You know you are officially a product developer when you have been asked to match a shelf stable, frozen or refrigerated retail or casual-dining chain’s sauce, and you know you are in a position of power when you get to have your suppliers do it for you! Either way, it’s not an easy task, but there are some specific steps that can get you at least 95% there—the last 5% as we all know, is the guesswork.

  1. Always make sure you get enough “gold standard” control product from the customer and make sure you get lots of small bags of well-blended product. All that opening and closing and sampling of the control will eventually lead to uneven product that no longer represents what you need to match.
  2. Request fresh control product. You want a sample that was made in the last few days if possible, especially if it is a refrigerated product. Older product may be darker than a fresh control and can cause matching confusion.
  3. Confirm that the measurable attributes of the gold standard (pH, Brix, TA, Bostwick, Brookfield, particulates, chunks, color, salt, screen size, etc.) and make sure they match the specification range. If the control doesn’t match the specification, ask your customer which one they want you to match. (This is a polite way of telling them that their current supplier is not making product to spec!)
  4. Whatever analytical data is not available, measure and obtain it yourself. If you don’t have the equipment to measure certain parameters, send it to a nearby lab. Why try to guess how much oil is in that tomato sauce?… Just send it out for a fat test! Save yourself an extra 10 iterations!
  5. Create a spreadsheet that lists all the ingredients on the left and your best estimate of the percentages on the right. It’s easy to make some educated guesses based on specifications and your own analytical results. Items like salt, oil, sugar, tomato paste, dice size, screen size and acidic ingredients can be figured out right away, especially if there is only one source contributing to that attribute!
  6. Always compare both sauces at the exact same temperature. The easiest way to do this is to leave them on the bench for a few hours until they both hit room temperature, and then chill or heat them at the same time.
  7. When you feel that you are almost there, try to give the product at least 24 hours before tasting it against the control. Flavors gel and change overnight and you want to make sure those flavor changes don’t affect the final match. (Note to sales, please make sure you give the developers enough time, and don’t promise the customer a match too soon!)
  8. When you finally have reached the match, make sure you send a sample of the control that the customer sent to you. This will make sure that they don’t test it against another production date or an out-of-specification sample.
  9. Taste the product on application—sometimes those tiny differences that you think you can taste will not be noticeable once you mix it in with the food.

And to those who have the power to farm out this tedious task to your suppliers, please be nice and provide control product that is within specification, send out lots of it and give reasonable completion dates. After all, the suppliers just want to provide you with the best match at the best price with the best service—help them help you!

About rachel zemser