Blueberry Balsamic Dressing can elevate a salad with unique color and flavor.

Why This Twist on Salads Satisfies Customer Cravings

Why blueberries are a chef’s friend when it comes to dressings and condiments.

Today’s consumers demand more menu variety than ever before, but they also want to know that the foods they are eating are nutritious. They are looking for fresh foods that are not highly processed and offer clean labels without additives or preservatives. As a result, house-made salad dressings and condiments that allow restaurants to adapt dishes while having more control over ingredients are becoming stars in kitchens. Yet with increasing labor pressures, growing budgetary strain, and higher consumer expectations, balancing the operational and nutritional demands are becoming more and more difficult.  

However, there is one simple ingredient that can help chefs accomplish all of these goals—blueberries. This simple fruit allows restaurants to create unique dressings and sauces efficiently without adding artificial ingredients. 

Chef Andrew Hunter

Chef Andrew Hunter is a research and development chef and author, as well as the R&D mentor of Lifetime’s Supermarket Star.

Chef Andrew Hunter, a research and development chef and author, as well as the R&D mentor of Lifetime’s Supermarket Star, explains how this small fruit can have a big impact on restaurant menus from salads to entrees.

1. How can house-made dressings and condiments increase sales among consumers looking for healthier menu options?

The consumer today is looking for dishes that taste, look and feel homemade, but that they can’t or would never think of, making at home. For operators, dressings are an easy way to add that house-made touch.

2. How can blueberries make home-made condiments and dressings cleaner, less processed and more natural?

Many dressings contain xanthan, which is on the approved list of ingredients at Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s and is clean by many people’s standards, but many consumers want labels that are completely clean. They think if it isn’t something they can find in their own pantries, they don’t want to eat it at restaurants.

If you want to make a dressing or condiment without xanthan or other thickeners and stabilizers, you have to shake, stir, and rely on natural emulsification properties of the ingredients. Cream and mayonnaise work for this, but health-conscious diners may want lighter dressings. Blueberries are a great choice because they contain a moderate amount of pectin relative to apples.

Pectin, which is naturally found in blueberries, helps dressings to emulsify and to stay emulsified for short periods of time, like during service periods. The pectin in blueberries also gives dressings viscosity, and it’s the berries contain the perfect amount of emulsification, because oftentimes we can add too much xanthan or whatever gum to dressings in large-scale foodservice chains.

3. Why are frozen blueberries so versatile for foodservice operators?

Frozen blueberries are a great option for operators because when you look at the ingredient list on a pack of frozen blueberries, there is just one ingredient, it’s a completely clean label. Additionally, they have a long shelf life.

You’ll also often hear chefs say more color, more flavor—referring to caramelization—but it’s often the case that more color means more nutrition as well. Blueberries add a dark, rich purple color to dressings. In fact, it’s a shiny purple, not dull by any means. Contrary to other purple foods that fade when they are cooked, blueberries actually get brighter and richer. Also, many are surprised to learn that blueberries love acid, adding a touch of lemon juice will brighten and maintain their vibrant color. This compatibility to acid makes them a good ingredient in dressings.

They are also stable in terms of supply and cost throughout the year, so if I were talking to my son I’d say, “It’s a no-brainer dude, do it.”

4. Many operators and consumers would immediately consider a blueberry dressing as sweet, would you agree?

No, I don’t. Though blueberries do have a natural sweetness, when added in with complementary ingredients they can have hundreds of different flavor profiles. We did a tasting recently at an event held at the CIA Greystone for a group of foodservice chefs. The tasting included fresh, frozen, pickled, dried, freeze-dried, powder, pureed, and even whiskey-soaked blueberries. I feel like I know quite a bit about blueberries, but I was astounded during this tasting as chefs shared all the different flavors they were experiencing. They mentioned citrus, principally lemon, and black pepper. It helped me realize the complexity of blueberries, which are a fantastically versatile ingredient for making unique, savory dishes.

5. What are some ways you’ve incorporated frozen blueberry into dressings or condiments?

Where do I start? I made a Blueberry Sriracha Lime dressing, which is simultaneously unique and mainstream. Sriracha’s now a national obsession. So when you combine sriracha with two common ingredients like blueberries and lime, your dish can be mainstream and yet totally different from what others are serving.

I also recently made a Crystalized Ginger Blueberry dressing. I could have used regular ginger, but I like crystallized ginger because it has that sharper flavor, almost like a ginger snap, which really amplified the blueberries along with a little warm spiciness, like cinnamon or nutmeg. You can take the ingredients in the dressing and use them as a garnish on the salad, sandwich, or whatever it is you are creating. This Crystalized Ginger Blueberry dressing is great on salads, but it can also double as a sauce.

Another one that was fun was a Blueberry Buttermilk Ranch. You make the ranch yourself or use one of the ranch brands and puree blueberries into it, then add crispy crumbled bacon to make it smoky and fruity. If you’re going to make the ranch, it’s like making ketchup and cola, you’re usually going to fall short 99 percent of the time unless you do something totally different outside of the realm of what people expect. You have to surprise them and say “This is a different way to eat ranch,” not “Taste our homemade ranch.” Additionally, adding blueberries to a buttermilk ranch dressing will make it more approachable adding an exciting new flavor. 

See the recipe for Blueberry Balsamic Dressing here.