Fall/Winter Flavor Trends Beyond Pumpkin

By Suzy Badaracco, Foodable Industry Expert

Pumpkin Spice Latte  | Credit: Instagram, @starbucks

Pumpkin Spice Latte | Credit: Instagram, @starbucks

A fall/winter food trends article would not be worthy of the name unless pumpkin is mentioned. One of the reasons pumpkin is again showing up so strongly this year is because it is able to simultaneously move laterally and also form new alliances. Last year, pumpkin did not share the spotlight, but to continue its upward trajectory it had to reinvent itself and form alliances with other foods and flavors of the season.  

While Starbucks didn’t create the pumpkin trend, it did champion a ricochet, which occurs when a trend jumps tracks. Traditionally pumpkin has been in the bakery, but by moving it to beverages, they reinvented the profile. Since then, pumpkin has moved to yogurt, smoothies, ice cream, and savory items.

The second phenomenon that occurred is a morph — when other cousins come into the spotlight, like regional maple, caramel, ginger, eggnog, cider, maple cranberry, regional apple and pear varietals. They show off regional and historical ties, which are a more sophisticated positioning than “comfort food” this season.

Many of the fall/winter flavors boast an emotional connection for consumers since these flavors and combinations are historical to the U.S. Pumpkin and its cousins have ties to many other trends including that of seasonal, local, authentic, and regional flavors. They represent grounding flavors in an uncertain time. This is why you don’t see global flavors infiltrating the traditional seasonal flavors in the U.S.

Let’s step away from the ordinary and move to the exploratory.

Beverages Appearing

Apple cider is hands down this year’s poster child for fall beverages. It’s showing up in hard and soft versions. Fall sangria showcases apple cider with white wine; apple brandy can be used in this year’s Wassel; and cocktail glasses are first dipped in Calvados and then rimmed with cinnamon and sugar before being filled with (insert cocktail here). Honey Bourbon Apple Cider and the Apple Cider Moscow Mule are stepping out too.  

Vegetables That Bite and Take Root

When fall hits, lettuces move from mild to bitter with the chicory family as the poster child. Endive, escarole, frisée, radicchio, and straight-up Southern chicory are pushing last year’s kale to the back of the line. Root vegetables traditionally also roar back, which is why it is surprising that the sales of pumpkin has dropped in 2011, 2013 and 2014, resulting in 8.6 million fewer pumpkins sold. The only reason pumpkin hasn’t grown as an ingredient is because Americans relegate it to the dessert category and don’t know how to cook with it as a vegetable. Parsnips, turnips, sunchokes, Jerusalem artichokes, and celery roots have all stepped away from brown sugar and cinnamon, and are dressed in their birthday suits (raw), roasted, fermented, or tossed with coconut milk or pasta.

fall flavors cranberries apples leaves.jpg

Fruits Fall Far From the Tree

Fruits with historical ties to this country such as pomegranates, cranberries, figs, pears, apples, and grapes are now mingling with rustic proteins like pheasant, venison, and other fall meats. They are also pairing off in more interesting and complex ways with spirits and seasonings. Think of an apple paired with smoke, ginger, maple, carrot, rum, sour cherries, pumpkin, or mixed with other heritage varietals. Now do that with each seasonal fruit and wait for your head to explode.


Proteins are really the most straightforward for the fall/winter season. Think regional or heritage or both. Winners include pheasant, venison, elk, boar, beans/legumes (stews), lobster, clams, and sole. The key is choosing a protein with both historical and regional ties to an area and placing it in a corresponding recipe or with ingredients that have the same back story, thereby layering trends and making a more impactful dish.

Spices ‘Wood’ Smoke If They Could

Woody elements are impacting flavors not just for meat anymore, but for produce and pulses as well. Grilling is no longer relegated to the summer months but is now showcased year round.  Smoke too is used as a seasoning itself and ties into the season whether it shows up in smoked yogurt, fruits, as a flavor in a cocktail, or used traditionally with game. Barrel aging is another cousin that imparts flavors we love like caramel, vanilla and butterscotch. Use a whiskey barrel to age maple syrup and now you have layered the trends.

The typical seasonings we associate with the season — cinnamon, nutmeg and clove — are moving laterally into non-traditional positions in savory appetizers, pizza, pasta, and entrees. According to the latest research from Datassential MenuTrends, cinnamon appears on 32 percent more appetizer menus than 4 years ago, 10 percent more entrée menus, and 7 percent more menus overall. Nutmeg appeared on 33 percent more entrée menus than 4 years ago and 37 percent more menus overall. More interesting up-and-comers are ginger and maple.

If the seasonings have any hope of staying in the spotlight, they really need to move into pairings to reinvent themselves and show they are not a one-trick pony. They should also be paired with trending flavors that have nothing to do with the season. This will help lengthen their lifecycle. 

Here are a few examples:

Ginger: ginger+carrot, ginger+lemon, ginger+tea, ginger+cranberry
Maple: regional maple, maple+cranberry, maple+sour+cherry, maple+rum
Smoke: Smoke+apple, smoke+maple, smoke+bourbon, smoke+almond, smoke+cider

To be on the cusp of cool, cross-tie items from different categories to create new versions of what is already a spotlighted trend. Then reinvent them in non-traditional forms like was done with the hybrid trend. Use tea and ginger as a base for a rub or serve roasted pumpkin on pizza.