Milk, cheese and butter, as both stand-alone products and recipe ingredients, all play a prominent role on the menu.
And sour cream, yogurt and buttermilk are used to enhance everything from beverages to salads, soups, entrees, breakfast items and desserts. So how can you make the most of your dairy buying dollars? Begin by taking a close look at how the dairy industry has diversified and expanded in the foodservice market.
Manufacturers have ratcheted up the overall hipness and kid appeal of milk by packaging it in bright, single-serve plastic containers. First introduced at retail, these 100 percent milk products are gaining popularity as healthy soft drink alternatives. Milk-based drinks, including 51 percent-milk lattes and smoothies, are available single-serve, too.
The dairy business has also made strides in controlling perishability. Advances in shelf-stable packaging and pasteurizing milk at higher temperatures both deter spoilage. Some European dairies are pasteurizing milk through filtration instead of heat, a process not yet approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, reports Pete Kondrup of Westby Cooperative Creamery in Wisconsin. This method produces fresh milk that can stay fresh up to six months, like a shelf-stable product.
National sales of organic milk and cream now add up to $1.057 billion, or 49 percent of the total $2.14 billion organic dairy category, says the Organic Trade Association. However, these items can run 20 to 50 percent higher in cost, making all-natural dairy products an attractive mid-priced alternative.
Milk falls into three general categories: fresh, extended shelf-life and shelf-stable. Most fresh milk is sold as pasteurized; it's heated to 161°F for about 15 seconds to kill pathogens. Pasteurized milk must be stored at 40°F or colder; it should stay fresh for two to three days past the "use by" date. Ultra-pasteurization sterilizes milk at higher temperatures (191 to 212°F) for a shorter time, extending refrigerated shelf life to a month or longer. UHT pasteurization heats milk to 280°F for two seconds, sterilizing and keeping it shelf-stable for up to three months. If walk-in space is limited and you can't get on a frequent fresh milk delivery schedule, it may be smart to spec ultra-pasteurized and shelf-stable milk.
Ultra-premium European-style butters and updated packaging are setting the trend. European-style products are 83-86 percent fat, resulting in more tender baked goods and richer sauces. And the classic butter pat has gone by the wayside; foil-wrapped butter chips and sealed plastic cups are cleaner and less wasteful. More restaurants are turning to butter to replace trans-fatty margarines and hydrogenated shortenings in cooking. And spreadable butter, a blend of canola oil and butter, will soon be crossing over from retail to foodservice.
Traditional butter (80 percent milkfat) is made from pasteurized cream and graded on the basis of flavor, body, color and salt content from USDA Grade AA (superior quality) to standard quality Grade B. Most butter for restaurants is Grade AA.
Unsalted or sweet butter has no added salt; it holds up to two weeks, refrigerated, and up to five months frozen. Salted butter contains 1.6-1.7 percent salt, which acts as both a preservative and flavoring agent. It can be stored in the walk-in for up to two months and frozen for six to nine months. European-style or cultured butter is made from pasteurized cream that has been inoculated with active lactic acid cultures. It is churned longer to produce a butter that is lower in moisture and higher in fat with a distinct tangy flavor.
European-style butter is often preferred for melting and clarifying, lower milk solids make it less likely to burn. And though it's more expensive, "it's possible to use 25% less when you choose European-style butter for baking and cooking because of its extra fat," says Trevor Wuethrich of Grassland Dairy.
Spurred by the small artisanal and farmstead cheesemakers, larger producers are turning out more specialty cheeses. Production has grown at least 7 percent a year since 2002 in Wisconsin and accounts for 11 percent of the market in California, the two largest cheese-producing states.
With the greater variety and quantity of cheeses available, consumers are more sophisticated about their choices, often trading up from commodity cheeses like cheddar and American. Imports are flat but American cheesemakers are rising to meet demand with more unusual products. Ed Zimmerman, consultant to the industry through his company, Successfoods Marketing of Novato, California, says these are some of the other trends foodservice buyers should be watching: the increased availability and scope of Hispanic cheeses; more cheeses with an "all-natural" label; mixed-milk cheeses (blends of cow, goat and/or sheep); value-added cheeses with seasoning variations; and a continued move toward ready-to-use cheese shreds or pieces, some as blends labeled as "bistro" or "taco."
Some cheese companies are going for even more intense flavor profiles. Sartori Foods of Plymouth, Wisconsin, has a line of Xtreme cheeses with flavors ranging from coffee to wasabi and hot 'n blue. Roth Kase, another Wisconsin company, offers spirited cheeses enhanced with Kentucky bourbon, gin and California port, while Beechwood Cheese Company developed a signature chicken soup-flavored cheese. And the dairy industry is experimenting with a strawberry-flavored string cheese in an effort to get more calcium-rich dairy into kids' diets.
In Europe, cheesemakers are now exporting pre-portioned, individually quick frozen cheese to make it more convenient and cost-effective for restaurants to get consistent results with minimum labor and waste. Soignon, a French goat cheese company, was the first to use IQF technology to freeze cheese and now offers a complete line of ripened and non-ripened goat cheese in cubes and slices.
Bulk cheese is available in wheels, blocks, loaves and random pieces, ranging from 8 ounces to 200 pounds. Shredded, grated and crumbled cheese comes in varying size packages and containers.
To make your cheese dollars go further, look for versatility. "A two-year-old cheddar has broad application," says Dave Leonhardi, director of cheese education for the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board. "You need just a little to get big flavor, and it blends well with other cheeses." Ditto for mozzarella, provolone and asiago. Leonhardi suggests purchasing small amounts frequently rather than large quantities. If cheese sits too long in the walk-in, it attracts bacteria and absorbs flavors.
With specialty cheese, "pay less attention to price and more to performance," says Zimmerman. An aged or high-flavor cheese is a smart purchase, you need less to make an impact. Jerry Dryer of Dairy & Food market Analyst feels that flavored natural cheeses can differentiate the menu. "You can easily offer 17 different cheeseburgers with small amounts of value-added cheeses," he says.
Other dairy products
Lighter, healthier products made from lowfat and skim milk have been the main focus of processors for the past 20 years. While that focus hasn't shifted entirely, a small number of dairies are now producing high-fat, premium products to appeal to discriminating palates. And others are introducing Americans to European favorites, like quark and fromage blanc.
Yogurt is being positioned as a functional food that does more than deliver nutritional benefits. With its Activia brand, Dannon has boosted yogurt's healthfulness by adding a natural culture known as Bifidus Regularis, a strain of "friendly" bacteria that reportedly improve digestive function. Activia is available in six flavors: strawberry, vanilla, peach, blueberry, mixed berry and prune. Later this year, Dannon will be introducing a new fresh dairy product called DanActive, a cultured probiotic dairy drink that is clinically proven to help strengthen the body's defenses.
Operators who want to go organic or premium with some dairy purchases might start with this category since the investment is smaller. Cultured products, such as sour cream, buttermilk and yogurt, can be delivered on a once-weekly schedule since spoilage won't occur as rapidly; store in the walk-in at 40°F or lower. You might also consider purchasing portion-control, single-serve sizes of cream cheese and sour cream.