balsamic vinegar and foods that add both texture and saltiness, such as bacon, pretzels, potato chips and popcorn.

Couvelier says she has seen coffee cakes that incorporate roasted tomatoes, for instance, as well as coffee cakes containing maple bacon and walnuts.

At AnnaLena in Vancouver, the restaurant is known for its chocolate-covered fried chicken skins.

“People turn up their nose at first, and then before you know it they are reaching for the last piece,” says Couvelier. “It is truly fabulous.”

At Rioja in Denver, the dessert menu includes warm fig beignets, a doughnut-like pastry stuffed with sweetened local Haystack Mountain goat cheese and black Mission figs, served with a ruby Port reduction.

As a vehicle for savory herb flavors, shortbreads are ideal. Couvelier suggests a rosemary-spiced honey shortbread or a cheddar cheese and thyme shortbread.

Global Influence

As consumers become progressively familiar with cuisines from around the world, they may also be enjoying some of the savory dessert flavors that are widespread in these global culinary traditions.

Manju, for example, is a steamed dumpling filled with sweetened red bean paste that is popular as a dessert in Japan, Couvelier says. Black sesame is also a popular ingredient in Japanese desserts, including in puddings and cookies, as well as in mochi.

Wasabi, the spicy horseradish condiment served with sushi, has also appeared on dessert menus, sometimes paired with white chocolate in either ice cream or cake. Muse, a sushi restaurant in New York, has offered a wasabi white-chocolate ice cream in the past.

“After you taste the sweetness of the white chocolate, the freshness of the wasabi shortly follows, which creates a nice juxtaposition of flavors,” says Hiroki Odo, chef at Muse.

Matcha is another Japanese contribution to savory dessert ingredients. The finely ground green tea powder has become a common flavor for both ice cream and cake, often paired with chocolate. Ramen-san, a Lettuce Entertain You noodle concept, offers a Matcha OREO ice cream dessert.

Italian cuisine has also influenced the savory dessert trend, with dishes such as affogato, says Couvelier. The dish is usually made with vanilla, chocolate or coffee ice cream, topped with hot espresso. Although it was originally found primarily on the menus of independent restaurants, Starbucks debuted an affogato-style Frappuccino in 2016 and Dunkin’ began offering a more traditional affogato, using its own espresso and the ice cream of its sister brand, Baskin-Robbins, in 2019.

Another Italian contribution to the savory dessert trend is the rising use of balsamic vinegar as an ingredient, according to Couvelier.

“Aged balsamic on strawberries, or aged balsamic drizzled—literally with an eye dropper—on vanilla ice cream is a delicacy that you would line up for, and it’s one of the best ways to taste balsamic vinegar,” she says.

Savory Ice Cream Inclusions

Gourmet ice cream shops like Salt & Straw have helped give savory dessert ingredients more mass appeal.

For instance, Couvelier cites the Portland, Oregon-based chain’s Mushroom Muddy Buddies. The flavor combines hazelnuts and three varieties of candied mushrooms—porcini, candy cap and chanterelle—together with honey, butter and sherry.

At the Humphry Slocombe ice cream shops in the San Francisco area, savory ingredients are a specialty. The chain’s creations feature an assortment of ingredients such as bacon, ancho chilies, beets, carrot, cheese, sea salt, cucumber, olive oil, peppercorns and a variety of herbs.

Couvelier singles out the company’s red curry ice cream as “the definition of sweet and savory.”

“The red curry hits you, and the ice cream cools it down,” she says.

Last year, Coolhaus and RITZ partnered to create limited-edition, sweet-and-savory Crackers & Cream ice cream. The product, which was the first-ever ice cream collaboration for RITZ, featured crumbled RITZ crackers swirled into Coolhaus’ peanut butter ice cream—a natural flavor pairing for the iconic cracker brand.

“The peanut butter ice cream was smooth, creamy, and not too sweet, and the swirl of crumbled RITZ crackers added a buttery, salty flavor that paired with it perfectly,” Food & Wine magazine reported.

Savory yogurts, often flavored with herbs, are another potential dessert candidate. These can be used inside a pound cake or drizzled on top, says Couvelier.

Other savory dessert ingredients Couvelier has experimented with include beets, which she purees into chocolate brownies. Recently, she also tried preparing a batch with both beets and dried seaweed powder.

“It’s earthy, and it’s sweet and moist,” she says. “It’s such an innovative taste in your mouth all at once.”

Communication is Key

Webster of Menu Matters says restaurants need to understand their customers to maximize the opportunity to add savory flavors to their dessert menus. Additionally, communication is key, she says, citing the use of balsamic vinegar on strawberries as an example.

“Balsamic vinegar used in the right proportions really enhances strawberries and won't turn a dessert savory but rather intensifies the more familiar and expected dessert ingredients,” she says. “Communicating why balsamic may be used in a dessert can make it infinitely more approachable to a customer base that’s less experimental. But there are opportunities to incorporate savory elements into sweet items in the right proportions and with intent.”

Chefs are finding new ways to incorporate savory ingredients in desserts that enhance the diner’s experience through the combination of flavors and textures. For more dessert ideas, visit the Mondelēz International Foodservice Culinary Center.

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