Convenient Chef Shortcuts
Today’s chefs require valuable, timesaving products. These may be concentrated soups or sauces; seasonings or flavors mimicking authentic, fresh ingredients; pre-marinated, pre-breaded and precooked meats; or other pre-prepared entrées or desserts.
Developing foodservice products often involves a bit of backward engineering, usually beginning with a sensational chef creation from scratch. The challenge lies in discovering ways to mass-produce the recipe in a consistent, high-quality, cost-effective manner. “This is where foodservice chains rely on their supplier base for help in recreating culinary products that fit to their establishments’ needs, service volume, distribution network, storage capacity, staffing capabilities and equipment availability,” says Richard Elias, executive R&D director, Michigan Dessert and American Saucery, divisions of Midas Foods International, Royal Oak, MI. “There are so many variables and considerations in pre-manufacturing and packaging that the most successful chains will leverage the knowledge of vendors to establish recipe conversions most quickly,” adds Gary Freeman, the companies’ vice president and marketing director.
One of the biggest challenges to the industry lies in communicating and perceiving the end-users’ needs. “We always try to gain as much understanding of how a product will be handled in the operation, but often find ourselves working with very little information,” says James Scher, corporate executive chef, Arden International Kitchens, Lakeville, MN. He recently designed a pre-portioned lasagna for a customer who said the product would be thawed, baked in an oven and topped with additional sauce. After the customer complained of tough pasta, Scher learned that the lasagna was being heated from a frozen state in a microwave without additional sauce. “Situations such as these require that we design in as much tolerance and range of use as possible to withstand the rigors and inconsistencies of a foodservice kitchen,” he adds.
Many of the benefits from supplier-based support are the same no matter what the supplier provides. Whether precooked or dehydrated, the item offers convenience and consistency; compensates for staffing shortages; saves on inventory and preparation time; and eliminates waste. “Because of the time-savings involved, the chef can focus on putting originality into the presentation, side dishes, accompaniments, etc., instead of stuffing 8,000 chickens — a task requiring little creative inspiration,” notes Gerard Bertholon, chef, vice president culinary services and global marketing, Cuisine Solutions, Alexandria, VA.
Many times, pre-portioned entrées improve efficiency and minimize waste. For instance, a chef orders 1,000 to 1,050 entrée portions in anticipation of serving 1,000 guests. Defrosting 80% of those portions not only minimizes the required heating time, but protects against low turnout. Any portions beyond the 80% level can go directly from freezer to oven, eliminating unused, reheated portions. Still-frozen portions may be sold at full price on another occasion, explains Bertholon.
Pre-portioned, precooked entrée selections particularly benefit large-scale feeding operations where labor is tight, such as in the lodging and resort market, notes Rebecca Hanf, marketing coordinator, Sunny Fresh Foods, a division of Cargill, Monticello, MN. “A market such as this still requires quality, food-safe, high-end products,” adds Rae Guillermo, product development manager. “We manufacture a variety of quality products, including omelets, for high volume operations. Our products are prepared with fresh whole eggs, cooked and then individually quick-frozen for a pre-portioned serving.”
At times, convenience comes in a concentrated form. “Bases and concentrates often provide a more consistent product than one made from scratch,” says David Jennings, corporate executive chef, FIS-North America, Solon, OH. “These products can give the great taste of scratch in seconds, all the while saving labor-intensive preparation steps and ingredient inventory.”
Convenience à la carte
Foodservice speed-scratch items take on many forms, but whatever the form, they help streamline preparation and reduce the risk of mistakes made by an unskilled foodservice labor pool. Powdered mixes include batters, cream-pie fillings, meringues, sauces, gravies and seasonings. “Our products are typically stored very compactly in a dry state,” says Freeman. “Shelf life ranges from six to 12 months depending upon ingredients. Fresh-baked quality can be achieved through multiple freeze/thaw cycles. The baked good can then be prepared in advance and held frozen for weeks before thawing and serving.”
Certain products create problems in large-scale production. “Imagine shelling eggs for a buffet feeding 200 people,” notes Terry Zauhar, director of marketing, Sunny Fresh Foods. “Shell eggs not only pose an issue with waste, convenience and food safety, but impact yield as well.” As a solution, a wide range of egg products exist, including frozen liquid whole eggs; seasoned and unseasoned frozen liquid whole eggs with milk; frozen products for baking, such as liquid whole eggs, egg whites, sugared yolks and plain yolks; cholesterol- and fat-free frozen products; frozen diced eggs for salad bars; and refrigerated hard-cooked eggs. Refrigerated liquid whole-egg products evolved from the frozen category and offer added convenience, because they eliminate thawing.
Concentrated products can deliver the essence of scratch products, particularly when made from natural ingredients. “Bases are made from freshly cooked meat, poultry, seafood or vegetables ground into a paste,” says Jennings. “We can add seasonings and compound flavors to give profiles such as roasted onion, garlic, mirepoix or bell peppers, or trendy things, like ancho peppers, chipotle, or herbes de Provence, for applications such as sandwiches or wraps, trend-setting soups, sauces or salad dressings.”
For precooked portions, the cooking method often impacts finished-product quality. Sous vide, a method that originated in Europe, begins with a raw protein that may be blackened, poached or seared before it is vacuum-packed and cooked in a water tank. The cooking process is time- and temperature-controlled to within 1°F variance from a target point. Osso buco, for instance, may cook for 17 hours at 160°F. “Products cooked via sous vide retain 10% to 15% more natural juices; therefore, the product can be held longer without drying out,” says Bertholon. Once the product is fully pasteurized, it is chilled to 32°F, and subsequently flash-frozen in liquid nitrogen to minimize ice crystallization.
Preparing pasta or rice via an enrobing technology produces an entrée accompaniment. The pasta or rice is IQF-processed, and then each piece is completely coated with a sauce. A chef can choose a sous-vide protein and sauce-enrobed pasta and add different ingredients for variation. This cuts down on ingredient inventory, says Bertholon.
Quality, from the culinary as well as a food-safety perspective, is of utmost importance. The preparation and storage method often determine finished-product quality and shelf life. Dry and frozen products typically offer extended shelf life, while refrigerated products require a more-rapid turnaround. Raw-material quality in precooked items obviously factors into finished-product quality. For example, fish is cooked sous vide and frozen within 48 hours of being caught, which stops enzymatic degradation, notes Bertholon.
Foodservice suppliers can leverage technical expertise that offers advantages over chef-prepared recipes. “Standard scratch recipes usually will not have engineered handling characteristics, such as thick batter for quick manufacturing or depositing; correct moisture without free water to ensure that the product eats well without sacrificing shelf life; or products that are less sensitive to mistakes, such as meringues that easily are over-mixed, or roux that can be burned,” says Freeman.
Research and development programs have evolved through the years to offer innovative product solutions. “Refrigerated hard-cooked eggs were originally packed in 20-lb. pails of brine solution, which could potentially make the egg a bit tougher,” notes Zauhar. “Current technology uses atmospheric packaging, which eliminates the potential texture problem as well as the issue of shipping water.” Other technology gives precooked frozen product a homemade quality. “We’re now able to provide fried egg patties using technology that produces a product similar to that cooked in an old black skillet or frying pan, in contrast to the first generation of products,” he adds.
Sometimes reproducing chef-quality entrée portions isn’t too difficult for those who have the economy of scale to do so without making major formulation adjustments. “As a frozen-product manufacturer, we do not need to rely on a great deal of preservatives and stabilizers to match a chef’s formula,” says Scher. “Some minor adjustments, such as using a freeze/thaw-stable starch or adding additional base or flavors to compensate for the effects of freezing, is all that is required.”
Foodservice operators generally rely on a supplier’s expertise when it comes to shortcuts. “Sometimes a company’s culinary heritage, technical and manufacturing experience all combine to give brand recognition,” says Jennings. Whatever the method used, foodservice chains not only gain dollar savings, but flexibility, creativity and consistency.
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