A Q&A with leading nut ingredient marketers.

Dairy Foodstalked to:
Ann Billek, co-owner, Ready Roast Nut Co.
Claudia Granda, food technologist, culinary development, Pecan Deluxe Candy Co.
Harbinder Maan, manager, food service and industrial marketing, Almond Board of California
Steve Manassah, national sales manager, Bedemco Inc.

Nuts are a food formulator’s friend. They add flavor, texture and eye appeal, at the same time they contribute to a food’s nutrition profile. Recently, Dairy Foods spoke with four marketers of nut ingredients. Here are some of their  innovative ideas and formulating tips.

Dairy Foods: Nuts pair well with other flavorful ingredients used in dairy foods. What are some combinations you can suggest, including some surprises that have yet to be tried?

Billek: Nuts are good with savory flavors, and some savory flavors are interesting in ice cream-try a hot sauce flavored almond in vanilla ice cream!

Granda: Encrusting nuts is a great way to combine nuts with all kinds of ingredients and flavors. Encrusting nut meats consists of adding exciting ingredients to the outside of the nuts to achieve different textures and a different flavor experience with every bite. We make two different types of encrusted nuts: praline and confectionery coated. Some of the flavor combinations we have tried in the encrusted praline arena include honey almonds with oats, sesame almonds and pineapple coconut-enrobed cashews. Fun inclusions can also be added on the outside of nuts by using a cold panning process. Some flavor concepts include caramel toffee almonds (praline almonds coated with caramel coating and toffee bits), cranberry yogurt almonds (praline almonds coated with yogurt coating and cranberry bits) and cinnamon brown sugar pecans (praline pecans coated with a buttery cinnamon coating and cinnamon sprinkles). We’ve also done extensive work with encrusted savory nuts. Some unique flavor combinations include teriyaki cashews, kettle cooked pecans with sea salt and cracked pepper, blue cheese walnuts, tangerine-glazed almonds and basil pine nuts. The sky is the limit when developing a combination of flavors that deliver a unique and complete flavor experience. Any flavor concept can be translated to a single piece that delivers all the desired flavors in one bite. For instance, a pecan apple pie piece could be built by coating praline pecans with an apple-flavored coating and pie chip crumbles.

Maan: California almonds pair well with other ingredients because they have a subtle flavor that complements and enriches without dominating. When it comes to flavor pairings, we asked a representative national sample (n=1,010) of our primary consumer target audience-health-oriented, food-involved women age 35-plus years-to share their opinions about “ideal” ice cream products. They told us that their most popular ingredients would be vanilla ice cream, strawberries, dark chocolate, almonds and a caramel swirl. Specifically, 34% of respondents chose almonds. With regard to their “ideal” ice cream bar, it includes vanilla ice cream, strawberries, English toffee, almonds and a fudge swirl. Specifically, 43% of respondents chose almonds. In addition to the flavors that almonds pair with, we’d be remiss if we didn’t also emphasize the crunch that almonds bring to dairy foods. Almonds retain their appealing crunch across a wide range of temperatures, largely due to their low-moisture content. This is one reason why almonds are popular as a frozen novelty coating. 

Manassah: Nuts pair well with a variety of dried fruit, seed and sun-dried tomato products. Most prominent are combinations such as Turkish hazelnuts with Turkish apricots, walnuts with cranberries and macadamia nuts with cranberries. A dairy manufacturer can go in many different directions to achieve some surprises. Imagine roasted cinnamon Turkish hazelnuts with cranberries, roasted hazelnuts, pear and ginger, diced Brazil nuts with apricots, or diced Brazil nuts with cranberries. By combining different flavor profiles the manufacturer can create sweet, savory or a combination of both flavor sensations. We really feel that Turkish hazelnuts and Brazil nuts are two nuts that offer a tremendous amount of flexibility and are under utilized in the marketplace.

Maan: In addition to their flavor properties, almonds enhance the appearance of frozen desserts. Blanched almonds contrast wonderfully against darker backgrounds such as chocolate ice cream, while roasted almonds provide a beautiful color note against both dark and light formulations.

Dairy Foods: Nuts come whole, as well as in a variety of cuts and sizes. Why would a dairy processor choose one form over another for an application?

Billek: Diced, sliced and slivered nuts are best when formulating multi-serving items.  The smaller particles disperse throughout the product allowing each serving a healthy dose of the inclusion.

Manassah: Processors should choose various cuts and sizes based on the final appearance, texture and mouthfeel that they are trying to achieve. In ice cream, for example, manufacturers may choose to incorporate a ribbon of flavor; therefore, they would use a nut paste to achieve this effect. To create a chunky effect they would incorporate large diced sizes, or they may use a smaller dice to increase the dispersion throughout the product. Similarly for cheeses, the final product might be rolled in a nut and fruit combination, thus requiring some type of diced product. A dairy drink manufacturer may use a nut meal or flour in order to create a dairy drink with some texture.

Granda: During off season when nuts can get expensive, dairy processors may choose to use smaller pieces that will provide a better distribution throughout the product while keeping the cost down. However, if a more upscale product is desired, bigger or whole nuts are usually perceived as a better-quality product.

Maan: The flavor of almonds can be intensified or reduced by choosing from a wide array of almond varieties, types and processing options. The mission variety offers stronger almond flavor intensity than the nonpareil variety. Blanched almonds have a milder flavor than their natural skin-on counterparts. Roasted almonds have a unique flavor profile particularly suited to ice cream. Further, almonds have a unique texture and kernel size and can be intentionally cut into different sizes and shapes such as sliver, slice, dice (large and small), flour, paste, butter, etc. All forms have been widely used in different dairy applications. Selection of different sizes varies with application and purpose of adding almonds. If you are adding almonds for texture modification, it is best to use small diced almonds, preferably oil-roasted diced. If it’s for enhancing the richness of flavor and taste, almond paste or butter can be tried, as it will add richness without changing the product’s original texture profile. Almonds can even be ground into almond milk and mixed with dairy milk to make almond-dairy cheese.

Dairy Foods: Nuts can go through various treatments, including roasting, coating, salting, etc. How do these processes impact the nut’s flavor, texture and usage in other foods?

Manassah: Nuts can be treated in a variety of ways to ensure the desired result. Roasting enhances the flavor profile and generates a characteristically stronger flavor, which can become a part of the taste profile of the finished product. Coatings can have added flavor, which also heightens flavor, either sweetened or savory (such as orange or pepper). By doing various combinations with spices or herbs, either roasted or plain, a wide array of distinctive tastes and culinary applications can be created.

Maan: Almonds, whole kernels or cut pieces, can be roasted by dry hot air or oil roasted, followed by optional flavor or salt addition. Roasting can increase almond flavor and simultaneously make almonds crispier. Flavoring or salting adds more flavor and taste. One challenge for almond applications in frozen dairy products is to preserve the crispiness of roasted almonds. A coating assists by providing a barrier to moisture migration.

Granda: Roasting and praline bring out the flavor of nuts and help achieve a crunchier texture. Praline nuts are very popular for ice cream applications because they add texture and flavor to the finished product. Confectionery-coated roasted nuts are also widely used in ice cream products because of the flavor they impart and also because the chocolate coating provides a barrier to moisture migration. Salt is added during roasting but also during the praline process to enhance the flavor. In addition, salt may be added in chocolate coating if a sweet and salty experience is desired. 

Manassah: There are a number of different ways to combat moisture migration, including roasting, coating, water and dextrin, or polyhydric alcohols such as glycerol. Using one of these methods ensures that there is little to no moisture migration. It also prevents flavor transfer and will prevent the development of undesirable flavors and odors.

Dairy Foods: Including nuts in a product formulation can often add cost. What economical advice can you provide dairy processors interested in adding nuts to ice cream, yogurt, dairy desserts, cheese spreads, etc?

Granda: Using smaller pieces helps achieve a better distribution even when using smaller amounts. Using praline nuts also helps reduce cost by adding a sugar shell. Exciting flavors and seasonings can be added along with the sugar shell to reduce the cost and add a flavor burst.

Maan: According to a recent survey conducted of volume foodservice and consumer packaged goods professionals by the Almond Board of California, the most valuable aspect of an ingredient is the flavor it brings to a new product or menu item. Texture, health benefits, consumer interest and cost are also commonly considered when developing new products. Thinking specifically about almonds, survey respondents indicated that taste, visual appeal, texture and consumer demand were extremely important attributes that drove the inclusion of almonds in their new products or menu items. Chefs and product developers are aware that their consumers make food choices based on multiple factors, and regardless of the economic environment, there are craveable benefits that almonds deliver that just can’t be replaced.

Manassah: Nuts add value to a variety of dairy products. Yogurt for example, is up-scaled by adding dried fruit and nuts, or a granola-type inclusion. Dairy beverages with nuts offer an alternative flavor profile packed with nutrition. Roasted nuts will add a more intensive flavor, thereby requiring smaller quantities to create a distinctive flavor; diced nuts offer greater dispersion throughout the product providing a more upscale appearance. Nut pastes and meals are great cost-effective alternatives, as their versatility ensures their use in a variety of dairy applications and they are relatively inexpensive when compared to other inclusions. 

Dairy Foods: Finally, putting all economics and technical requirements aside, what are some innovative ideas for dairy processors regarding nuts?

Manassah: Innovating knows no boundaries. How about blending cream cheese with diced hazelnuts or diced Brazil nuts, dried fruit and spices? This can be used as a spread, in appetizers or as a dessert filing. Yogurt gains more nutrients as it achieves indulgence status when either diced hazelnuts or Brazil nuts are blended in with cranberries, apricots or dried tart cherries. Imagine vanilla ice cream with mixed diced chocolate-covered hazelnuts and salted diced Brazil nuts. Yogurt goes savory with sun-dried tomatoes bits and pine nuts.

Granda: Never be afraid to try flavor combinations that are exciting and most importantly that break the rules! These are some flavor combinations we’ve tried in the past. Smokin’ Raspberry Chipotle is cream cheese-flavored ice cream drizzled with raspberry chipotle sauce and topped with bacon, chives and blackened almonds. Ice Cream Panini is buttery, brown sugar, cream cheese-flavored ice cream blended with praline pecans sandwiched in banana bread drizzled with a brown Betty caramel sauce. As an appetizer, we created Asian Cheese Bites, which are bites of wasabi-flavored cream cheese mixed with crackers and rolled in tamari almond crumbles.

Maan: Aside from the nut meat itself, almond milk used instead of or in addition to dairy ingredients is another interesting opportunity for this nut. Almond milk adds subtle, interesting flavor to sorbets, ices and ice creams.