Culinary Trends

Grain salads and bowls create opportunities for salad dressings
March 7, 2019

Grain salads and bowls create opportunities for salad dressings

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Whole grains enhance health appeal of salads and bowls, and dressings bring fresh flavors.

Diet fads and trendy foods often come and go before the ink dries on operators’ menus. Consumers’ interest in eating dishes made with whole grains and topped with flavorful dressings, however, is here for the long haul.

Opportunities abound for operators who choose to menu traditional whole grains such as wild or brown rice, or capitalize on the rising popularity of ancient grains such as quinoa, sorghum, farro, amaranth and millet. These grains can form the base for bowls and salads, topped with a variety of ingredients that all come together with a flavorful, craveable dressing.

Research from the Oldways Whole Grains Council found that 89 percent of consumers say they choose whole grains for their health benefits. And two-thirds of consumers — more than 65 percent — say they have increased their consumption of foods with whole grains in recent years, according to the the International Food Information Council’s 2017 Food and Health Survey.

Dressing grain bowls and salads

Kelly Toups, dietitian for the Oldways Whole Grains Council, says whole grains are an ideal ingredient to appeal to consumers who are seeking both health benefits and flavor.

“Whole grains are a great carrier for dressings, and add value to bowls in terms of satiety and nutrition,” she says.

Salad dressings also provide an easy way to enhance and distinguish the flavor profile of a grain-based dish, says Allison Rittman of Austin, Texas-based consulting firm Culinary Culture.

“That’s the ultimate way to change your menu without adding, three, four or five ingredients for every dish,” she says. “You could add a harissa dressing and make it North African, or you could add a schug dressing, and now you have a completely different flavor profile. Or you can make it a Mexican-inspired dish with a cascabel [chili pepper] yogurt dressing, or it can become Lebanese with with a wonderful za’atar dressing.”

Ancient grains are new again

Quinoa is perhaps the best known of the ancient grains that have gained popularity among consumers — 68 percent of consumers have heard of it, according to 2018 research from the Oldways Whole Grains Council, compared with 55 percent who had heard of it in 2015.

However, other ancient grains are also gaining awareness, including millet, sorghum, farro and amaranth, the research found.

Rittman of Culinary Culture says one of the best ways to introduce grains that may be unfamiliar to consumers is to incorporate them into more familiar dishes. If an operator’s customer base is unfamiliar with quinoa, for example, adding quinoa into a taco salad, with an appropriate dressing, is a way to encourage trial of the grain without asking the customer to make a giant leap.

“It’s very safe — there’s just this one new thing that sounds interesting to them and that they’re willing to take a risk on, versus having a lot of new ingredients or unusual flavor profiles,” she says.

Sweetgreen, the fast-casual salad chain, primarily works with two whole grains — quinoa and a wild rice blend — says Michael Stebner, director of culinary innovation at the Culver City, Calif.-based company.

Among Sweetgreen’s successful grain-based dishes is the Shroomami, a vegan bowl with wild rice, tofu, mushrooms, cucumbers and a miso-sesame dressing.

In a presentation at a recent Oldways Whole Grains Conference, Stebner said the company has launched a collaboration with chef Dan Barber that will result in the incorporation of more whole grains, including toasted buckwheat.

Other whole grains Sweetgreen is exploring for its seasonally changing menu include:

  • Cover crops and rotational grains
  • Rye
  • Winter wheat
  • Sorghum

Some operators whose clientele may be more familiar or adventurous have had success with a variety of grains, sometimes all in one dish. At Zoës Kitchen, the Power Grain Bowl is made with lentils, quinoa, farro and rice, with a flavorful salad dressing of tzatziki and harissa, along with Mexican relish, cucumbers and fresh dill.

With the current trend toward the personalization of dishes, it also makes sense to offer customers multiple craveable salad dressings to choose from, or perhaps use dressings as the base to create a uniquely flavored sauce for their grain salads.

For operators seeking to appeal to health-conscious consumers, and also to those seeking interesting taste experiences, the time is right to take a closer look at whole grain salads and bowls in combination with other ingredients, all tied together with flavorful salad dressings.

Whole & Ancient Grains: Using Grains to Enhance Bowls & Salads