Ready-To-Go

Poultry Takes Flight

August 2, 2007

18 Min Read
Ready-To-Go

Delivering restaurant-quality convenience to consumers is a considerable challenge for manufacturers. The entire process is a race against time, with everything from lipid oxidation to microbial growth to the very traits for which we breed birds conspiring against success. But by understanding the threats and managing our processes, we can design ready-to-go poultry products thatll fly.

Pick of the poultry 

Convenience-oriented poultry items are already staples of the freezer case, where weve long gone for IQF poultry parts, nuggets, wings, burgers, hot dogs and bacon. The deli, too, has led the charge with expanded convenient options. One of the times when we saw the biggest growth, and saw more consumers realizing that turkey was easy to put on the table outside of the holiday season, was when it became the protein of choice to put between two pieces of bread, says Sherrie Rosenblatt, senior director, marketing and communications, National Turkey Federation, Washington, D.C. And there youre talking about deli meatthe ultimate ready-to-go.

The ready-to-go products redefining our notions of poultry today are a far cry from yesterdays bags of frozen chicken nuggets and half-pounds of turkey pastrami. Some people do like to think that they have a hand in cooking things, and the definition of cooking dinner is much different from what it was before things like Skillet Sensations came out, says Charles Heaton, consulting research chef, Hydroblend, Nampa, ID, and Praters Foods, Lubbock, TX. Both fully cooked and prepared, ready-to-go items and convenient speed-scratch products are helping drive this category.

Rosenblatt agrees: You go into the meat case, and youre finding ready-to-heat-and-eat meals and entrées that can be anything from turkey meatballs to ready-to-go turkey entrées that have everything all in one container. You just put it in the oven and its ready in less than 20 minutes. Youre even seeing a lot of products in the marketplace already marinated, seasoned, etc., so were helping the consumer whether theyre in the mood for teriyaki or lemon pepper.

Even more dramatic has been the rise of in-store rotisseries. Notes Rosenblatt: You can take it home, slice it up, and its ready for dinner that night, but can also be part of lunch the next day.

Richard L. Lobb, communication director, National Chicken Council, Washington, D.C., credits rotisserie chicken with helping boost sales in the entire poultry category. The rotisserie has been a steady performer for several years now, he says. The National Chicken Council estimates that approximately 700 million chickens were sold as rotisserie products in 2006, and while that number is impressive enough, even more telling is that only 200 million came from foodservice outlets. Consumers picked up the majority in grocery stores.

The effect on consumers, adds Heaton, is that no matter where they shop, the expectation is that when they go there for dinner, theyre going to be able to bring home in a half hour something thats ideally a restaurant- quality meal.

High and dry 

Keeping restaurant quality couldnt be harder than in a protein as uncooperative as poultry. Often, the first parameter to suffer is moistness. Any meat item contains natural moisture. And poultry, having twice the protein of, say, a red meat, is also higher in moisture, explains Tom Katen, technical service specialist, Cargill Texturizing Solutions, Minneapolis. But poultry contains relatively little fat, leaving less juiciness when its water flees during processing and storage. Formulating with dark meat, which he says is the more succulent piece of meat, is cheaper to work with, and will actually hold more of its own water than the white meat, can take some edge off of dryness. And yet, he points out, we go for the white meat.

Using ingredients that promote water-binding, like phosphatesand, for a more-natural label, carrageenancan help maintain juiciness in heat-and-eat poultry products. Photo: Cargill, Inc.

The traits bred into todays poultry dont help either. These animals are grown so fast and so efficiently that their natural water-holding capacity is not as good, Katen continues. So we have such a challenge to maintain moisture when getting these items to their end customers.

This is especially acute in cooked productsthe grilled breasts, speed-scratch tenders and rotisserie roasters that dominate the category. Heats always going to drive off water. Thats just the way it is, says Rodger Jonas, food scientist, P.L. Thomas & Co., Morristown, NJ. With cooked poultry, you want to prevent the moisture loss before its cooked, because when its cooked, you dry it out. When poultry sits in the supermarket, its just going to dry out even more.

Foodservice only amplifies the threat. We abuse our poultry products today, Katen says. Our restaurants have labor issues, so they buy machines thatll hold our product longer. We ask processors to precook, so we have warmed-over-flavor issues. Restaurant poultry may be cooked 10 items at a time, and theyre held in these steamers for one hour, he notes. Piece one needs to taste the same as piece ten, which isnt likely unless processors intervene. Meat may be capable of binding five times its weight in water, but if you dont manipulate that mechanically, chemically or through adding another water-holding compound, he says, that water is not necessarily bound to that free piece of meat.

Maintaining moisture 

The battle against moisture loss is a part of life for poultry processors. It definitely does affect the eating quality and yield up to the point of sale, Heaton says. That evaporation is money going out the door. Thus, weve attempted to restore juiciness a number of ways, including supplemental fat.

Processors are taking the chicken and actually adding back good fat in the form of liquids, like canola, Katen says. Three percent to 5% in a boneless, skinless chicken breast will, one, keep it from sticking to the grill in a restaurant or at home, and also provide surface succulencein this case, juicinessthat weve bred out of these animals. Another approach exploits packaging, as in the crystal-domed plastic trays that keep rotisserie broilers juicy while they wait for purchase.

Savvy processing and cooking procedures head off moisture loss before it starts. Heaton and clients have kept ready-to-eat (RTE) turkey succulent by giving roast birds a finishing dunk in a kettle fryer. Its very quick, he notes. Moist-cooking helps to maintain the yield, and when you finish it with, basically, a flash-fry, that adds flavor, adds color, adds a nice caramelization. Its a beautiful piece of poultry.

Convection-steam, or combi, ovens also give a leg up in the fight. Able to steam, bake, roast, poach and even grill, fry and smoke, the ovens have sensors that stop cooking when the contents reach a prescribed temperature. And with humidity levels very high90%, 95%-plus, says C. Lynn Theiss, vice president, research and development, Newly Weds Foods, Inc., Chicago, it creates a hydrostatic circumstance whereby moisture is going to stay in the meat.

Youre all wet 

However, one method has become the industry standard for saving ready-to-go poultry from what Katen calls the dry, gulping piece of meat defect: functional marinating.

Without exception, Theiss says, all those kinds of products have been either marinated or tumbled, but certainly have had moisture added back to them. Functional marinades alter meat proteins so they take in and retain moisture that would otherwise escape as purge or steam.

The great escape begins with rigor mortis. The two main proteins were concerned about are the actin and the myosin, says Brandon Burrows, meat scientist, Mastertaste, Teterboro, NJ. When metabolism of muscle glycogen yields lactic acid during rigor, the muscle pH drops from actin and myosins isoelectric point, near neutral, to roughly 4.8 from 5.2. Under these conditions, he continues, the actin and myosin form a protein called actomyosin that doesnt effectively hold water.

Functional salts and phosphates, injected or vacuum-tumbled into the meat as part of a marinade, return the cellular pH to the proteins isoelectric point, breaking the actomyosin into its actin and myosin components. Those are the main two proteins of interest that have the most water-binding capacity, he says. (For more on this subject, see Elements Plus, Phosphates Function in Poultry Products, in this issue.) Functional brines contain salts and phosphates, such as sodium acid pyrophosphate, sodium hexametaphosphate, and sodium tripolyphosphate. Incorporation via vacuum tumbling lends itself to smaller, thinner, whole-muscle meats with surface-area-to-volume ratios that favor uptake (think boneless, skinless breasts), while bone-in applications suggest injection.

You have to take into account the needle size and needle bore and not use seasonings that clog the needles, Burrows says. Thats where we use a lot of our natural products that have oleoresins and extracts that have a lot of flavor for the little bit of ingredient we use.

Following either injection or tumbling, equilibration allows the cells to take in up to 10% of the poultrys weight in marinade. As it extracts the meats proteins, hydrophilic amino acids open onto the environment, and the marinade salts create an osmotic differential that draws moisture in to bind those sites. This maximizes the proteins water-holding capacity, resulting in higher yields, less moisture loss during storage and cooking, and a more-palatable texture.

Friendly functionality 

Jonas always begins discussions of marinade formulation with pertinent questions. I ask specific questions to improve our understanding of the process conditions, and that allows us to better target what you need to maximize your results. We need to understand: Is this product being cooked? What are the process conditions? How are you adding the marinadetumbling or injecting? What are you trying to achieve? Do you want increased texture? Do you want to increased mouthfeel? Moisture retention? Higher yield? It makes a difference, he says.

Phosphates have been the traditional workhorses, but USDA regulations limit their use to 0.5% of the total formula. Moreover, theyve come in for criticism from natural food circles, and are also inadequate at binding water on their own. Just a system of salt, water and phosphate will get water in there, but youll get whats called purge, says Mark Bento, technical director of savory flavor applications, Mastertaste. Purge is the water coming out of the meat. And when you cook it, youre going to get even more purge, and reduced flavor delivery.

High levels, Jonas adds, have a strong flavor and create what we call a rainbow effect. Its a color issue. At too high a level in certain products, you can also get a rubbery texture.

Functional starches and hydrocolloids help pick up the slack. These are providing a physical means to bind with moisture, Theiss explains. While theyve traditionally been more common in chopped or comminuted items, he says, certainly, if you formulate properly, you can inject or tumble in a starch or gum or hydrocolloid.

The question is, which ones get the job done while remaining cupboard friendly? For starters, Katen suggests native starches with no crosslinking, enzymatic processing or other treatment that would render them suspect with consumers. Carrageenan, as well, comes from seaweed and is natural, he adds. Right now, were taking phosphate out and adding carrageenan at a very low level (0.15% to 0.20%) to control drip loss.

Manufacturers familiar with old-style carrageenan might find the latest generations features and functions surprising. Everybody who uses carrageenan knows one type, Jonas says. They know that it disperses in water, and they know that you have to heat it to make it work. But now a new product exists that can dissolve in water. His company markets a cold-water-soluble (CWS) carrageenan that forms an aqueous gel that feels like slippery water, he says. Its still pumpable, its still injectible, it still holds water. But you get more water into your system, and whatever you get in, stays in. He adds that it can decrease drip loss by up to 50% and help prevent ice crystallization itself a contributor to purge. He doesnt recommend going over 1% of the water weight for the CWS carrageenan, ever. Marinade pH and subsequent processing or storage dont faze its functionality.

On the surface

Glazes are something you tend to think add a bit of sheen and surface modification, Theiss says. But in combination with marinades, they also bind moisture to the protein surface. By adding external moisture to whats indigenous to the poultry itself, you formulate a product to maintain surface as well as interior moisture, he says.

When we do glazes for processors, our developers have to go beyond flavor to product functionality, Bento says. In glazes, for instance, you have to have a certain viscosity to get the correct pickup on the piece of chicken. Hot- and cold-set starches and gums help achieve a 20% pickup, for example, on a fully cooked product destined for the freezer case, he says. You have to watch your sugars. When you fry it, it may brown too much. Then, too much sugar will prevent it from freezing, and youll get smearing. So, the same technologies that you have for the marinades and brines are being used in the glazes, also.

Beyond functionality and flavor, high-tech glazes deliver important components that will add to shelf life and food safety, Theiss adds. The simplest of these may be salts, but products, such as lactates, organic salts, esters, citric acid, citrates, acetates and diacetates, function mostly as antimicrobials. Still more serve as antioxidants. There is a class of herbs that tends to be high in organic acids, such as carnosic acid and carnosol, that have strong antioxidant components to them. Newly Weds, for example, has an oleoresin called NatureGuard thats a spice extractive that has antioxidant properties. Those help to prevent lipid oxidation, and warmed-over flavor is a manifestation of lipid oxidation.

Keeping convenience clean 

In terms of food safety, the good news about ready-to-go poultry is that much of the product is already cooked. The bad news is also that much of the product is already cooked. In 2005, RTI International, Research Triangle Park, NC, working with the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) of the USDA, scored the relative risks that various processed meat and poultry products posed to public health. Raw products consistently scored higher for risk than RTEwith the conspicuous exception of fully cooked RTE poultry. The only RTE products that didnt follow this pattern had no subsequent exposure to the environment, such as cooked-in-bag or hot-packed items.

The USDA wants very safe fully cooked items, says Katen. Were being asked to reduce the risk of Listeria. The government is requiring us to use either a post-cooking treatment and/or antimicrobials to reduce the risk. Thats where youll see the sodium diacetate, sodium lactate, and things like that. Organic acids and phosphates are also effective and efficient antimicrobials, given their frequent preexistence in marinades.

Nevertheless, increasing pressure to clean up labels has sparked interest in natural options, such as grill and smoke flavors that exert some surface-acting antibacterial properties. Even so, notes Jonas, most of these natural products are inhibitors of microbial growth not antimicrobials. Theyre not a kill step. They may slow down the growth of the Listeria, but if its there, its there.

Ultimately, the surest route to food safety involves strong HACCP plans, exacting GMPs, conscientious storage conditions and proper handling along the supply chain. And it helps when the consumer works with us. We continue to remind people to wash their hands, not cross contaminate, to cook thoroughly and to refrigerate promptly, says Rosenblatt. Well continue to do everything we can to provide the safest, bestquality product possible, but there are also things in the consumers hands that they can do.

Getting warmer 

Warmed-over flavors (WOFs) may be the single greatest flavor defect to dog ready-to-go poultry. When fatty acids in meat experience heat or oxygen exposure, ultraviolet light, or any number of other stressors, they destabilize, which leaves them vulnerable to oxidation. Oxidation produces free radicals, which initiate yet more oxidation, and soon a products fat has broken down into short-chain aldehydes, like hexanal and pentanal, that even at a few parts per billion taste plain nasty.

Systems rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids are prone to oxidation systems like poultry. Take a ground turkey burger made with dark meat. Dark meat usually contains more fat with a higher content of unsaturated fatty acids and is, consequently, more prone to oxidative rancidity, says Ron Jenkins, applications specialist, Red Arrow Products Company LLC, Manitowoc, WI. Added skin worsens the situation. Grinding of meat also increases the surface area of the meat and exposure to oxygen, thus increasing the opportunity for lipid oxidation, he notes. But even whole, bone-in items are at risk because bone can contribute metal cationsiron, calcium, etc. that can catalyze the oxidative process if leached or ground into the meat matrix.

All it takes is a little heat another oxidation aggravatorto negatively impact the oxidative quality of a poultry product, Jenkins says. As RTE and value-added poultry products will be prepared for serving using various forms of heatingmicrowaving, steam, dry or convection heating, etc., and as foodservice situations add more stress with holding times and warming lamps, it is important that the poultry product have sufficient antioxidant protection to inhibit the oxidation initiated by the heating process. Because freezing can concentrate reactants and hasten oxidations onset and propagation, careful selection of ingredients is necessary particularly should the product be expected to last in frozen storage for the industry-standard 180 days, he notes.

Adam Walker, research chef, Mc-Cormick & Co. Inc., Hunt Valley, MD, suggests two methods for counteracting oxidation: adding flavor to mask it, and adding a functional ingredient to reduce the oxidation. As for the former, options include both smoking and curing, which add flavor elements, as well as antioxidants, he says. Carbonyl groups in the flavors react with poultry amino groups to forestall WOF production at levels as low as 0.03% to 0.50% of the total formula.

Use of roast flavors can inhibit heat-induced warmed-over flavors or minimize bird-tobird cooked flavor variations, Jenkins adds. These smoke flavors provide antioxidant protection with such antioxidant activity originating in the smokes inherent phenolic content.

Antioxidant-rich herbs and herb blends not only serve natural-labeling purposes, but complement poultry flavors, too. Ingredients that work especially well with poultry are rosemary, garlic, thyme, sage and black pepper, used in conjunction with smoke, grill and roast flavors, says Albert Musca, CEC, corporate chef, Red Arrow. To deliver these flavor systems effectively, a combination of marinade and rub presents the best results.

Thats sure a long way from a freshly plucked bird hauled in from the coop, but the results are whats keeping the entire poultry category vibrant and primed for the future. 

Kimberly J. Decker, a California-based technical writer, has a B.S. in Consumer Food Science with a minor in English from the University of California, Davis. She lives in the San Francisco Bay area, where she enjoys eating and writing about food. You can reach her at [email protected].

Blank Canvases and Complete Pictures

Formulating flavor so the consumer doesnt have to is a key element of ready-to-go poultry design. Yet, the extent to which we apply that flavor has separated developers into a couple different schools of thought. There are many products out there that are flavored more with just supportive notes, like oven roast, drippings, mirepoix, says Mark Bento, technical director of savory flavor applications, Mastertaste, Teterboro, NJ. Usually, these are injected or tumbled into the meat or the poultry muscle itself, and what they do is help enhance the poultry character. We use some of our research technology in Maillard-reaction chemistry and nonenzymatic browningwhich is really what goes on in the kitchento understand how proteins, carbohydrates and fats react together. Once consumers have this neutral canvas that tastes good, then they can spice it up using herbs, rubs, spices, glazeswhatever they want.

Then again, Bento notes, we do have other consumers who do not have that culinary expertise, and they want the full, trendy profiles. This is where the other school of thought finds its adherents.

RTE products emphasize two important benefits: convenience and ease of preparation, says Adam Walker, research chef, McCormick & Co. Inc., Hunt Valley, MD. Taking this into account, leaning more toward a complete flavor profile, rather than a neutral one, makes the most sense. The customer has already trusted the manufacturer with the preparation of the food; they should be able to trust the flavor, as well. Flavor options are becoming more and more numerous as consumers become more confident in the current culinary landscape. Familiar ethnic flavors, such as Mediterranean, Asian and Latin, are certainly possibilities that deliver both a sense of excitement and refinement, while not scaring away the potential customer. Another route is to incorporate regional American flavors, such as Cajun or Creole, Southern flavors like black pepper or even dill pickle, and Tex-Mex flavors such as chipotle and roasted chiles.

Whatever we formulators do, Walker says, we should up the excitement ante. From a chefs point of view, one rule to follow with sauces, glazes and rubs is that they should be very flavorfulmuch more so than marinades and brines, he notes. This is because one important aspect of enjoying food is contrast. Perfect poultry would be a savory, satisfying, slightly bland piece of protein contrasted with a bright or flavorful sauce or rub, creating a dynamic relationship that keeps each bite interesting.

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