New Menu in the Freezer Case

October 31, 2007

10 Min Read
New Menu in the Freezer Case

Youre too tired too cook, too lazy to go out to dinner and not in the mood for take-out. Whats a 21stcentury consumer to do?

Food manufacturers have started seeking out ingredients, processing and packaging to bring the restaurant experience home via retailers freezer cases, says Jim Chapman, executive chef, Eurest Dining Services, Chicago. While Eurest does not manufacture frozen meals, the company recognizes the importance of this growing retail category. In fact, many chefs rely on high-quality frozen foods as ingredients in made-to-order specialties.

Freshness can come from the freezer if you are willing to pay for quality. If food manufacturers want to compete with restaurant chefs, they need to invest in the same high-quality ingredients, says Chapman.

Many are, but too many food manufacturers still think they can cut costs by choosing inferior ingredients. You cant go backward to fix the product, confirms Chris Stepan, corporate chef, Vegetable Juices, Inc., Bedford Park, IL. You must start with the highest-quality ingredients to produce restaurant quality for the retail freezer.

Producing restaurant-quality products is the mission of Contessa Premium Foods, San Pedro, CA. The frozen-foods manufacturers credo is begin with integrity, add creativity and consistent quality, says John Blazevich, president, CEO and founder, Contessa. The companys numerous patents in frozen-food processing and packaging give it an edge in the competitive retail and foodservice landscapes.

Frozen foods evolution

Modern-day frozen foods surfaced around 1930, when Clarence Birdseye started freezing his daily catches for others to enjoy later. However, freezing foods dates back thousands of years. According to the National Frozen & Refrigerated Foods Association (NFRA), Harrisburg, PA, the first to harness the power of freezing foods beyond the winter months were the Chinese, who used ice cellars as early as 1,000 B.C.

Preservation may have been the ancient reason for freezing, but freezing food is, and continues to be, so much more. The frozen-foods industry is entering a new era where convenience is only one of the attributes attracting consumers to retailers freezer case, says Nevin Montgomery, president and CEO, NFRA. Nutritious, delicious and eye-appealing are also extremely important. The TV dinner that debuted in the 1950s just doesnt cut it with todays frozen-food consumer.

Consumers find certain concepts appealing. The authenticity of our recipes allows consumers to experience the dishes as if they traveled abroad to the regions in which the recipes originated, says Blazevich. Using ingredients that are authentic to the recipe is one of the many things that sets Contessa apart. The company also produces restaurant- quality foods for its private-label customers, including major retailers and weight-loss centers.

All types of frozen fish and seafood are experiencing tremendous growth in the retail channel. Frozen fish has come a long way since the invention of the fish stick, notes Blazevich. Our shrimp is farm-raised in a strictly controlled environment and processed within hours of harvesting, protecting the inherent flavor and texture youd expect from shrimp thats just taken out of the water.

Restaurant-style frozen breaded shrimp is one of todays most-popular frozen retail appetizers, notes Randy Hobart, vice president of sales and marketing, Hydroblend Inc., Nampa, ID. To make high-quality breaded frozen shrimp, after the fresh shrimp is peeled, deveined and washed, it is coated with a predust, he says. This grain-based ingredient forms a bond with the shrimp protein, improving the batters adherence.

Putting foods on ice

Choosing which freezing technology to use often depends on the product. But it is important to remember that no matter how you freeze them, some foods just dont freeze well, and should be avoided if the goal is restaurant quality.

Fragile cellular structures with a high percentage of water are the most-difficult items to freeze, says Jankowski. This includes produce such as tomatoes, strawberries and lettuce.

Stepan adds: The best way to maintain the quality of vegetables is to blanch them and cool them quickly before quick-freezing. This very fast pasteurizing process reduces the moisture content of the vegetables. At the same time, it destroys enzymes and spoilage microorganisms.

Enzyme activity can lead to quality deterioration. Freezing slows enzyme activity, but does not stop it. We are having great success with our chile purées, says Stepan. The pasteurization process destroys the many enzymes in chiles. These enzymes remain active in dried chiles and can cause syneresis in frozen-food applications. With frozen chile paste, those enzymes are all inactivated. A food manufacturer simply thaws and uses the paste in the preparation of the frozen food.

Melanie Polk, director of nutrition education, American Institute for Cancer Research, Washington, D.C., says: Immediate quick-freezing of vegetables protects flavor, color and the crisp texture consumers expect of their vegetables. Flash freezing and other new technologies trap nutrients and phytochemicals immediately after harvest while produce is at its peak. Data show that frozen vegetables often contain more nutrients than fresh ones, because vegetables destined for commercial freezing are harvested at the height of ripeness and nutritive value, and taken directly to nearby freezing plants for immediate processing, which preserves the nutrient content.

Saucing things up

With frozen meals, the sauce is often the key to convincing the consumer that the product is restaurant-quality, says Danny Bruns, senior corporate chef, Kerry Americas, Beloit, WI. Color is huge, as is sheen. Sauces are expected to be bright and vibrant.

Sauce doesnt have to start out as sauce; coatings can be applied to foods prior to freezing. These provide a barrier, or a layer of protection, preventing one food from interacting with another in the same package. The coating can also absorb any moisture that migrates from the foods. This is how the sauce becomes a sauce. A dusting of maltodextrin provides a food with sheen, without being sweet or sticky.

Value-added processed meats intended for the freezer are often marinated, seasoned, rubbed or glazed to add eye appeal and flavor to the product. Typical sugar-based systems are hygroscopic and result in a sticky product that can be difficult to handle for packaging or final consumer preparation, says Celeste Sullivan, technical manager, Grain Processing Corporation, Muscatine, IA. Modified food starch, she says, can produce a clear film coating that promotes weight gain, increases saleable yields, adheres seasoning and flavor, improves freezer stability and reduces purge.

Further, Sullivan notes, Maltodextrin in the formula promotes drying of the coating and a non-sweet, clean taste. A suggested formula would include 20% each modified food starch and maltodextrin. Other ingredients might include flavor, color, fruit juice and water. The coating can be modified for degree of sheen through maltodextrin selection.

You just cant make a reduction sauce like chefs do on TV and include it in a frozen entrée, says Jesse Cobb, corporate executive chef, foodservices division, Nestlé USA, Glendale, CA. But, you can get a similar flavor profile by flavoring a stabilized sauce with high-quality oleoresins. Oleoresins provide for consistent, natural and reproducible flavor, aroma and color. Oleoresins are typically dispersible only in oil. However, Kalsec, Inc., Kalamazoo, MI, has developed a line that is dispersible in oil and water systems. These spices, herbs and natural colors include a patented, natural emulsification system. They contain approximately half of the flavor strength of the corresponding oil-dispersible oleoresin. However, because they are dispersible in water, they make flavor more available to taste receptors and, therefore, flavor impact may be greater than half strength. These products are completely miscible with each other and are not prone to separation like blended oleoresins.

Many of the high-quality ingredients used by chefs are very fragile and dont freeze well, says Sullivan. This includes wines, cream, butter sauces and mayonnaise-based dressings. The creamy, viscous products can break down and separate when thawed. This is due to the formation of ice crystals. As ice crystals grow, they rupture the emulsion, she says. One way to overcome this is to use modified starches.

Formulators and marketers seeking all-natural labeling typically avoid modified food starches but, quite often, they are the only solution to producing a restaurant-quality frozen food. Chemically modified starches are stabilized against substitution reactions, says Sullivan. This allows them to extend a foods shelf life, since the modified starch readily binds moisture. Less free moisture translates to reduced product breakdown.

Starch selection is specific to the application. The manufacturing process must allow for optimum hydration of the starch in order for the starch to do its job in the system, says Sullivan. The frozen-food system will be challenged many times after it leaves the manufacturing facility. Temperature fluctuations can occur during distribution, at retail and in the home. Once a starch granule breaks or fragments, it loses the moisture-binding function needed to keep the product stable during potential freeze/thaw encounters.

Restaurant chefs often use flour for their kitchen-to-table creations. Flour provides opacity and some flavor, but it does nothing for stability, says Sullivan. In food manufacturing, no more than 15% of a stabilizer system should be unmodified starch or flour.

Primary starches and grains

From breadings to sauces, select starches and grains are popular frozen-food components. But some starches and grains are the focal point of the frozen food, and must overcome another set of hurdles. Only thick-walled pastas, such as penne and rigatoni, should be used in frozen entrées, says Bruns. They should also be slightly undercooked, so that not all of the starch is broken down prior to freezing.

Cobb adds: Angel hair ... no way, it cant be successfully used in a frozen entrée. Bigger, heartier pastas are best, and used in a 50:50 ratio with a sauce. All the pasta has to be covered with sauce so that it doesnt dry out when the frozen meal is being heated up. Just like vegetables, pastas can be purchased par-cooked and frozen. They can be added to the entrée during product assembly.

Baked goods have their share of freezer issues, too. Over the last several years, it seemed as if many frozen baked goods were experiencing a variety of problems, says Sullivan. There have been issues with moisture migration at the top of cakes, causing icing to slide off, as well as shrinkage, cracking and an increase in large air cells. We looked at how all the ingredients in these systems were interacting, and what we found out was that most systems were over-stabilized.

This comes from years of problems. So, we took the systems apart and learned that many contained more than one stabilizing systemsystems that had been added to overcome certain issues over the years. The problem is that the issues have changed, but the stabilizers did not.

For example, todays frost-free freezers are designed to pull moisture out of food products. If that moisture is not properly bound, the baked good dries up. Twenty years ago, drum-dried instant starches worked great in baked goods, but these are fragmented starch granules, and they dont bind water, says Sullivan. Todays systems require spray-dried instant starch, but not necessarily in combination with other stabilizers that might be in the system. Too many stabilizers means that the hydrocolloids are not fully hydrating, and there still is free moisture.

Assembling the dish

When it comes to pulling a frozen entrée all together, It makes sense to build the meals when the individual items are already frozen, since everything has its own separate cooking time and freezing rate, says Chapman.

For example, frozen-entrée manufacturers typically purchase quick-frozen vegetables, and they must stay that way to maintain quality. They never have the chance to thaw, even the slightest. When it comes to sauces, Sargento Food, Inc., Plymouth, WI., offers solid sauces in the form of shreds, dices, cubes or slices that maintain their shape at refrigerated temperatures. The product melts quickly and smoothly, adding a creamy texture to a variety of dishes, says Kevin Delahunt, president. They provide excellent cling, intense flavor and a cleaner dispensability than ready-made sauces. The sauces are designed for addition as-is during assembly of the frozen entrée or meal kit. Varieties run the gamut, from Country Gravy to Strawberry Cream Sauce, and Alfredo to Creamy Pesto.

With the innovations and materials now available to manufacture and freeze foods, you wouldnt ever believe they were frozen, concludes Hobart. Frozen foods can be a very good quality experience.

Donna Berry, president of Chicago-based Dairy & Food Communications, Inc., a network of professionals in business-to-business technical and trade communications, has been writing about product development and marketing for 13 years. Prior to that, she worked for Kraft Foods in the natural-cheese division. She has a B.S. in Food Science from the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. She can be reached at [email protected].

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