Food processors are capturing greater market share by making ready-to-eat meals look and taste like chef prepared dishes.

By Ed Sullivan

With more people eating at home, the soft economy is creating opportunities in the prepared food business. The segment that may be making the greatest strides is the ready-to-serve industry. Thanks to more advance cooking technologies and chef-driven recipes, ready to serve meals are now healthier, more sumptuous, and delicious than alternatives including takeout and frozen foods.

“We are going to see a tremendous amount of growth in the ready-to-serve marketplace,” says Walter Sommers, president of Ruprecht Company, a Chicago area meat processor and distributor, serving the foodservice and retail sectors. “And the cooking equipment we’ve recently purchased will allow us to participate in that growth.”

Sommers refers to the major advancements that have been made in the availability of food processing machinery that by far exceeds conventional restaurant-style cooking equipment when it comes to consistent quality and yields.

The Unitherm Flame Griller (Photo: Unitherm)

The advanced cooking equipment available to processors today is a new generation of machines that are more compact, more flexible, and more affordable than was available to the ready-to-serve segment in the past. Systems such as the Unitherm mini flame griller, a rapid flow oven, and a mini spiral oven that Ruprecht purchased are replacing less reliable processes such as batch cooking, which are harder to control and often produce meals that are inconsistent in quality and taste.

Ruprecht, which produces chicken, beef, pork, lamb and a limited selection of seafood entrees, fully cooks about 30 per cent of its products. These heat-and-serve items are prepared according to either customer specifications or those of its in-house chef.

“Our chef is using the equipment to process products that meet the same expectations as you would have if you were cooking at home on a barbeque,” says Sommers. Thanks to this newly available cooking technology, quality foods such as Ruprecht’s wholesale meats have the look and taste of gourmet dishes.

Progressive ready-to-serve meal processors like Ruprecht are incorporating continuous processes into its production, using equipment such as Unitherm’s automated flame grills and spiral ovens to control the production of meals end ensure that they are always consistent in quality.

This consistency results from the equipment’s built-in controls and the ability to program parameters that are maintained within very tight tolerances throughout the cooking process. The food preparer simply sets the temperature, sets the time a food item will reside in the equipment, sets the humidity and fan speed. All these parameters are stored in the equipment controls to ensure that one product is exactly the same as the next. Touch-screen controls are available on advanced cooking equipment that allows the processor to alter equipment settings if they so choose, thereby creating new recipes that are stored for future use. Such controls enable processors to further develop their current products or to develop new ones.

The new generation of machines are more compact, flexible and affordable. (Photo: Unitherm)

Using such innovative cooking techniques, scratch recipes, and the finest ingredients, B Roberts Foods (Charlotte, North Carolina) develops custom programs to meet the specific needs of customers. It produces sauces, salads, side dishes, and entrees for grocery stores, as well as customized recipes for the restaurant industry.

The majority of B Roberts Foods recipes are truly chef inspired and prepared. One of its best sellers is a fresh grilled chicken breast cut into strips and served over shell pasta that has been tossed in a sun-dried tomato pesto and sprinkled with parsley.

The firm, which recently expanded into a new and larger plant, recently acquired a Unitherm flame grill and spiral oven to enhance its production capabilities.

The flame griller features multiple ribbon burners, some of which can be turned off or on to achieve the wanted production scale. Using this equipment, chefs are able to achieve the look of flamed highlights and other home- or chef-style characteristics in the ready-serve meals. They also can develop uniform colour on the top as on the bottom of various foods, such as chicken and steaks.

“We purchased the grill for the purpose of doing grilled chicken, so that we can express our unique culinary talents in creating with our own grilled chicken breast products,” explains Robert Shore, general manager. “We also intend to use the grill for other things, such as kabobs, fish, and vegetables. We intend to use the spiral oven in conjunction with the grill or by itself.”

What chefs like about the spiral oven is that they are able to achieve exactly what they want in their rotisserie and their baking and basting. With the spiral oven, a built-in basting effect can be incorporated; as foods such as chicken spiral upward in the oven, the juice from each piece of meat falls on the next one, enhancing both colour and texture.

Spiral ovens enable steaming, roasting, broiling and baking, as well as and post pasteurization, can be coupled with a chiller and loading systems to suit users’ needs with a limited footprint.

The capacity of these spiral ovens is surprisingly great in terms of both product throughput and heat. Although some equipment manufacturers build machines that can cook up to 10,000 lbs. per hour, it is the availability of the smaller equipment that makes it such a good solution for ready-to-serve processors. The micro machine, for example cooks up to 500 lbs. per hour. The mini machine can handle up to 2,000 lbs. per hour.

The ability of equipment such as the Unitherm flame grill to reach very high temperatures is another feature that appeals to ready-to-serve meal chefs. The flame temperature of the flame grill is much higher than that of restaurant-type grilling equipment. It can be set as high as 1,500 degrees (F), and can be throttled back to get the desired finishing effect.

In addition to throughput cooking capacity, this equipment has much more thermal capacity than restaurant equipment – heat energy delivered to the product. As a result, it’s able to cook food items like steaks very quickly. Compact ovens can be set for temperatures of 500 degrees (F) and maintain that set point within one degree.

In the ready-to-serve meals business, the ability to change production frequently is important. These advanced ovens have thyristors to control the output of the heat source on a percentage of the actual demand. This allows the oven to hold its set-points within one degree with optimal efficiency. The quality of the product is also more consistent and does not experience the abuse from a heat source that is constantly banging on and off to try and hold temperature.

The flexibility of these advanced cooking machines also gives processors the flexibility to create more products without adding to capital equipment – another important benefit of having a lot of powerful capabilities in a smaller cooking package.

“We produce millions of pounds of fully cooked food annually,” says Ruprecht’s Sommers. “With the new continuous production equipment we’ve recently installed, we are nowhere near exceeding their capacities.”

From Canadian Meat Business Magazine

1st June 2011 News