Flavorful syrups and sauces are livening up grilled meats, cocktails and, of course, sweets.

by Nicole Potenza Denis

There was a time when most Americans automatically reached for chocolate syrup to flavor their milk, add oomph to vanilla ice cream, or make a DIY egg cream. Even within the sole flavor variety was slim, with few competing brands on the market. Today, specialty food companies are busy creating sweet syrups and toppings that are versatile, creative and surprising.

Multifunctional Flavors

Much of the growth in dessert toppings comes from uncommon applications. Consumers are becoming more adept at using products in unconventional ways, but there is great opportunity for educating customers about the use of dessert sauces. “There are many applications with dessert sauces and toppings that are not immediately apparent to the consumer, like adding a teaspoon of caramel sauce to sweeten up a morning cup of coffee or some plain yogurt,” says Fortino Godinez, general manager of Hubbell & Hudson Market & Bistro, The Woodlands, Texas.

Meats and cheeses are among surprisingly pleasing canvases for the latest dessert sauces. Michelle Lewis, owner and creator of Spoonable LLC, Brooklyn, N.Y., has designed Peppered Orange Caramel Sauce, which contains freshly grated orange zest, freshly ground Tellicherry pepper and hints of organic mandarin orange extract. The peppery citrus sweetness entwined with rich caramel makes this sauce a complementary application for many dishes, but especially grilled ribs, Lewis notes. Java & Co. coffee-infused syrups, made from fresh roasted coffee beans with no added corn syrup, can heighten proteins as well. “They are syrups made from coffee but are definitely not just for coffee,” says owner Jamie Knoll. For example, Java Nut, a hazelnut-coffee infusion, is great for glazing ham or baby back ribs.

Dessert sauces with cheese is an up-and-coming match. Spoonable’s Lavender Caramel—which Lewis calls a “love it or hate it” flavor—while excellent atop vanilla ice cream or as a glaze for lamb, pairs well with goat cheeses. Classic Salty Caramel, Lewis adds, pairs particularly well with Vermont Creamery’s Cremont cheese, an aged cow’s milk and goat’s milk blend. At Lucy’s Whey, a farmstead and artisanal cheese shop with locations in New York City and East Hampton, N.Y., cheesemonger Grace Mitchell says if a customer is looking for a sweet cheese pairing she recommends a fresh chevre or ricotta paired with a drizzle of goat’s milk caramel, such as from Fat Toad Farm or Happy Goat.

Finding new ideas sometimes just takes looking at old classics. Rodgers’ Banana Pudding Sauce, based on a family recipe, is more than just a pudding that’s delicious straight out of the jar. “Our product’s versatility is its main appeal,” says founder Reggie Rodgers. It can be added to oatmeal, blended into a fruit smoothie, mixed into batter for tasty banana pancakes or waffles and served as a dip for other fruits. In the coming months, the company will introduce a gluten-free version of its pudding sauce.

More Sauces, Syrups and Toppings

Here are some more companies offering decadent treats to top desserts. Find more by visiting the Product Finder at specialtyfood.com.

Blackberry Patch - blackberrypatch.com

Cuisine Perel - cuisineperel.com

Herrell’s - herrells.com

Izzy Belle Chocolate - izzybellechocolate.com

The King’s Cupboard - kingscupboard.com

Knipschildt Chocolatier - knipschildt.com

Le Caramel - le-caramel.com

Monin - moninstore.com

Recchiuti Confections - recchiuti.com

Robert Rothschild Farm - robertrothschild.com

Sonoma Syrup Co. - sonomasyrup.com

New Ingredient Infusions

Interesting combinations of premium ingredients—from savory to floral—in sauces are providing an array of options to enhance traditional desserts.

For dramatic presentations, category specialist Roger McElroy of Straub’s Markets talks up Wild Hibiscus Flowers in Syrup from Australia for its crimson color and rhubarb-like flavor.

Allison Hayes, store manager for Ariel Gourmet and Gifts in Richland, Wash., says Chukar Cherries Chocolate Cherry Dessert Sauce is a consistent seller, as is Fran’s Chocolate Raspberry Sauce. Hubble & Hudson’s Godinez says though raspberry melba sauce is easy to make at home, Raffetto is a brand popular for its authentic flavor. Shannon McCall, manager of Savory Thymes in Boon, N.C., agrees that fruity syrups are being used more widely to boost flavor. She notes that Stonewall Kitchen’s Raspberry Syrup is a “widely popular sweet topping” often drizzled on pies. For dramatic presentations on ice cream or cakes, category specialist Roger McElroy of Straub’s Markets in St. Louis talks up Wild Hibiscus Flowers in Syrup from Australia for its crimson color and tart, rhubarb-like flavor.

McElroy also sees the savory influence growing. “Customers like salty with their chocolate, like Stonewall Kitchen’s Dark Chocolate Sea Salt Caramel Sauce,” he notes. Danny Denzer, grocery buyer at The Epicure Market in Miami Beach agrees. “Anything with salted caramel has been flying off the shelf,” Denzer says.

Another sweet-savory dessert topping McElroy has his eye on is Sabatino & Co.’s Fior di Pistacchio Cream, a 2012 sofi Gold Winner, made with Sicilian pistachios, that works on options from croissants to risotto to ice cream. “This is an amazing product,” he says of the gourmet spread that sells for $21 per 7.4-ounce jar. “But once you exceed the $10 mark on a product, customers might balk,” he warns, noting the dessert sauce category has seen modest growth over the past year.

Classic brands such as Sanders Candy’s Dessert Toppings, which has been around since the 1920s, could help bridge that price gap and draw attention to the specialty dessert topping category. The company, based in Clinton Township, Mich., has seen an increase in product demand from specialty retailers, including mid- to high-end grocers who are growing their stores’ specialty sections as well as specialty stores such as upscale gift and wine. “The cheaper national brand will always have a demand, but we are noticing growth in the consumer group looking for better ingredients, taste and value and people who just want to treat themselves to a better-for-you product,” says Tiffany Van Hemm, account executive and director of public relations. Sanders’ dessert toppings are priced competitively, at $4.29 and $6.79 for a 10- and 20-ounce jar, respectively.

Other Fun Toppers

Retailers and manufacturers are getting creative with ice cream and dessert toppings, too, going beyond rainbow sprinkles and other traditional garnishes.

Christopher Wier, purchasing director at Marczyk Fine Foods, Denver, says he doesn’t carry much in the way of topping-specific products (like sprinkles); instead he sells Peanut Butter Jenny crumbles, a house-made peanut butter bar with a layer of Valrhona chocolate ganache. “We crumble it and sell it in containers,” he says. He also recommends grating a bar of Askinosie chocolate or whipping some Morning Fresh Whipping Cream for a high-quality touch on pie or ice cream.
Chris McMahon, Braswell’s marketing director, suggests adding Braswell’s Praline Mix to whipping cream to top pie or to make a coffeehouse-quality cappuccino.

For ready-made whipped cream, Blosm offers hormone-free, natural flavored whipped cream in Cinnamon Praline, Blackberry Amaretto, Dark Chocolate Mocha, Toasted Marshmallow (pictured), French Vanilla and others. Suggested uses include coffee, ice cream, pie and even martinis.

For a caffeinated kick, Keuka Lake Coffee Roasters offers Java Sprinkles (pictured), a gourmet dessert topping made with finely ground Italian espresso; raw, cane and brown sugars; cocoa; and cinnamon and other spices.

Sip-worthy Syrups

The syrup segment of the sweet sauces and toppings category is going strong as both consumers and food professionals upgrade hot and cold drinks with a broad range of add-ins.

“Flavored syrups are becoming more popular and provide an option to not only flavor your brewed coffee but also to make your own Italian soda,” says Godinez. “It’s a trend we see really taking off.” Hubbell & Hudson’s bistro and coffee bar exclusively feature 1883 Gourmet Barista Syrups, both regular and sugar-free varieties.

McCall of Savory Thymes and Hayes of Ariel Gourmet both carry Torani’s full line of syrups. Flavors such as Raspberry, Caramel, Vanilla and Hazelnut are popular, as are the sugar-free varieties. “We don’t sell a lot of actual bottles for home purchase, but customers do like to add flavor to their coffee purchase in-store,” Hayes notes.

Keep it Simple Syrup is positioned as a top-shelf cocktail mixer, for vodka martinis, mojitos and the like. But creator Susan Martinson says it is great for non-alcoholic beverages as well, such as hot cocoa, coffee or tea—even in sparkling water, she says. Made with natural ingredients, this simple syrup is flavored naturally with spearmint leaves. Whereas most simple syrups contain equal parts sugar and water, Martinson has added more sugar to work as a natural preservative, eliminating the need for any artificial ingredients to keep the product fresh.

Cider is another hot drink getting a flavor boost. Braswell’s Select Cinnamon Flavoring Mix can be added to warm apple juice for a quick and easy mulled cider. “[The flavoring mixes] are great for all kinds of baking and cooking, but we really love the way that they allow you to easily add layers of flavor to everyday drinks like coffee, tea and lemonade,” says Chris McMahon, marketing director for Braswell’s. The line includes Blackberry, Peach, Praline, Pumpkin and Raspberry flavors, which are must-haves for bartenders to create such drinks as peach margaritas, blackberry cosmopolitans and praline White Russians.

Old Favorites Going Strong

Overall, traditional chocolate and caramel are standout favorites that remain the top contenders in the category, despite new flavor innovations.

“As a father, I will purchase chocolate sauce for my kids, but the caramel sauce is strictly for the adults.”—Fortino Gomez, Hubbell & Hudson Market & Bistro

“Generations of customers have grown up having our topping,” Sanders’ Van Hemm says. “Those memories, along with our affordable price, make us a strong competitor in the specialty topping marketplace and keeps customers coming back.” Sanders’ classic flavors, such as Milk Chocolate Hot Fudge and Classic Caramel, are top sellers in the line that includes Cinnamon Pear Caramel and Caramel Apple.

Though chocolate will never lose its appeal, caramel is coming up as a frontrunner. “Our chocolate syrup is a favorite go-to topping, but our caramel syrup is quickly growing in popularity,” notes Karen Atkinson, director of retail sales for Guittard Chocolate Co., Burlingame, Calif. Caramel’s smoky, brittle quality may be what makes it so versatile and appealing—especially for the newfangled food adventurer.

“You can have far more application options with caramel sauce as you would with chocolate sauce because its flavor profile is more compatible with savory items like coffee or cheese,” Godinez explains. “As a father, I will purchase chocolate sauce for my kids, but the caramel sauce is strictly for the adults.”

At Hubbell & Hudson, La Salamandra Dulce de Leche from Argentina, made with just sugar, vanilla and milk from grass-fed cows, is by far the most popular caramel sauce. Straub’s McElroy also touts this brand. “La Salamandra Dulce de Leche is one of our biggest-selling dessert toppings,” he says.

DeMedici Imports has been importing La Salamandra since 1999; Steve Kaufman, executive vice president of DeMedici, says he has seen its sales continually grow over the years, ultimately drawing more customers overall for the gourmet importer. “As more companies make products with the dulce de leche flavor, it draws more attention to us,” he says.

Another favorite caramel sauce at Hubbell & Hudson comes from Somebody’s Mother, a family-owned business, which also offers Chocolate and White Chocolate sauces. “I call it the Ten-Dollar Dessert Sauce, but it’s worth every penny,” Godinez says.

Cross-selling and creative merchandising are key to drawing attention to this growing category. Thinking outside the realm of sweet by placing dessert sauces at the cheese counter or flavored beverages in the coffee or soda aisle is sure to open a dialogue with customers and offer new sales opportunities.