The origins of thermal processing go back to the discovery of fire (which may have occurred as long as 1.8 million years ago). According to some theories, thermal processing, aka cooking, is what makes us human!
Today, industrial thermal processing has many applications, from cooking ready-to-eat (RTE) foods to pasteurization and sterilization. Unfortunately, it often gets a bad rap, mainly because of its association with canned vegetables (though tremendous progress has been made in that arena — today, even canned spinach tastes great!).
In this article, we’ll explore three examples of how different types of thermal processing can greatly increase the quality of RTE foods.
Bar marking has been used for many years as a way to make frozen RTE proteins like chicken breasts and hamburger patties look like they just came off of the grill. Of course, just one bite is usually enough to learn the truth.
In a traditional bar marking process, the product is fully cooked first and then put into the bar marker. This means adding extra cooking time, which decreases the quality of the final product.
An alternative is to use a real flame grill, which produces the desired bar marking effect, and also gives food the authentic taste consumers want. Flame grilling seals in the flavor, similar to searing meat on a stovetop before you finish cooking it in the oven. Plus, when you flame grill before fully cooking the product, you don’t have to add any extra energy. In fact, you use less — flame grilling can cut the total cooking time by about 10%.
If you’ve noticed RTE products like ready meals looking and tasting a lot better lately, it’s likely because of the trend toward hot-fill, cook-seal pasteurization.
In a traditional ready meal manufacturing process, the food is cooked, then chilled, and then assembled into meals. Pasteurization is done post-packaging, which means the product must be heated and chilled a second time. Then, when the consumer gets that product home, they usually heat it again before eating it.
That’s three stages of thermal processing, two of which are done after the food is already fully cooked. So, it’s easy to understand why the final product often looks about as appetizing as a soggy newspaper and doesn’t taste much better.
With the hot-fill, cook-seal method, the pasteurization step isn’t a post-package afterthought. Instead, it’s integrated into the production line. The product is put into the tray, then fully cooked, sealed, and pasteurized. That means the product is heated only once during production, resulting in a more attractive appearance and a much better taste.
As humans, we identify food by how it looks and how it smells. These senses keep us from eating bad-tasting, and potentially very bad-for-us, things.
So, clearly, it’s important that RTE foods look appetizing, which is usually equated with looking natural. (Remember Heinz colored ketchup? Huge fail. Everyone knows ketchup is red.)
In addition to flame grilling and searing, impinged air and infrared cooking can be used to produce natural colors.
Importantly, both of these processes result in very high quality products, with very low yield loss.
Want to see these technologies in action? Make an appointment to visit a test kitchen and try them out for yourself.