ROCKVILLE, MD. — Make no mistake: The plant-based food and beverage boom has not robbed the dairy category of its potential or opportunity. Fresh takes on milk, butter and cheese abound, according to a recent report from market research firm Packaged Facts.
“At the same time plant protein trends are very much flourishing for a variety of reasons — health, fat grams, calories, sustainability issues, animal welfare issues — there’s also just the fact that indulgence is never going away,” David Sprinkle, research director and publisher at Packaged Facts, told Food Business News. “Also, dairy products have a very long and venerable history in Western diets.”
The familiarity of dairy is driving experimentation and exploration of new flavors and formats. Consider a scoop of goat cheese ice cream with pistachios and figs, or a tzatziki-inspired martini shaken with Greek yogurt. Rich and creamy sauces such as hollandaise, creme fraiche and creme anglaise are the unsung stars of elevated comfort foods in restaurants and food trucks across the country.
Flavored butters are appearing in sweet and savory dishes, Mr. Sprinkle said.
“Brown butter became a huge trend several years ago, I think deservedly so, but now we’re seeing butter flavored every which way,” Mr. Sprinkle said. “Not only the traditional lemon butter or garlic butter or butter with parsley type flavors.”
On menus, one may find butter flavored with jalapeño, yuzu or seaweed. At Golda Kitchen in Brooklyn, N.Y., an orange tahini pretzel is paired with warm sumac honey butter.
“There’s a lot of room for innovation around dairy ingredients like butter, cheese and cream,” Mr. Sprinkle said. “That creates its own excitement. Novelty has always been a big factor in the American diet and certainly in packaged foods, along with tradition and indulgence.”
Sophisticated ice cream flavors seen in packaged pints and scoop shops include olive oil with a pomegranate swirl, umeboshi pickled plum and Earl Grey tea with shortbread cookies. Betty Rae’s in Kansas City adds an unexpected but trendy twist on the frozen treat with a chips and guacamole variety, featuring avocado-infused ice cream base with corn chips and lime. A barbecue ice cream features a saucy caramel swirl and candied burnt ends.
“The creaminess of dairy gives you a lot of room to play off of with things like hot spices and herbal flavors,” Mr. Sprinkle noted.
The enduring popularity of gooey grilled cheese sandwiches and macaroni and cheese dishes has pushed cheddar front and center. Pimento cheese, a Southern staple, has emerged as a trending topping on burgers, fried chicken and more from coast to coast.
Cheese is even bubbling up in beverages, including coffee and tea.
“We use Instagram pretty heavily to track trends, and I recently saw cubes of cheese in hot coffee, melting the way marshmallows would,” Mr. Sprinkle said.
From Taiwan, cheese tea features cold green or black tea capped with a foamy layer of cream cheese and milk and a sprinkle of salt. Described as sweet with a savory finish, the drink is expected to gain traction in the United States this year, according to several industry prognosticators.
As more American consumers discover Middle Eastern cuisine, feta, labneh and yogurt are landing on mainstream menus. Global trends also are influencing dessert offerings; Thai rolled ice cream and Japanese mochi are heating up stateside.
“There are so many points of reference, culturally, generationally, regionally, and that give a lot of room for experimentation, including with dairy,” Mr. Sprinkle said.
Whey is finding its way into new culinary applications. Restaurant chefs are whipping the leftover liquid from cheesemaking into sauces, marinades, caramel and cocktails, according to Packaged Facts.
“In the very old-fashioned spirit of ‘waste not want not,’ what can you do with whey?” Mr. Sprinkle said. “Of course, it has its protein story, but it also has a thrift and sustainability story.... There’s nothing more old-fashioned than the tail-to-snout or farm-to-table. Food was farm-to-table for a very, very long time.
“All this older stuff is new again, but it’s not exactly new by a long shot.”