Worth Its Salt

7 Oct

Ever had a bacon cupcake? How about salted caramel ice cream? Salty-sweet desserts are making their way to menus all over the country. According to food and beverage firm CCD Innovation, only 0.4% of U.S. restaurants offered salty-sweet desserts in 2010. That number is now up to 3.1% of U.S. restaurants. While that’s certainly not a majority, the boost is meaningful. Salty-sweet has captured the U.S. palate  and our imagination, too. American taste buds are growing up, as we seek more sophisticated tastes and complex flavors. Plus, the combo may have scientific justification. As the CEO of Vosges Haut-Chocolat explained it to NPR: “when you add salt, it creates a cycle of continuing craving.”

I’ve been reading a fascinating book about food trends called The Tastemakers: Why We’re Crazy for Cupcakes, but Fed Up with Fondue. In his book, David Sax takes us through several of North America’s recent crazes, from cupcakes to kale. Sax talks to people who work in trend forecasting, food marketing and product development to help us understand how foods go from just another foodstuff to almost mythical status. He interviews food truck owners, restaurant owners, meat farmers, apple growers. As I read NPR’s article about the growth of salty-sweet, I remembered a part of Sax’s book where he talks to innovation expert Barb Stuckey. Speaking about kale, Stuckey points out that foods have to go mainstream to truly have a place in American food culture. It’s not just about high-end restaurants experimenting with new ingredients or gourmet companies putting out expensive niche products. As Stuckey puts it, “slowly but surely, the kale salad will make its way to TGI Friday’s menu, then McDonald’s, Kraft, and, eventually, as a Dorito’s flavor.”

My favorite cupcake at Molly's Cupcakes (locations in Chicago, NYC and Iowa). Photo from Flickr, via the Chocolate Peanut Butter Gallery

My favorite cupcake at Molly’s Cupcakes (locations in Chicago, NYC and Iowa). Photo from Flickr, via the Chocolate Peanut Butter Gallery

A food goes from niche to mainstream when it manifests across price points, formats and locations. To truly cement its place in the US dessert psyche, the salty-sweet phenomenon has to trickle down from high-end ice cream sandwiches and pricey bacon chocolate to casual restaurant chains and mass packaged goods companies.  This trickle is already happening: the NPR article notes that TGIF has been offering a salted caramel cake since 2012.

As Sax’s book makes clear, not every food trend can or should become a full-fledged part of our eating culture. Though salty-sweet desserts sure seem like they’re here to stay, other trends that Sax talks about were less successful. Sometimes consumers lose interest, sometimes there’s backlash, and sometimes the flavors just don’t work for the majority of American palates. There are always people working behind the scenes to bring us the “next big thing.” There’s always going to be a new superfood and a new trendy dessert. The more interesting part is seeing which take root, and which  disappear quicker than you can say “cronut.”

If you want a preview of David’s compelling writing style and thoughtful research, check out his recent piece on the “Bacon Boom.”

And since I love to bake salty-sweet treats in my own kitchen, here are some great recipes I’ve made in the past:

What I want to make next:

My first-ever batch of homemade salted caramel - but definitely not my last. Recipe from Two Peas and their Pod

My first-ever batch of homemade salted caramel, but definitely not my last. Recipe from Two Peas and their Pod


5 Responses to “Worth Its Salt”


  1. Potato, Potahto | Culture Cookies - October 21, 2014

    […] my last post, I mentioned a book called The Tastemakers: Why We’re Crazy for Cupcakes but Fed Up with […]


  2. The Ghosts of Shopping Past | Culture Cookies - September 10, 2015

    […] book: I love this book from author David Sax. I’ve recommended it to tons of people, I blogged about it twice, and in 2014 I bought this copy for a friend recovering from a broken leg. I think […]


  3. All Hail The Kale | Culture Cookies - October 1, 2015

    […] written before about food trend cycles, based partly on a wonderful book from David Saxe about food trends in America. Saxe’s book […]


  4. Bittersweet Brownies with Salted Peanut Butter Frosting | sugarsmith - July 10, 2016

    […] in the frosting itself. You sprinkle the top of your brownies with salt to produce the ultimate salty-sweet treat. I was in a bit of a hurry to get to brunch with these brownies, so I didn’t have time to […]


  5. Brookies with Pretzels and Potato Chips | sugarsmith - December 1, 2016

    […] salty-sweet combo is a perpetual winner with my friends. And it’s been gaining popularity in the American dessert landscape overall, thanks to the popularity of ingredients like salted […]


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