Meat and poultry processors today, especially those producing cooked and further processed foods, can distinguish themselves in the market, and realize a better return on investment (ROI), by adding as much value as possible to products. This is reinforced by the continuing consolidation of the biggest players in the slaughtering arena. Further processing has become a go-to proposition for meat companies that struggle to compete on revenue when it comes to slaughter.

Ready to eat (RTE) barbecue products in the retail market provide good ROI to both retailers and processors as well as offer consumers an easy path to quick barbecue with minimal effort and almost no necessary barbecue skills. For processors to succeed in the RTE barbecue arena, the right smokehouse is a necessity.

Good cooking

The best quality smokehouses, whether for barbecue or otherwise, start with strong and durable construction. Uniform air temperatures and the ability to supply sufficient air changes are also necessary to achieve the required drying performance.

“They must be reliable and easy to maintain with as few moving parts as possible, must be designed according to Sanitary Design guidelines and must be as energy-efficient as possible,” said Michael Kapps, national sales manager, AmTrade Systems Inc., Livonia, Mich.

Marty Wimmer, Thermal Product Line manager at Riverside, Mo.-based Marlen added, “All smokehouses must have a good support team behind them from both the plant level and the supplier level.”

For barbecue specific applications, the design and process control significantly affect the appearance of RTE barbecue products. Jurgen Maurer, general manager of Friedrich Metal Products, a division of NuMeat Technology, East Brunswick, NJ, said the flavor of barbecue is different than that of typical smoke flavor found on smoked ham or smoked sausage products.

“This has to do with type and shape of wood material being used as well as the burning or smoldering temperature smoke is being generated,” he said.

Higher dry-bulb set-point temperatures, from 200°F to 230°F, and wet-bulb temperature set points in the 180°F to 190°F range will aid proper collagen breakdown for more challenging items like beef brisket while creating and maintaining the “bark” many barbecue enthusiasts desire, said Nick Brown, director of Thermal Processing and senior food scientist at Fusion Tech Integrated, Roseville, Ill.

“Manufacturers can ensure the build can withstand higher dry bulb temperatures in the 230°F range to allow high enough internal product temperatures to denature collagen and create a more tender product,” added Jason Jordan, director of Marination Technology at Fusion Tech Integrated.

The standard smokehouse generator uses wood chips or sawdust. This generates smoke with incomplete combustion at smoldering temperatures to avoid flames.

“High-end smoke generators allow setting and control of variable smoldering temperatures,” Maurer said. “The really good ones allow operation at smoldering temperatures very close to wood log burners.”

Another major aspect processors need to consider when producing barbecue options for consumers is the pink ring barbecue lovers desire. The incomplete combustion also contributes to this important quality.

“Specific to barbecue products, an open flame is required to create the ‘pit’ flavor associated with barbecued meats as well as the NO₂ produced by the incomplete combustion of the burning logs that gives you the highly desirable pink ring associated with barbecued meats,” Wimmer said. “You can’t have one without the other.”

Marlen smokehouseSmokehouses work best when integrated into the whole plant. (Source: Marlen Duravant)

Start smoking

When processors make the decision to add barbecue products to their SKU list, they must communicate with equipment suppliers to ensure the best smokehouse possible for the product will be used, and it will be able to meet the challenges faced along the way.

“We, the manufactures, need to have a good understanding of the target/end product to ensure we offer the proper options needed to meet the desired outcome,” Jordan said.

A processor’s starting point is also imperative, whether they have or have not made a barbecue product before, as well as the current products they offer, Kapps said.

He added, the current equipment, processes, and the challenges they might face and hope to overcome, are all factors that will help a processor and supplier make the best decision when choosing and installing a smokehouse.

“Since everything that Marlen manufactures is custom designed, it’s critical that we look at the product, the process and the facility to ensure we are providing exactly what the customer needs for success,” Wimmer said. “The key is excellent communication through the entire process, not just with the customer, but with the general contractor and other trades as well.”

Along with product knowledge, existing equipment and processes, processors need to communicate the project’s scope and logistics. Then all parties involved will be on the same page at selection, installation and start up.

“In addition, strong service and technical support is essential to the long-term success of our customers,” Brown said. “We offer both field service technicians to service the equipment and food scientists/application experts to help optimize the oven program, process, and quality control.”

A smokehouse and its process, its product, etc., stands as a single piece of the larger system that is the plant. It must fit into that system and flow with all the other pieces. Processors and suppliers need diligence to ensure not only optimization of the unit itself, but optimization and cooperation within the facility as a whole.

Maurer said, “Be a systems integrator using state of the art control automation technology allowing process visualization, recording, batch reporting and remote diagnosis.”

Kapps added, “Installing smokehouses is very different than installing other process equipment. You do not just drop a smokehouse in place and plug it in.

“Installing smokehouses requires experienced installation technicians, project managers and careful coordination with numerous other trades and vendors. Especially when the installation has to take place within an operating processing facility, it is critical to have a smokehouse vendor with the right knowledge and experience to complete the installation quickly, smoothly, and without negatively impacting the on-going business.”

An enduring flavor

Companies that manufacture and supply smokehouses to meat processing facilities must continue to innovate and develop product designs and service packages that push for better temperature, humidity and airflow control. In addition, service packages and after sale support will all continue to drive the future of smoking and cooking.

Barbecue remains a staple of the global diet in one form or another. Whether it’s the American style or one of the many styles abroad, barbecue has been a favorite for centuries and will most likely remain a favorite for centuries to come. As long as people eat meat, they will love and savor barbecue.

“Show me someone who doesn’t like good barbecue, and I’ll show you a vegetarian,” Wimmer said.