Menu Innovations | April 2012 | By Barney Wolf

A Bright Idea

Citrus adds a fresh, sweet, and sour complexity across the menu.

America is sweet on citrus—even the sour varieties.

Restaurant operators and chefs are increasingly using
oranges, lemons, limes, and other citrus items to liven up their menus with a fresh taste.

If there’s one word that seems to sum up citrus’ taste profile, it’s bright.

“Citrus is incredibly popular because it is so aromatic and has those bright and fresh notes,” says Kevan Vetter, executive chef and manager of culinary product development for seasoning giant McCormick & Co. “It really gives you a pop.”

Adding citrus perks up any dish, he says, whether the flavor comes from the fruit’s juice or even the rind, including zest.

McCormick’s global Flavor Forecast this year includes a half-dozen food trends, epitomized by a pair of taste combinations that include citrus.

One is using Meyer lemons—as in lemon thyme or limoncello—as part of a trend in which foodies seek ultimate taste through quality ingredients, flavors, and textures.

Another trend, “flavorful swaps,” extols the balance of bold flavor with demands for healthy products. One idea: combining grapefruit and red pepper to replace an old standby, lemon pepper.

“There’s just so much you can do with citrus,” says Frank Terranova, a chef and associate instructor of culinary arts at Johnson & Wales University’s Providence, Rhode Island, campus. “It’s a very healthful way to deliver freshness and flavor.”

Menu items with citrus in their names or descriptions jumped 21 percent at limited-service restaurants last year, according to Technomic Inc.’s MenuMonitor. Gains were recorded in most meal parts.

Separate research from Mintel found citrus menu mentions grew by two-thirds since 2008, and tripled at small chain restaurants.

That, however, underreports the amount of citrus being used because the fruit is often never mentioned as an ingredient—like limes in Mexican rice, lemons in hummus, or various varieties in sauces.

“Citrus is so much a natural part of these menu items, operators don’t even need to mention them,” says Mary Chapman, director of product innovation at Technomic, the Chicago market research and consulting company.

The consultancy’s “Flavor Consumer Trend Report” noted diners’ growing sophistication in accepting various layers and fusions of flavors, and citrus is perfect for that. “It adds brightness, acidity, and stands up to something spicy,” she says. “It’s really versatile.”

The single largest category for citrus is nonalcoholic beverages, ranging from orange juice to lemonade, both very traditional items. Most beverage companies and bottlers offer multiple products with orange, lemon, lime, and grapefruit flavors.

For some operators, however, citrus drinks can be a differentiator.

Sonic Drive-In’s limeade and cherry limeade beverages have been on the menu since the company’s earliest days in the 1950s, and have been “a brand treasure as long as anyone can remember,” says Matt Schein, senior director of brand marketing.

The cherry version is the company’s top-selling drink, and something customers seek out. “It is always one of the first passion points they will bring up when asked,” he says.

Sonic’s limeade has a proprietary carbonated citrus base and juice from freshly squeezed limes. The company also has orange juice, lemonade made with fresh lemons, and slushies that use oranges and lemons.

Oranges are by far the most popular type of citrus grown in the U.S. Juice typically comes from varieties grown in Florida, and easy-segmenting and eating oranges, such as navels, often come from California.

Growers have been working to get more restaurants to cook with their products.

“For the past four or five years, we’ve really been promoting citrus as an ingredient,” says Vanessa Hodak, director of foodservice and school marketing for the Florida Department of Citrus. “The sweet and sour flavors have a complexity that cooks love.”

The department works with chefs in New York who continually develop all kinds of ingredients using Florida oranges, grapefruits, and tangerines, including sauces, marinades, glazes, and fruit sections or segments, which the experts now call filets.

“It’s affordable, versatile, and so easy to include in recipes,” Hodak says. It also provides dishes with “stealth health,” because citrus contains not only the well-known vitamin C and various other nutrients, but also no fat, sodium, or cholesterol.

“In fact, chefs are using oranges and other citrus as a replacement for sodium, pulling back on saline marinades and injections and using more citrus to tenderize or flavor,” she says.

Terranova says citrus is perfect for tenderizing because the acid “breaks down fibers in meat.” While lemon is a traditional flavor enhancer for seafood and poultry, chefs are increasingly using orange or grapefruit juices and segments instead.

For a company like Moe’s Southwest Grill, the ample use of lime in existing menu items helped maintain a flavor profile that could have been lost when the chain undertook a sharp reduction in salt last year, according to company officials.

“Citrus is a perfect fit for the trend toward fresh and healthy eating with nutritional values and enticing flavors that have long been consumer favorites,” says Claire Smith, director of corporate communications for Sunkist Growers in California and Arizona.

She notes that each variety has a distinct flavor, such as the sweet, tangy zing of high-nutrient, low-acid cara cara navel oranges or the berry overtones of a Moro, the darkest and most flavorful blood orange (named for its red blush rind and burgundy pulp).

New varieties of mandarin oranges are “claiming a growing niche” domestically and overseas, while Meyer lemons—an old Chinese variety—have become popular with chefs for their thin skin, fragrance, and sweeter flavor, she says.