J. Peter Clark

What culinary techniques are used in the food industry, and how are they used? I posed these questions to several industrial chefs and related personnel. They responded that many culinary techniques and skills are applied in food manufacture, and some are more difficult to translate to large scale than others. Among the cooking techniques that can be scaled-up to commercial production are grilling and roasting.

Scaling-Up Cooking Techniques
Charlie Baggs, President and Executive Chef, Charlie Baggs, Inc., Chicago, Ill., a product development and culinary consulting firm (phone 773-255-8244), listed some important culinary techniques and described how they are applied on a larger scale.

Stewing is one of the easiest techniques to scale-up, since it is simply cooking in liquid, which can be done in steam-jacketed kettles or simulated by retort cooking in containers, such as cans or jars. Many foods that are later frozen are prepared in kettles.

Braising involves long, slow cooking in moist heat. It might be simulated by retort cooking, but would probably need a browning step.

Frying, cooking in hot oil, is relatively easy to scale-up by using larger oil baths with conveyors to move products in and out. Manufactured foods are typically par-fried rather than completely fried so that they can be finished in the home or restaurant.

Roasting is dry heating and can be accomplished in an oven, but at commercial scale, where times may be shortened and temperatures higher, color and flavor may need enhancement.

Grilling is cooking by direct contact, conduction, and usually is characterized by char marks on the meat or vegetable. On a commercial scale, the marks can be simulated by printing with color, or using rollers or branding bars, but again, because time of exposure is reduced, flavor and color may need to be added.

Sautéing is dry heating in small quantities of fat. A chef normally moves foods around in a pan to cook evenly and avoid burning. This is more difficult with a fixed piece of equipment, such as a jacketed kettle.

Research chefs are contributing to the trend of incorporating more-sophisticated ingredients and tastes into manufactured foods. One of the building blocks a chef uses that is becoming commercially available is mirepoix, a combination of minced onion, carrot, and celery that is often the basis for sauces and soups. Frozen and dehydrated vegetables are available as substitutes for fresh, though many manufacturers do use fresh vegetables if they can get them reliably.

Baggs is fond of brown butter, which is simply butter that has been heated to promote Maillard reactions between sugars and amino acids. He finds it a natural source of sweetness and flavor in making sauces. Brown butter can be made onsite in a separate step or purchased from another source as an ingredient. Olive oil or olive oil flavor is a more common ingredient and gives a more-sophisticated character than a less-expensive oil. However, it is also more vulnerable to oxidation and so must be stored properly and not overheated.

Finally, Baggs observed that new ingredients such as aseptic, seedless tamarind paste can contribute a unique sour and sweet flavor to foods while still being relatively convenient to use.

Fabricating a Practical Cut of Meat
One culinary technique is shaping, as when a chef debones a leg or shoulder of a meat animal and then ties the muscle back together for faster and more-uniform roasting. John Matchuk, Corporate Chef for T. Hasegawa USA Inc., Northbrook, Ill (phone 847-559-6060), described one of his early developments in which the objective was to simulate a roast pork loin for a quick-serve-restaurant application.

Pork loin is normally too expensive to use for this purpose; instead it is used to make Canadian-style bacon, pork roasts, and chops. Matchuk and his colleagues took ham muscles, tumbled and massaged them to improve binding, and then filled a tubular casing. A unique step was freezing the meat at this point to help it hold its shape. The casing was then removed and the meat wrapped with a layer of ham fat before being put into a cooking net. Wrapping meat with fat is called barding, in contrast to larding, in which slivers of fat are threaded through a cut of meat. Larding is uncommon, as natural marbling is achieved by animal breeding. The cylindrical piece of meat was then cooked by infrared heating to melt most of the fat and develop a brown, caramelized surface.

The product was not commercialized, but it does illustrate the application of some culinary skills and the way a chef approaches a product development task.

Another meat application was described at the IFT/RCA Pavilion at the 2004 IFT Annual Meeting + Food Expo®. Braising is long, slow cooking with moist heat to tenderize tough meat cuts. In a kitchen, it normally begins with browning of the meat before a liquid such as stock, wine, or water is added. In commercial bag cooking, there is no browning.

Don Moss, then a student at the University of Nebraska, used a conveyor grill to brown beef short ribs before braising them in polymer bags. He also emptied the bags of purged liquid and fat before freezing the meat for later use. In a kitchen, the braising liquid is normally the base for a sauce, but that may be impractical on a commercial scale, so sauces must use other sources of flavor, such as meat extracts.

Chefs on the Plant Floor
Harry’s Fresh Foods Inc., Portland, Ore. (phone 503-257-7687), makes a wide variety of fresh, chilled foods for retail and foodservice. According to Ron Hendren, Senior Vice President and Corporate Executive Chef, the family-owned business makes more than 160,000 lb of food each day in an 80,000-sq-ft plant.

The company’s sauces, gravies, entrees, soups, and desserts are prepared in small batches in steam-heated kettles, filled hot into containers such as bags for foodservice and tubs and small bowls for retail, then very rapidly cooled in an ice water tank about 100 ft long. Refrigerated shelf life is about 60 days. Products are shipped to Canada, Mexico, Taiwan, and across the United States.

The unique characteristic of Harry’s manufacturing is that the products are cooked much as they would be in a restaurant kitchen, by chefs with culinary training. Wherever possible, fresh ingredients are used, such as garlic and potatoes. Oil is heated, garlic is sautéed, minced onion, carrot, and celery are added, and, in general, the product is built step by step.

Concessions to scale include mechanical peeling where possible, mechanical slicing and dicing, and automatic depositing into containers after transferring from the cook kettles. Many materials, such as eggplant, are prepared by skilled hands.

The step-wise process and the use of well-trained labor obviously adds to cost but pays off in high quality, according to Hendren. The components of a scaled-up process include availability of fresh ingredients, careful choice of scale of operation, and careful material handling to avoid damage to particulates such as pasta and meat pieces.

Reproducing the Chef’s Touch
Tyson Foods Inc.’s Hospitality Div., Chicago, Ill.—formerly Culinary Foods—has prepared components of airline meals and other foodservice items for many years, according to Patrick Guillou, Executive Chef (phone 773-650-4071).

One product line is omelets, which are normally cooked by a chef in a special pan one at a time. Tyson has a carousel of about 30 typical omelet pans carried by a chain over a series of gas flames. Oil is automatically deposited, followed by a precise dose of liquid egg and, after a few seconds, a filling such as cheese (if needed). Then one of the few operators loosens the egg with a spatula and another folds the omelet in half, and finally the omelet is tipped into a cavity in a plastic tray which is conveyed to freezing. The hot empty pan is quickly wiped clean, and the cycle repeats.

A similar continuous system is used to make stir-fried dishes. These processes illustrate another approach to scale-up: replicate and automate, rather than make larger batches—slices from a large loaf of cooked egg would not be mistaken for individual omelets.

Chefs struggle with the “machine-made” look of much manufactured food and seek ways to preserve the human touch. Size reduction—slicing, cutting, and dicing—is a troublesome area. Automation is necessary to reduce hand labor and also to help with portion control, but too much uniformity is a sure sign of “factory food.” One solution is to have cutting machines set to different sizes. Another is to use some hand cutting—selectively and just enough to make a difference.

The diverse range of culinary techniques enriches the variety and enhances the quality of manufactured food, but the engineer is often challenged to reproduce the techniques accurately and efficiently on a large scale.

by J. Peter Clark,
Contributing Editor,
Consultant to the Process Industries, Oak Park, Ill.
[email protected]