If you can stand the heat, it may pay to stay in the kitchen to meet marketplace demand for cooked meat and poultry products. Consumers and foodservice operators continue looking for shortcuts via precooked proteins for all meal occasions. And processors are enhancing and adding cooking equipment to make those products better, safer and more convenient.

Cooked protein products can be as traditional as ham or as contemporary as a 100-percent natural, gluten-free skillet meal. Cooked products make it faster and easier for the end-user to prepare and serve a meal or snack.

Processors continue to introduce new cooked products, particularly meal solutions (formerly known as “home meal replacements”). Bell & Evans recently added to its line of fresh and cooked poultry products with a new Pulled Chicken Barbecue made with white breast meat. Tyson Foods also keeps its R&D professionals cooking with new items like Tyson Grilled & Ready fully cooked, preservative-free chicken breast fillets and strips. Another growing niche is the burger market for foodservice and retail, evident in offerings like a newly launched, fully cooked 5-oz. Steakhouse Beef Burger from JTM Food Group.

While some processors install new cooking systems for new product lines, others look to ramp-up existing cooking equipment to stay competitive. Boosting efficiency through the latest cooking technologies can help with uptime and a lower cost of ownership, while improved quality and consistency can give a meat and poultry processor an edge in their category.

Oven options

Processors employ a variety of cooking methods in their facilities, from state-of-the-art convection and steam ovens to open-flame systems to fryers and belt grills. Diversity exists within those categories as well: spiral oven-s may work best for one plant, while a linear oven may be optimal for another.

The oven that best suits a processor’s cooking capability depends on a factors related to both the product line and the company’s operation. “The primary factors that processors consider while investing in cooking systems are safety, cleanability, ease of operation, consistent food quality, throughput and yield,” says Prakash Srinivasan, business planner, North America, for JBT FoodTech, Sandusky, Ohio, which offers a broad line of cooking systems, along with other food processing solutions.

Given those demands, versatility has become a major feature in the latest cooking equipment. “Production flexibility is a big plus. The foodservice industry requires a variety of fully cooked products for fast in-store or on-site preparation and to assure food safety,” says Doug Kozenski, sales manager for prepared foods processing systems for Heat and Control Inc., Hayward, Calif. “To be successful, processors must be able to fully and efficiently cook a wide range of products. Maximum production flexibility requires a line to include batter and breading capabilities, frying oven cooking, flame searing and/or grill-mark branding.”

The latest cooking systems reflect such flexibility. “Fryers that offer multiple temperature zones are one development. Ovens that are adjustable for a wide range of temperatures, dwell time, moisture, air flow and browning capabilities are another, as are systems combining cooking with modules for steam, infrared, flame searing and/or grill mark branding,” he says. Another example of the versatility trend is Heat and Control’s new AirForce impingement oven that combines complete process flexibility with uniform cooking for whole-muscle, formed, coated and prepared food products.

Versatility is important for smaller and global processors. Unitherm Food Systems, with US offices in Bristow, Okla., complements its line of high-capacity ovens with a mini spiral oven. It offers the benefits of the larger model for a smaller footprint and is delivered in one piece.

Search for homemade

Another trend relates to consumers wanting more convenient products with a home-style taste and look. “With the increasing popularity of ready-to-eat products, processors are constantly challenged to replicate the taste, texture and appearance of finished product to be identical to that of home-cooked meals,” agrees Srinivasan. He cites JBT FoodTech’s MultiPhase Cooking Concept as a reflection of that trend and of the demand for versatility. Srinivasan says the MultiPhase concept revolves around applying the right heat transfer mechanism sequentially at just the right time to meet that demand.

The MultiPhase Cooking system is comprised of the Stein TFF Fryer, Stein JSO Linear oven, Stein GCO-II Spiral oven, DoubleD Continuous protein oven, ProGrill and DoubleD Charmarker.

Superior eating quality of precooked products for a growing number of consumers and restaurant patrons also has led JBT FoodTech to fine-tune its technologies with another new cooking system. Its latest generation GCO-II-600 features technology such as Dynamic Airflow Control (DAC). “It additionally extends the capacity for efficient processing through further advances in fluid flow and heat transfer to enable an unprecedented level of sophistication in process control and helps achieve the most discriminating product quality attributes to suit the palates of the diverse and ever-changing ethnic market segments,” says Ramesh Gunawardena, manager of technology and process development for JBT FoodTech, who says that GCO-II-600 has been developed over the past year to meet “ever changing” diverse market needs.

Many cooking advances are product-driven and ultimately end user-driven, but processors also weigh internal factors when it comes to cooking application. In this still-weak economy, issues like uptime, efficiency and throughput are key. “Obtaining the highest yields possible in terms of production rate and cooked product weight is also critical to doing a profitable business in a low-margin market,” says Kozenski. As a result, processors want to rely on one full-service vendor for equipment, service and controls.

Safety and sanitation are linked to quality and profitability. At a time of major product recalls and new restrictions on imports of fully cooked products, food safety and cleanability are ever-important priorities for processors with in-house cooking lines.

Lynn Petrak is a contributing editor based in the Chicago area.