The oils, dressings and vinegars to stock right now

28 April 2024, 13:00 PM
  • A drizzle of great-tasting oil, vinegar or dressing can make or break a dish. Speciality Food discovers the bottles consumers are reaching for right now
The oils, dressings and vinegars to stock right now

The impact food writers (and social media content creators) have on informing consumer tastes and buying patterns is undeniable. Delia Smith, Nigella Lawson, Jamie Oliver and Mary Berry have all been responsible for shopping frenzies for everything from Smash (dehydrated mashed potato) to cupcakes and pork shoulder.

A series of categories that have seen their stars rise in the last few years (especially since Covid times) having had their moment in the spotlight, include oils, vinegars and dressings.

When she published her best-selling book, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat in 2017, later followed by a smash hit Netflix series, Samin Nosrat changed the way a whole generation (particularly younger cooks) thinks about food. Her bold, confident approach to cooking, and indefatigable passion, caused ripples in both domestic and professional kitchens. Particularly her thoughts on acid. The way a squeeze of lemon juice, or a splash of the right type of vinegar can elevate and brighten even the most humble of dishes.

More recently vinegar and acid have come to the fore as The Glucose Goddess (biochemist and author Jessie Inchauspe) rocked the health, nutrition and diet world with her bestseller, The Glucose Revolution. Jessie has become a poster child for so-called ‘glucose hacks’, such as taking ACV (apple cider vinegar) before meals to reduce blood sugar spikes, leading to many hours of airtime, and soaring sales of vinegar. Jessie can be credited with helping to boost ACV’s shelf appeal, with a whole new generation of functional drinks and vinegar products being marketed outside of the health food sector.

Another product that’s been gaining traction amongst the health conscious, as they look to improve their diets, is EVOO (extra virgin olive oil), which has particularly been lauded by Professor Tim Spector for its apparent gut-friendly, anti-inflammatory properties, though the oil’s renaissance in the UK has been scuppered somewhat by fluctuating and increasing olive oil prices, as the industry in the Mediterranean is hammered by the effects of flooding, draught and disease. Anecdotally, some retailers say, however, their customers aren’t being driven away by rising costs, as they increasingly put their diet and health first.

Fruit vinegars grow in popularity

According to Fortune Business Insights, the global ACV market is projected to grow by 4.5% in the period from 2021 to 2028.

Dawn Knutton runs a small gourmet marshmallow and apple cider-based fruit vinegar business, Yaffle House, and says she’s definitely seen growing interest from retailers and at the markets she attends.

“More people are aware of fruit vinegars and what they can use them for,” she explains. “They’re even coming up to me now saying things like ‘you can put this in drinks can’t you?’ or ‘I’ve heard about this on the radio’. There’s a lot more experimentation going on, and a willingness to try new things.”

Dawn started her business as an innovative way of using up blackberries when approached by a friend to take a stall at a local farmers’ market. “Whenever I picked blackberries my husband would say ‘could you make blackberry vinegar?’. I’d never heard of it, but he used to have it on pancakes or Yorkshire puddings for dessert.”

Today, it’s still the blackberry flavour that shoppers are most drawn to, for its familiar, traditional flavour. “It’s really versatile,” says Dawn, who adds that fruit vinegars are becoming more mainstream and are being used by customers in more ways than ever before. She takes her plum and ginger variety as an example. “Lots of people use this as a drink. I think they’re looking for different things, more interesting things, to drink that aren’t alcohol or regular soft drinks. There’s so much choice available to them now, like drinking vinegars, and kombucha and water kefir.”

The burgeoning understanding of what fruit vinegars are and the myriad ways they can bring a ‘little something special’ into the kitchen, is what’s making them a winner, adds Dawn. “They can drink them, use them in dressings or on salads, and they can even be used in gravies (which taste amazing), or as a glaze for meats or sauce for steak.”

Dawn gives direct customers and retailers recipe sheets to help inspire them. “And to show them all the potential the vinegars have. If you can explain all the ways they can be used (I even use them to make cocktails), it really helps.”

Apple cider vinegar riding high on its health claims is giving sales a boost too. “People are listening to podcasts and seeing reports and pieces on television about it,” says Dawn. “I’m not here to make health claims, but a lot of people are saying they use it for their joints and inflammation.” This is often a starting point from customers approaching Dawn, who steers them towards the culinary benefits of fruit vinegar.

Sous Chef founder Nicola Lando has a thing for Huilerie Beaujolaise fruit vinegars, which are taking off for the online foodie portal. “Pour a dash of any of their fruit juice vinegar over salad leaves or roasted vegetables, then a splash of good olive oil and a pinch of salt. I promise it rivals any more complex dressing you might make yourself.” At the moment Nicola says she’s keeping raspberry and quince vinegar to hand, but she’s also excited about mango, and calamansi citrus vinegars.

But, like Dawn, Demijohn founder Angus Fergusen says it’s milder flavoured vinegars (rather than more exotic bottles) made with popular well-known fruits that land best with customers. Demijohn, which offers refillable bottles of oils, vinegars, spirits and more, says single flavour or ingredient varieties sell well, and that customers are particularly drawn to his products because they are crafted with real fruit, and no preservatives.

“Now, more than ever, customers are interested in ingredients listings for health or dietary reasons, as well as the story and provenance of a product,” he explains.

Seasonal fruit vinegars have become mainstays of his business, from an elderflower vinegar, produced with flowers harvested from the hedgerows of Demijohn’s Galloway farm, to raspberry vinegar, made with prime, plump Scottish berries. 

Gianfranco Perri, founder of Just Gourmet Foods, agrees with Angus that its quality customers are looking for predominantly - especially when it comes to balsamic vinegar, which (when sourced from the right people, at the right ages) is far superior to mass-produced products, which tend to be thin and insipid, missing that rich, sweet caramelised taste of a traditional balsamico.

“We offer a range of balsamics which are suitable for a variety of uses, from great value, everyday condiments, to superb, aged vinegars which should be reserved for special dishes,” he says.

Olive oils…and alternatives

Angus sells more than 70 handmade food and drink products on tap, and says extra virgin olive oil, British rapeseed oil and infused British rapeseed oil (alongside fruit vinegars and balsamics) make up around 50% of what rings through the till.

This is a sharp change from Demijohn’s beginnings at its first high street outlet in Edinburgh, when sales were skewed (65%) towards alcohol. “Over the last 20 years our customers have definitely enjoyed more of our non-alcoholic products,” he says. “The result of this is that purchasing decisions for oneself and when buying gifts, are more regularly heavily weighted towards quality, provenance, health and wellbeing. Our offering of oils, vinegars and dressings is a crucially important part of our range.”

Consumers choosing oils for health (as well as flavour) is a pattern Clearspring managing director, Maria Dawson, has noticed occurring more frequently recently. She also says she’s seeing consumers becoming more adventurous in the kitchen “inspired by the ever-growing number of global foodie-influencers, and instant access to virtually every kind of cuisine imaginable at the click of a button.

“This has led to more and more shoppers experimenting. They might have seen the use of walnut oil in French and Italian cooking, or coconut oil in Indian cuisine…or they are simply exploring simple ways to elevate the flavour in their everyday cooking.”

Choosing to stock organic and cold-pressed oils delivers health benefits to customers, Maria continues, while allowing the products to “retain even more of their natural flavour compared to conventional oils, or those that are highly processed, often at high temperatures.”

Independent and speciality retailers have a “fantastic opportunity” with alternative culinary oils, Maria says. “Supermarkets tend to focus on core category varieties such as olive, sunflower and rapeseed oils. By offering something unique, speciality retailers can give themselves a point of difference and give shoppers a reason to visit their store. Independent businesses can introduce a new oil to their shelves very quickly, with just one or two cases to gauge their core shoppers’ interest before making it a permanent offering alongside their olive and sunflower oil category staples.

Suitable for heating up to 180C, Maria recommends coconut, avocado, hazelnut, sesame and toasted sesame oils as solid investments for retailers this year.

“Each oil has its own unique flavour characteristics,” she says, adding that “avocado oil has a creamy texture, with a very mild fruit flavour. It lends itself particularly well to baking, but is also great for sauteeing and stir fries.”

Those looking for something special should seek out pumpkin seed oil, Maria says. “It has a rich deep colour and velvety texture, with a distinct nutty flavour which works well with balsamic vinegar to create a sumptuous salad dressing.”

It is also worth noting, “that with the shortage of European olives due to poor harvests, there has been a steep increase in the cost of olive oil.” This is “driving a lot of shoppers to seek out and try alternative oils that are maybe more affordable, whilst still delivering on taste and quality.”

Just Gourmet Foods founder, Gianfranco Perri, though, says the demand for high-quality extra virgin olive oil, is still there, despite its increasingly weighty price tag. “We are seeing growing interest in single varietal extra virgin olive oil,” he reveals, saying he can only surmise that “authenticity still wins in a cash-strapped market and, when purse strings are tight, that there are still people who value quality over quantity.”

Strong sales could also be, Gianfranco says, a reflection of consumers looking for more connection with their food, choosing products they can trace back to specific locations and individuals.

“Having personal relationships with our producers means that we see the love and expertise which, literally, gets poured into every bottle. Our producers create products which are a fundamental reflection of themselves (they are ‘the brand’), their history, and their relationship with a geographical area. This means they care deeply for how their produce is received by the end consumer.”

What makes a really high-quality olive oil, Gianfranco adds, is when the experience of the product is put ahead of profit by the producer…something he regularly encounters.

“We stock a really fabulous organic range from Bio Orto, and are about to launch a range from Tenute Cristiano which will feature some more unusual varieties, while being very reflective of the ‘terroir’ of the Calabrian olive groves.”

He is especially excited about the Mediterranean Herbs oil “which will be wonderful for finishing an array of summer dishes.”

Muraglia is another brand going from strength to strength in the Just Gourmet Foods portfolio, with retailers (and consumers) loving the decorative ceramic bottles. The ‘Fumo’ smoked olive oil particularly “receives a lot of attention as it is a natural way to add that subtle flavour to all kinds of dishes, without having to use any of the artificial ‘smoke’ flavours which are found on the market.”

What’s trending in oils, vinegars and dressings?

In addition to ACV, fruit vinegars and extra virgin olive oil, Harper Fine Dining chef and director, Dean Harper says ‘citrus’ is the flavour profile to watch across the board.

“I’ve noticed a rise in unique combinations like citrus-infused vinaigrettes this year,” he says, adding, “Creamy avocado dressings are also very popular right now, with honey mustard with a hint of truffle being another clear favourite as chefs, cafe owners and restaurants expand their offerings to cater to diverse palates.”

Exciting combinations Dean has noticed include pairing fresh fruit (such as ripe peaches) with a balsamic and basil dressing to “strike the perfect balance between sweet and tangy”, or presenting roasted vegetable bowls with tahini miso dressings.

He believes, like Maria, this is also the year that avocado oil will take off following a “surge of interest” due to its versatility across sweet and savoury dishes “not to mention its numerous health benefits.”

Gianfranco has seen increased demand across the board, but especially for the ‘Rainbow’ range from Muraglia – tins and ceramic bottles containing robust, fruity Puglian extra virgin olive oil. And these eye-catchingly packaged options are being chosen outside the traditional gifting season as retailers realise they have “all-year-round customer interest”.

“Bottles which look great in the home, as well as giving high-quality oil or vinegar, do appear to be appealing to a wider customer base,” Gianfranco reflects. “Although the price point may be higher, it is offering a beautiful container which can be refilled and enjoyed for years to come.”

How to sell oils, vinegars and dressings

Customers looking for quality and provenance from their oils, dressings and vinegars are more likely to visit a specialist retailer such as a deli, food hall or farm shop. But without guidance on the shop floor their ‘mission’ to upgrade their store cupboard could be thwarted. This is why, says Angus, it’s imperative to offer tastings – which are often only limited to the ‘sexier’ offerings in store, such as cheese, alcohol and snacks.

“Allowing customers to taste a product prior to purchase is undoubtedly the best way to sell more,” he says. “It’s why we offer tastings of all of our products at all times in-store.” However, “the product being offered needs to be of the best quality, and the salesperson offering the tasting must be knowledgeable about the benefits of using that product, and sensitive to a particular customer’s personal likes and dislikes in order to be effective. We are all made differently, so the real skill is to quickly spot those likes and dislikes to steer a tasting in the right direction to best suit the customer.”

If you have a cafe or restaurant on site, now’s the time to assess where you can incorporate dressings, oils and vinegars into your menus, signposting back into the shop space. Inviting demonstrations from known local chefs who can inspire your customers to try, and experiment with both traditional and more unusual oils and vinegars, handing out recipe cards, and dishing up samples, is a very effective device to boosting interest too. What will you try that’s new this summer?

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