While frying remains an extremely popular cooking technique for restaurants across the foodservice spectrum, knowledgeable chefs and operators are finding that evolving culinary trends are providing fresh opportunities to help drive traffic and revenue in their operations.
Restaurateurs are exploring a range of trends that are influencing how fried foods can play a more dynamic role in the development of their menus. New culinary directions that can incorporate frying solutions include the evolution of sandwiches, tacos and wraps and the need to differentiate such items from those of the competition; the rise of freshly made French fries and other fried vegetables as accompaniments for burgers; the consumers' desire for more flavorful menu selections; and the growth of the breakfast daypart.
“This is an exciting time,” says Roger Daniels, vice president, research, development and innovation for Stratas Foods. “It comes down to how do you stand out from the competition.”
Operators and suppliers “not only have to keep up with the trends, but they also have be able to forecast them,” observes David Tillman, vice president of foodservice and food ingredients for Stratas Foods LLC.
Sandwiches, wraps and tacos are endlessly popular among consumers these days, but operators also need to devise ways to make their items more distinctive in a crowded marketplace. One way of giving the customer something else to talk about is by accompanying those items with fried potato or vegetable chips, or even taco shells prepared fresh in-house. Not only can offering homemade side items appeal to the increasing number of customers looking for freshly prepared foods, but they can help reduce food cost as well.
Frying doesn't only lend itself to the preparation of interesting side dishes, either; operators are applying the cooking technique to the protein component of certain sandwiches, wraps and tacos as well. For example, deep-frying chicken, pork or seafood items not only can add another level of flavor, it can also add a pleasing texture. “If you use fried fish in a taco instead of grilled fish, the consumer can both taste the difference and feel the difference,” Tillman says. Meanwhile, the operator can achieve a variety of textures by using different batters or breading methods.
Fueled by the growth of better-burger chains, the resurgence of handmade hamburgers is leading many operators to take another look at the burger's old side kick, the French fry. For decades, the vast majority of foodservice operators have relied on par-cooked, factory-made French fries. But more recently chains like In-N-Out, Five Guys Burgers and Fries, and Shake Shack have demonstrated that fresh, hand-cut French fries are a powerful menu tool in and of themselves.
“Those chains have moved away from par-fried French fries,” Tilllman says. “Fresh potatoes are back in the kitchen.”
Tillman says there is “an art and science to [preparing] fresh-cut potatoes from scratch. There is a delicate balance between getting it right and not getting it right.” But, he adds, not only is it cheaper to make fried potatoes fresh, they also fit into the trend toward menu transparency. “We're seeing more natural ingredients in the kitchen. Customers are telling us to bring them [menu items] that don't have chemical-sounding names.”
“Chefs want to work with fresh items,” Daniels says. “It's a huge theme, from QSR to fine dining.”
The movement toward offering full-flavored menu items also is inducing chefs and operators to take another look at fried foods. Health-conscious millennials in particular are seeking distinctive tastes in the dining experience, and, as a result, many restaurants are offering a more diverse palette of fresh, fried vegetables, like sweet potatoes, green beans, onions, spinach and even the popular superfood, kale
Others are revisiting an old favorite by lightly breading and frying pasta variations like tortellini, and serving them as a side dish or a main course. In another instance, The Cheesecake Factory is offering Fried Macaroni & Cheese.
Items like ice cream, watermelon, avocado and cookie dough are getting the fried treatment at some restaurants these days, too.
Experts note that different oil types have the ability to modify the flavor of fried foods as well. For example, French fries and waffle fries pair well with 100-percent high-oleic soybean oil, high-oleic sunflower and cottonseed oils, and high quality soybean oil. At the same time, a blend of peanut and soybean oils, and 100-percent sunflower oil have proved themselves to be good all-purpose frying oils, which work especially well with deep-fried chicken and fish selections.
A focus on health does not have to get in the way of fried food offerings, either. Many of today’s healthier variety or more socially conscious restaurants will offer fried food, but may look for healthier, organic or non-GMO frying oils to find a workable balance between consumer preference and sustainable food. Sunflower oil, which is non-GMO by default and offers a light clean flavor, is gaining momentum across this segment.
“People want more flavor … and restaurateurs want to stand out,” Daniels says. “There is a whole range of possibilities, so [operators and chefs] should work with their suppliers.”
The growth of breakfast has emerged as yet another trend that is invigorating the sale of fried foods. More operators are offering all-day breakfast menus or selecting a particular breakfast item and incorporating it into other menu dayparts. For example, chicken and waffles, once largely a staple of restaurants in the South, is moving into the mainstream. In the meantime, donuts — aided by the overnight popularity of the cronut — continue to be a fixture of breakfast menus.
Meanwhile, some operators are looking to expand beyond more traditional fried breakfast items. Lightly breaded and flash-fried fresh fruit — like strawberries, watermelon and pineapple — are showing up on more breakfast menus, as are freshly prepared variations of hash browns that are pan-fried and flavored with sea salt.
Overall, these trends are helping to fuel the popularity of fried foods, and savvy chefs and restaurateurs are working to incorporate them into their operations. “There seems to be a need by customers to find something different [in the dining experience],” Tillman says, “and frying is convenient, quick and can really change the flavor and texture of foods.”
In the meantime, chefs and operators are striving to push the boundaries of what can be prepared in a deep fryer, and are working with suppliers to implement dishes that capture the imagination of consumers.
“It's truly a creative time out there,” Daniels says.