Stories from the Lab: Awesome Sauce! We Get to Create Our Own

Hello again everyone! Welcome to a very special edition of my Stories from the Lab blog. In my last post, we discovered how much time and attention cheese making requires, and this time around, we get to manufacture and produce our very own product! We were paired up into teams and tasked to create a shelf-stable pasta sauce. This project—in the Research and Development class with Chef JJ Lui—was one of my favorite lab experiences thus far in my culinary science education. The sauce could be any theme, cuisine, texture, flavor, or color. This project took a total of 15 weeks, an entire semester. Each week, we learned a new topic related to the project that aided us in the process of creating our new product.

This very unique project allowed us to create whatever we wanted! It was a very delicate and long process, but the experiment was and is exactly what an actual culinary scientist can do every day in a professional career setting!  

First, Do Your Research!

One of the first steps in the multistep process was research—hence the first word in the name of the class! My group members (Emily and Eun) and I did extensive research on the topic, gaining valuable information about what the current market offers in the realm of pasta sauce. The most popular products included:

  • Tomato sauce
  • Alfredo sauce
  • Cream sauce
  • Pesto
  • Carbonara

Our market research led us to do a trends analysis. During this step, we found 2019 trends that included:

  • Seaweed snacks
  • Glitter
  • Pea proteins
  • Cannabis drinks

We decided to use the pea protein as inspiration and go the vegan route, as the trends forecast for 2017–2025 showed a rising demand for vegan foods. An expected boost in vegetable-based sauces is rapidly coming, so we thought to hop on this trend’s bandwagon.

Looking for Big Ideas

Next, we had an ideation session. Have you ever sat in on an ideation session before? The purpose is to generate ideas through group sessions by brainstorming and generating different suggestions. The more people, the better! Participants with different backgrounds, wants, and needs offer diverse ideas that are vital to the design process when creating a new product for the market.

The knowledge gained during this ideation session led us into doing a focus group. The differences between an ideation session and a focus group is that focus groups are conducted to explore product-related questions. During our focus group session, we asked various CIA students to share their thoughts on the current brands and flavors of pasta sauces on the market. A huge step in this project was creating our own company and finding a target market for our pasta sauce. My group decided to name our company Saucy Co., and the name and flavor of our pasta was Garden Vegetable. Our mission for Saucy Co. was to create a unique style of pasta sauce, making a vegetarian, dairy-free, all-natural, tomato-free product.

The main ingredients were yellow squash, butternut squash, onions, garlic, mushroom and beet stock, apple cider vinegar, and orange juice. A small bit of canola oil and herbs like oregano, basil, and red curry paste were also added. Our product contained no added sweeteners or stabilizers and had a bright yellow color.

Time for the Science

The product had to go through major microbial testing before we could start jarring it. In a professional setting, these stages would be called the “pilot plant,” when the product begins to be formed and designed from the bench up. My team members and I had to do water activity measurement, pH measurements, refractometer brix measurements, and even bacteria growth measurements.

Just like any other professional culinary company creating a product, our sauces had to have the correct measurements per the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) code and New York State laws.

The issue of the product being shelf-stable meant that it could and would last upwards of two to five years at room temperature and would not require refrigeration. We did several tests where we vacuum-packed the sauce and left it out on a counter for upwards of 30 days before checking to see if any bacteria had grown on it.

Advice from the Pros

Doing this project was an absolutely amazing experience. Along the way, we had several guest presenters and chefs come in to taste our sauces and give us critical feedback. We first went around the CIA campus and did “liking” tests at The Egg and Conrad Hilton Library to get other student opinions. We also had the chance to meet and interact with Richard Calladonato, a CIA grad and director of culinary sales at SugarCreek; Matt Tom, founder and CEO of MTCC LLC; and another CIA graduate, Michele Reisner, who’s the executive vice president at Target Research Group. We even got to ship our product to Michele, who works and lives in the Boston area.

The Finishing Touches

One of the final steps in this process was making a logo and jar design. One of my team members, Emily, hand-drew the squash design we chose for our product and put it front and center on our jar so it would be lively and creative enough for people to want to buy it off a supermarket shelf. Some other themes and flavors of my other classmate’s pasta sauces included Paula’s Peruvian Pesto Sauce, Vegan Alfredo, and a Korean-inspired tomato sauce.

The project took us to the core of culinary research and development—balancing our pH, testing out different ratios, fixing texture and thickness properties, and more! During the experiment, my group made nearly 10 different sauce variables and changes until we were pleased enough with our item. Going on our class field trip to Rich’s in Buffalo, NY, was an added bonus. We got to see a real industrial R&D facility where we could be doing all these things for commercialized products. At the end of the 15 weeks, we all cooked up our sauces and poured them over pasta and had a huge feast! Chef Lui said we did a great job and noted that while our sauces were unique and different, they were all delicious.

Next up, I’ll gain a whole new appreciation for preparing another culinary favorite from scratch—sausage. See you then!

Majestic Lewis-Bryant