15 Food Trends Southern Chefs are Looking Forward to in 2021
As we head into a new year, we're all looking ahead to a fresh start. For many of us, food has become a source not only of sustenance over the past 10 months, but excitement and entertainment as we're staying at home and eating in. In 2021, expect a continuation of many food trends spurred by the pandemic, but also the advent of new ones that will keep you feeling inspired in the kitchen. Here, predictions from chefs around the South to experiment with next year.
Classic pizzas, high-quality burgers, country-fried steak, biscuits and gravy… as long as it tastes good. Next year will be a continuation of the go-to foods we came to rely on for comfort in 2020. "People will run to… anything that reminds them of what [the world] used to be like," says Erik Niel, chef at Easy Bistro & Bar and Main Street Meats in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
You know what they say—everything old is new again? The technique of pickling goes back some 4,000 years, but it's picked up steam again in recent years. That trend will only continue to grow as we head into 2021, chefs say. "People have a lot more time at home and are looking for creative ways to have food on hand," says James Beard-nominated Isaac Toups, chef and owner of Toups Meatery in New Orleans and author of Chasing the Gator: Isaac Toups and the New Cajun Cooking. Not to mention, pickling is a relaxing, fairly easy process—consider it your new hobby to destress.
Time to make space in your refrigerator door: Whether homemade or store-bought, 2021 will be the year of the condiment, predicts Vivian Howard, chef behind the newly opened Handy & Hot in Charleston, South Carolina. Ingredients like chimichurri, chili crisp, and sauerkraut can all help to amp up flavor in homemade food and are easily stored in the fridge or pantry.
We saw a resurgence of this pastime during the pandemic, and Joy Beber, executive chef at Joy Cafe in Atlanta, expects this to still be important in 2021. "An increase in working from home means more time cooking with your kids," she says. "People have learned to slow down just a little bit and enjoy each other.
Fingers crossed 2021 sees the safe return of the dinner party. Guests lists will be more intimate, but the hope is that our social lives and gatherings will get back to being about feeding and entertaining those we love, says Beber. And while you're at it, why not go big? According to Wyatt Dickson, chef and co-owner of Picnic in Durham, North Carolina, and the forthcoming Wyatt's Whole Hog Barbecue in Raleigh, this is the year of the pig pickin' (i.e., roasting a whole pig outdoors). "Barbecue is all about community, and that's the thing we're craving most right now."
Colorful Fruit Creations
While we won't be celebrating large events such as Mardi Gras in the same way, we'll be looking for fun and festive ways to dress up traditional Mardi Gras dishes and infuse celebratory meals with merriment. One way to do this? Just add fruit, says Brett Gauthier, executive pastry chef at Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group in New Orleans. For example, instead of traditional purple, green and gold King Cake this year, try folding a strawberry jam into the batter and frosting to tint it naturally pink.
The ultimate Southern comfort food—barbecue—is leading more home cooks to try open-fire cooking, says John Lewis of Lewis Barbecue in Charleston, South Carolina. With more time to slow-smoke meats like brisket and pork, you can become your own personal pitmaster and get adventurous with different cuts. You don't have to invest in any crazy equipment, either; wood-burning firepits (like these from Sea Island Forge) work great.
An underutilized source of plant protein—beans!—will make their way back into dishes around the country, chefs say. For example, Texas-grown mesquite beans, once an important nutrition source for Native Americans in the state, are being made into mesquite flour (buy it on Amazon), which lends a slightly sweet flavor to baked goods, says Steve McHugh, chef and owner of Cured in San Antonio. Chickpeas will be big, too. Use this versatile ingredient for hummus, soups, Indian dishes and more to add texture and flavor, says David Grillo, head chef at Cantina 76 in Columbia, South Carolina.
Buying ingredients as close to home as possible has been a priority for many chefs over the last decade or so, but that trend is expanding to home cooks faster than ever. Expect more safe shopping at outdoor farmers' markets and increased interest in the process of supporting the community food chain. "Reducing the impact to get out and move to a grocery store, bigger chain, or order online, visiting your local farmer or growing your own box of greens out back is the way to go," says Tyler Dabestani, owner of Necessary Purveyor in Miami Beach, Florida.
Taking barbecue to the next level, smoke is going to be used to flavor everything from oils to drinks in 2021—and not just by pro chefs. "This is a new sort of playground for the at-home cook who wants to be a bit adventurous," says Tyson Cole, executive chef and owner at Uchi, with multiple locations in Texas. You can try cooking over flames, coal, or try using different types of wood to produce different flavors. "With the boom of so many modern home smokers," says Cole, "it's more approachable and accessible than ever for someone at home to play with fire."
Chefs and home cooks alike are going to be into finding creative ways to use Southern-grown ingredients and bring them to the forefront of dishes, says Kevin Mitchell, chef at Culinary Institute of Charleston in South Carolina. For example: benne seeds, Carolina gold rice, heirloom peas (such as Sea Island Red Peas), and Jimmy Red corn grits are great staples to add to your pantry.
When you think of sitting down to eat with family and friends again in the new year, what's better than a mid-morning meal? Brunch will be back in a big way in 2021, says Gregg McCarthy, executive chef at The Grand Marlin in Pensacola, Florida. Think: extravagant French toast, fancy pancakes, and fried-chicken biscuits. The rise of the breakfast board (search the hashtag on Instagram) is also inspiring our future brunch tables.
Branching out beyond the basic extra-virgin olive oil is going to be a trend for 2021, says Grillo, as home cooks search for different ways to spice up their pantry staples. Using nut oils like grapeseed, walnut, or sesame can add a new flavor element to sauces and dressing.
Another trend of the past few years will keep rising into 2021, especially as iconic brands (like Oreo!) adjust their recipes to accommodate gluten-free needs. Southern brands are jumping in, too: Callie's Hot Little Biscuit released gluten-free biscuits and biscuit mix this fall, while Caroline's Cakes is baking up a gluten-free variety of its famous seven-layer caramel cake, and Southern Baked Pie Company has both sweet and savory gluten-free pies. At home, this will look like more experimenting with alternative flours to make gluten-free baked goods, too.
Zoom exhaustion these days is so real. As fun as virtual cooking classes can be, it's tough to commit to spending another hour or two in an online lesson after sitting all day in front of a screen. We'll start to move away from these classes in 2021 and instead, see more do-it-yourself cooking kits you can make on your own time. For example, New Orleans chef David Gaus's Mardi Gras in a Box comes with everything you need to ice your own king cake and host our own celebration.