Spoonful of caramel
‘Sweet brown’ flavors evoking Latin America’s rich culinary traditions can perk up baked foods.

Americans favor more and more Hispanic foods, from spicy, hot chili peppers to sugary, sweet pastries. Broad shifts in the US population set the stage, but for many years now, consumers of all ethnicities have eagerly sought out flavors from Latin America and the Caribbean. It’s a trend with long legs and one that can spice up baked foods, too.

Prova, a specialist in what it calls “sweet brown” flavors, conducts an ongoing evaluation of global taste trends one region at a time. When it looked at South America recently, the main focus quickly became dulce de leche, the sweet caramel taste popular south of the US border.

Subtle differences in each country make dulce de leche particularly interesting, according to Marie Le Beller, application laboratory manager, Prova, Danvers, MA. “In Mexico, dulce de leche is called cajeta and is made traditionally with goat’s milk,” she said. “In Argentina, it is made from cow’s milk.”

The flavor turns up in a broad range of applications, from bakery fillings to dairy products. “It is also associated with other flavor notes to create the cocoada, a traditional South American candy, the equivalent of an American coconut macaroon,” Ms. Le Beller said.

Slow heating of sweetened milk causes the Maillard reaction that changes its flavor and color, thus forming traditional dulce de leche. In Spanish, the name means “sweet made of milk,” and its texture ranges from pudding-like to nearly crystallized.

Here’s where flavor technology helps out: Selecting a flavor vs. the real ingredient fosters easier formulation. For example, dulce de leche is very sweet, yet when added to bakery formulas, “You need a lot to reach the desired flavor, which makes it hard to create a sugar-free dulce de leche dessert, for example,” Ms. Le Beller explained. “Using a flavor allows you to control the quantity of product you add in your formula. Also, it often has better heat resistance.”

Food industry observers note that caramel is already popular among Americans. Dulce de leche fits that c­ategory yet is a simple product with high flavor appeal.

“I think that in the coming years, more and more South American flavors will emerge in the US,” Ms. Le Beller said. “South American gastronomy is so rich, and the trend is to the discovery of new tastes.”

Two other flavors also have a Latin legacy: Mexican vanilla and, of course, chocolate. Mexican vanilla has a unique flavor profile, but its production is very limited. Ms. Le Beller said most of it goes to high-end restaurants.

Chocolate, however, is more universally available. In the South American context, chocolate is associated with traditional mole sauces that pair chilies and spices with dark chocolate. The heat of the chilies combines with the bitterness and richness of the chocolate to yield a very deep taste.

In bakery uses, the format of a flavor — liquid or dry — can make a big difference, particularly with humidity-sensitive products. “French macarons, for example, need as few wet ingredients as possible, so use of a powdered flavor is ideal,” Ms. Le Beller explained. Dry powders can be incorporated easily into bakery mixes for home preparation.

Solubility is important, too. “If you work with chocolate, you need to use an oil-soluble flavor, otherwise your chocolate won’t crystalize properly,” Ms. Le Beller said.

Prova is a privately held, family-owned company, founded in 1946 and headquartered near Paris. The company is represented in 60 countries around the world. For details about sweet brown flavors, visit www.provaus.com.