Bakers and pastry chefs across the country are pushing the envelope when it comes to flavor infusions. And while their reasons for experimenting with flavors are all slightly different, their end goal is all the same: To “wow” their customers’ taste buds.
“The best chefs in the world are constantly pushing the boundaries of palate discovery,” says Katie Poppe, owner of Blue Star Donuts in Portland, OR. “There will always be a place for the classics, but playing around with unique flavors that showcase what's fresh, seasonal, and local can be a delicious way to expand taste bud horizons.”
For Adam Thomas, executive pastry chef at The Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, CO, flavor experimentation ties into industry and cultural trends.
“There’s a new push with sustainability and harvesting,” Thomas says. “You’ll see a lot of new ingredients coming about, like new herbs and sprouts. It’s up to us – the creative people in this creative industry – to continue to try new ideas and flavor profiles.”
The Art of Infusing
In its simplest form, infusion is the process of transferring the flavor of one item into another, and it’s something Amanda Gustafik, owner of Enchanted Cakes in Cocoa, FL, has been doing since childhood.
“I grew up in a Polish household and learned how to infuse Vodka with many different flavors,” Gustafik says. “I now infuse rum with many different flavors and make my own infusions, such as lemon raspberry and chai tea. So rather than offering just a plain spice cake, for example, we steep chai tea and add the concentrated liquid to our cake batter in place of half of the milk. That way, the cake is infused with a lovely chai tea spice flavor.”
Gustafik also takes advantage of the fact that flavor infusions are often colorless.
“We use strawberry and raspberry oil in icing when a bride wants the flavor, but wants white icing instead of pink,” she says.
In addition, flavor infusions have staying power. Gustafik prepares her fruit-based flavor infusions when each type of fruit is fresh and in its prime. She then keeps the infusions refrigerated so she still has access to the flavor when the fruit is no longer in season.
Freshness is also important to April Weibacher, co-owner of 2 Tarts Bakery in New Braunfels, TX. “We mostly use fresh ingredients, such as fresh fruits and herbs, to flavor our baked goods,” she says. “Pure, all-natural extracts and oils are also amazing at getting bold flavors.”
Choosing which flavors to offer and experiment with can be one of the most interesting and stimulating parts of baking.
“From books to nature to current trends in the industry, inspiration can come from anywhere,” Thomas says.
But with so many flavor options out there, it can be difficult to narrow down the possible combinations. Many bakers and pastry chefs take a cue from the time of year.
“Seasons play a big hand in what flavors are more popular than others,” Gustafik says. “In the summer, for instance, fruit combinations like lemon-raspberry and pineapple-rum are very popular, while in the winter we do a lot of chocolate with Kahlua or Grand Marnier.”
Location should also play a role when deciding which flavors to incorporate into your bakery case.
“Here in Texas, people are still in the grips of the Red Velvet craze,” Weilbacher says. “French Macarons with flavors like blueberry-pomegranate, Nutella, milk and honey, and crème brûlée are definitely catching on, too.”
At Blue Star Donuts, deciding which flavors to offer involves a lot of trial and error. “We try a lot of incredible seasonal combinations,” Poppe says. “Sometimes they don't translate very well, but those that do make the display case.”
While the sky is the limit when it comes to flavor combinations, Thomas advises against throwing all caution and judgment to the wind. “Don’t mix things together just because,” Thomas says. “Keep your flavors balanced and focused. Interesting does not always mean good.”
Creating a winning flavor combination is only half the battle. You also must convince your customers it is worth trying. Luckily, that part generally seems to take care of itself.
“People are always excited to see something new in the case,” Weilbacher says. “We do our fair share of explaining what a tart is, why our scones are not hard and dry, or that bacon is actually amazing on a brownie. But we love exposing our small town to cuisine that is usually found in larger communities. We rejoice in making people love something they thought they hated and broadening their horizons.”
And as the saying goes, if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.
“At first, a lot of people thought it was really weird that we’d make things like our blueberry-bourbon-basil donut, and they’d wrinkle their noses and ask if we had any ‘regular donuts,’” Poppe says. “A few people told us we'd never make it. But we offer tastes of all of our glazes, and curiosity and great-tasting products have led to a solid fan base of believers.”
The bottom line: Do not be afraid to experiment with flavor infusions.
“Life is too short to settle for the mundane,” Weilbacher says. “You have to keep your customer base on its toes and coming back for more.”