Dish of veggies and eggs.
Unsplash/Brooke Lark

Chefs can build diversity back into the menu by taking creative approaches.

Blended Solutions for Protein Cost-Cutting: Plant Power, Sauces, and Signature Condiments

At least 40 percent of Americans say they want to eat more plant-based foods.

As coronavirus vaccines roll out across the country, it is now possible to envision a world without a pandemic, where restaurant tables will be filled again. But it could be months before this wished-for world materializes. In the meantime, we are left to wonder how much of the change in the restaurant world is permanent.

Over a very short time, culinary professionals have had to become very proficient at cost-cutting and developing additional income streams, and it’s unlikely that these sharpened skills will be less relevant anytime soon.

One approach to consider, if you haven’t already, is reducing animal-based protein, such as beef, fish, poultry, and pork, as these are among the high-ticket items in the global inventory. Reducing the per-plate costs of these items, even by a fraction, is a sensible way to balance the budget in challenging times. This approach is also in keeping with a trend toward reduced consumption of animal-based foods in favor of plant-based choices.

Comfort foods are likely to remain in demand, which makes this approach challenging—as chicken and beef are certainly still comforting foods for many. However, even with these staples, there are opportunities to reduce costs without compromising taste. Here are four strategies for cutting costs on protein-centric menu items:

One Protein, Many Sauces

Even before the pandemic, industry insiders opposed excessive SKUs in foodservice establishments resulting in duplications. Now, with budgets under fire, buyers have even more incentive to remove SKUs not pulling their weight. SKU reductions may also allow kitchens to take advantage of bulk quantity pricing.

Chefs can build diversity back into the menu by taking creative approaches via sauces, marinades, dressings, and spreads. Sauces are particularly useful for putting a fresh spin on otherwise ordinary entrées without too much work. You can use a high-performance blender to process ingredients to the degree desired to deliver texture, flavor, and color. Examples include salsas, peanut sauce, hollandaise, marinara, and pesto, which are easy to make and can transform proteins like chicken breast and salmon. Other ideas include highly flavored chimichurris and herb purées that can be made ahead and frozen. At Vitamix, one of our favorite “mother sauces” is the cashew cream sauce, which can be flavored with everything from garlic to saffron to figs and is perfect for drizzling over entrées like roasted chicken. Simply blend soaked raw cashews with water, lemon, and a dash of salt in a high-performance blender, then flavor with shallot, nutritional yeast, or maple syrup to make the cream savory or sweet.

Blended Proteins

Deliver comfort-food fare while knocking down the per-plate costs of ground meat or poultry by combining them with grains, vegetables, or legumes. One example is the Blended Burger Project, a program inviting chefs to develop burger recipes replacing a quarter of the beef with some other ingredient, such as chopped mushrooms or oats. Similarly, you can process salmon with vegetables, seasonings, and breadcrumbs to create salmon burgers. Add flavor by topping burgers with house-made condiments like aiolis, mustards, or ketchups.

Star-Powered Sides

Reduce entrée portion sizes in proportion to side dishes to give healthy sides more emphasis. Be creative by pairing a petite filet with braised rainbow carrots or charred grilled cabbage, along with Duchess or Hasselback potatoes or a cauliflower mac ‘n’ cheese. Winter salads made with roasted squash, hearty greens, nuts, and quinoa can also be a welcome accompaniment. Add savory notes by serving mushrooms sautéed in butter. You can also incorporate sweeter sides like baked apples or pears, or sweet potato pie.

Plant Power

At least 40 percent of Americans say they want to eat more plant-based foods, so why not tap into this trend by including more such entrées on your menu? You may achieve success by putting a new spin on some familiar favorites: serve paté made with nut meats or mushrooms stuffed with chopped vegetables and walnuts. Main course ideas include a vegan Reuben using seasoned seitan or tempeh plus kimchi or sauerkraut. Fill enchiladas with grilled mushrooms, beans, and leafy greens. Or build your own vegan burgers by sautéing chopped mushrooms, garlic, shallot, and peppers, then blending with black beans, walnuts, and seasonings.

Changes like these could provide virtually unlimited options when it comes to lowering your per-plate costs, while providing value and flavor. Don’t forget that the most important ingredient is your own creativity when it comes to producing dishes that appeal to both the eye and the palate while satisfying hungry appetites.

Adam Wilson oversees recipe development and testing for Vitamix as Manager of Culinary Exploration. As a member of the Vitamix Culinary Team, Wilson is constantly developing new approaches and recipes for household and commercial customers around the world.