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How 'ancient grains' help pizza operators roll in the dough

| by S.A. Whitehead
How 'ancient grains' help pizza operators roll in the dough

It's long been said that variety is the spice of life and in the restaurant business, pizza brands offer more than most when it comes to an array of customizable variations. But quite often, most of the pizza personalization revolves around the toppings and to a lesser degree sauces, with dough choices limited to thin, thick and other varieties of largely wheat-based flour crusts. 

In the eyes of the Whole Grain Council's Program Director Caroline Sluyter that's just a darn shame. After all, as she and her fellow staffers at the non-profit sustainable eating organization know all too well, the variety of grains and sprouted grains available for a truly delectable range of pizza doughs can be dizzying and delightfully tantalizing. 

"I had a conversation a few months ago with an ingredient supplier who sells to a lot of restaurants and foodservice operators and he told us that he's been selling a lot of his sprouted corn flour for use in pizza crusts. "            -Caroline Sluyter

For the unfamiliar, the council and its parent organization, Oldways, was begun by attorney, restaurateur and former Robert F. Kennedy national campaign manager, K. Dun Gifford in 1990 to promote healthful eating and drinking, sustainable food choices and plain old enjoyment of dining. The organization, for instance, produced the Mediterranean Diet Food Pyramid with Harvard's School of Public Health in 1993 and many other respected scientific and public health initiatives, including the Whole Grain Council. 

Every year, the Oldways Whole Grains Council works to encourage pizza chefs and other foodservice professionals to use more whole grains in their menus and recipes. Sluyter said everyone from chefs and dietitians, to restaurant brand marketers and recipe developers tap into the organization's expertise in grain sourcing, nutrition and other similar subjects. Lately, they've been seeing a surge in what you might call "seekers of the old grains."

"While we don't track the number of pizza chefs specifically who participate in (organizational initiatives) or reach out to us directly, we have seen a big jump in overall industry participation in events like (the organization's) Whole Grain Sampling Day over the past two years," she said referring to the participatory event held the last Wednesday in March annually at participating foodservice providers nationally. "And interest in lesser-known grains, like ancient grains and sprouted grains, is definitely on the rise among consumers and chefs alike. 

Specifically, Sluyter told Pizza Marketplace that both the so-called "ancient grains" and sprouted grains are the subject of much of the inquiry and event participation, with food service showing a particular preference for those ancient grains. 

The National Restaurant Association's Culinary Forecast has identified these products for several years as among the hottest restaurant trends. In fact, the subject was No. 20 on the 2018 list of trends. Sluyter said restaurant sales figures also bear this out, according to an NPD Group report showing double-digit growth in food service ancient grain case shipments in 2017. 

"Sprouted grains are another huge trend," she said in an interview with Pizza Marketplace. "In fact, in 2015 we were seeing so much interest in sprouted grains, and were getting so many questions about this topic that we decided to launch a Sprouted Grains Working Group with the goal of exploring the existing standards, definitions, and sprouting practices being used by those industrially sprouting grains. 

"Since 2013, when we started tracking sprouted grain products in our Whole Grain Stamp database, the number of sprouted grain products using the Whole Grain Stamp has almost quadrupled, and we've seen this pattern echoed in foodservice as well. 

Learning from history: 'They just taste good'

But the question is, why? Why has so much consumer, culinary and business interest been generated by these old grains, like teff and  amaranth, particularly since they've been around all along? 

The answer to that question is, in a word, taste. The Whole Grains Council reports that consistently, the flavor of these types of grains is the reason given by everyone from amateur bakers to pizza chefs for their interest in these grains. And, in the case of pizza dough, Sluyter encourages brands to think about these ancient grains in combination, rather than simply single dough ingredients.  

"While using whole wheat flour is probably the most common way to introduce whole grains into pizza dough, blending multiple kinds of whole grains has become increasingly popular, too. Adding an ingredient like cooked bulgur is a great way to bulk up the chewy texture, while mixing in small grains like millet, quinoa or amaranth can contribute a little bit of nutty crunch."  -Caroline Sluyter

"While using whole wheat flour is probably the most common way to introduce whole grains into pizza dough, blending multiple kinds of whole grains has become increasingly popular, too," she said. "Adding an ingredient like cooked bulgur, is a great way to bulk up the chewy texture, while mixing in small grains like millet, quinoa or amaranth can contribute a little bit of nutty crunch. 

"I had a conversation a few months ago with an ingredient supplier who sells to a lot of restaurants and foodservice operators and he told us that he's been selling a lot of his sprouted corn flour for use in pizza crusts. Many chefs are particularly interested in using colored corn flours — red, blue, and purple - which make a visual impact in addition to contributing added flavor and nutrition."

But as previously mentioned, grains alone are not the only subject of interest at the Oldways organization, which also does plenty of research into global diets, including the aforementioned Mediterranean diets, as well as others across Africa and Asia. In that respect, Sluyter and her fellow Oldways staffers are particularly well-suited to make recommendations for doughs or even pizza topping combinations that would be appropriate to the world's array of cultural cuisines. 

"One of the wonderful truths about whole grains is that they are a key component of almost every traditional diet around the world," Sluyter said. "Whether it's teff and sorghum in Africa, bulgur and barley in the Mediterranean, brown rice and millet in Asia, or quinoa and corn in Latin America, exploring the flavors of different whole grains is a wonderful way to explore culinary traditions from all over the globe. ...

"While pizzas are not a part of all traditional diets, I love the idea of using ingredients from various cultural traditions to inspire new twists on this food. Nearly every community around the world has some variation of a flatbread dish, which can offer pizza makers endless inspiration."

What's that you asked? Did she have some suggestions? Why yes, she did. Here are a few examples:

  • Mediterranean-inspired pizza crust grains: Whole wheat, bulgur, spelt or barley.
  • Mediterranean toppings: Tomatoes, eggplant, olives, artichokes, figs, anchovies, spinach, herbs or garlic. 
  • African-inspired crust grains: Sorghum, teff or millet.
  • African-inspired toppings: Sweet potatoes or squash, spinach and other greens, beans, onions, and herbs.
  • Asian-inspired crust grains: Brown rice, millet or buckwheat.
  • Asian-inspired toppings: Mushrooms, broccoli, eggplant, peppers, scallions, shrimp, and edamame.
  • Latin America-inspired crust grains:Corn, quinoa and amaranth.
  • Latin America-inspired toppings:  Peppers, squash, beans, tomatoes, pineapple and herbs. 

New (old) grains present new restaurant opportunities

But aside from using the grains themselves, many pizza brands are interested today in menu items and  beverages that can be paired with particular dough profiles for maximum flavor. These types of pairings also offer pizza brands opportunities to both market events around them and upsell diners on menu items and drinks that go well with a particular type of crust. Here, too, Sluyter had some basic guidance from the research and recipe development the organization has performed across grains and cultures over the years. 

"In general, the fuller, nuttier flavor of whole grains shines brightest when they're paired with full-textured, robust flavor profiles that complement the grains," she explained. "Whole grain crusts do really well paired with pesto or with a hearty, flavorful tomato sauce. Mushrooms, especially wild and exotic types like morels, porcini, and chanterelle work nicely with whole wheat crust, as does the rich flavor of aged raw-milk cheeses, particularly strong or salty cheeses.

"Many whole grains also have a touch of natural sweetness to them which lends itself well to a pairing with the sweet flavors of root vegetables or caramelized onions. For pizzas with sorghum-based, or even corn-based) crusts, other Southern flavors such as ham, pair well as a topping."

Altogether there's clearly a lot to be explored, created and tested by pizza brands in the year ahead when it comes to these alternate dough bases. Of course, customers ultimately decide which combinations stay and which go, but these alternative doughs are clearly rich with both possibilities and potentially, profitability. 

Photo: iStock

Topics: Business Strategy and Profitability, Customer Service / Experience, Dough, Equipment & Supplies, Food & Beverage, Going Green, Health & Nutrition, Marketing / Branding / Promotion, Operations Management, Pizza Ingredients, Pizza Sauce, Pizza Toppings, Sustainability

S.A. Whitehead

Award-winning veteran print and broadcast journalist, Shelly Whitehead, has spent most of the last 30 years reporting for TV and newspapers, including the former Kentucky and Cincinnati Post and a number of network news affiliates nationally. She brings her cumulative experience as a multimedia storyteller and video producer to the web-based pages of and after a lifelong “love affair” with reporting the stories behind the businesses that make our world go ‘round. Ms. Whitehead is driven to find and share news of the many professional passions people take to work with them every day in the pizza and quick-service restaurant industry. She is particularly interested in the growing role of sustainable agriculture and nutrition in food service worldwide and is always ready to move on great story ideas and news tips.

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