When it comes to integrating cooking as part of processing operations, technology advances are more than just hot air. Given steady interest in fully cooked or partially cooked meat and poultry products, processors are looking for cooking systems that deliver on quality, consistency, throughput and energy efficiency.

The latest cooking equipment, including ovens, broilers, grillers, fryers and steamers, have been designed with the myriad demands of processors – driven, in turn, by their own consumers – in mind. “We are seeing processors with more focus on flexibility, consistency and finished-product quality in terms of taste and appearance,” says Adam Cowherd, vice president of international sales for Unitherm Food Systems Inc., Bristow, Okla.

Others agree flexibility is a hallmark of today’s cooking systems, stemming from expanded cooking applications across many processors’ operations. “The foodservice industry, for example, requires fully cooked products for fast in-store or on-site preparation and to assure food safety,” explains Doug Kozenski, sales manager for prepared food processing systems at Heat and Control Inc., Hayward, Calif. “Processors seeking maximum flexibility require a line to include batter and breading capabilities, frying, oven cooking, flame searing and/or grill mark branding.”

At a time of thin margins, flexibility and improved quality are balanced by the need for operational efficiency. “With concerns about raw material price increases, processors are looking for ways to maximize profit on every pound of value-added product. The phrase, ‘The money is in the meat’ has never been truer,” points out Ben Huisinga, product specialist for Marel Meat Processing Inc., Des Moines, Iowa.

Control issues

Flexibility, along with other pivotal cooking attributes, like consistency, yield, throughput and food safety, is often achieved through greater control. To that end, many new or upgraded cooking systems reflect advances in control features.

JBT FoodTech, Sandusky, Ohio, calls its process MultiPhase Cooking, a system based on applying the right heat transfer mechanisms sequentially at just the right time. Its MultiPhase cooking components include frying, oven cooking (linear and spiral ovens), grilling, char-marking and steaming. According to Ramesh Gunawardena, manager of technology and process development for JBT, recent improvements include tweaks to their new GCO-II-1000 GYRoCOMPACT spiral oven, which features vertical airflow combined with cross-flow to produce side-to-side temperature control for consistent quality across the belt.

At Heat and Control, Kozenski cites the enhanced control of the AirForce impingement oven, which features uniform air flow and temperature across the width of the product conveyor, with velocities up to 9,000 FPM. “This allows more product to be run through the oven, and more importantly, it means each product piece is evenly cooked to the same safe core temperature,” he says.

Cowherd, too, underscores the importance of effective control achieved through continuous systems like Unitherm’s spiral oven, which allows each product to travel the same path through the cooker at the same speed and experience the same thermal elements. He reports that Unitherm is developing a new breed of ovens called “Smart Ovens” with built-in data tracing technology that monitors and auto-adjusts to time, temperature, airflow and humidity.

Huisinga also emphasizes the impact of better control. “Smart cooking to maximize yields without human intervention will be very valuable with the continually changing workforce,” he says.

At GEA CFS (with US offices in Frisco, Texas), the CookStar multi-zone oven reflects the guiding principle of understanding and controlling conditions in the cooking zones. “We designed the CFS CookStar so that we can accurately control the temperature, humidity and dewpoint in each of the zones to be able to cover all the practical applications that we have ever come across. We found that it makes no sense to have complete zone separation,” remarks Dieter Gundt, senior food technologist.
The natural look

Mirroring trends in other meat and poultry product attributes, today’s consumers may want easy-to-prepare foods like fully or partially cooked proteins, but they want something that looks and tastes as close as possible to something they would make at home.

Unitherm has responded to that interest with systems like its Flame Griller, with multiple independently controlled ribbon burners for developing “backyard BBQ”-style products.

Likewise, demand for grilled or barbecue flavor and appearance has driven cooking system developments at Cook King Inc., La Mirada, Calif., which offers a patented broiler/oven with an internal searing unit. “We have burners at the front end so that they can be directed onto the product from overhead. We also have a built-in grill marker, since people like to see the grill marks,” says executive vice president Dick Naess, adding that through this system, the flavor develops as it would on a barbecue grill.

JBT Food Tech’s Double D Searer/Grill Marker also produces a seared or grill-marked effect on products. According to Gunawardena, the grill marker has the ability to sear on both sides of the product simultaneously and can be used alone or used as part of its MultiPhase cooking system.

The middle matters

Recent upgrades or new cooking system introductions reflect an increase in cooking operations across the processing industry, specifically, among medium-size processors.

Marel, for example, recently introduced a Modular Oven System (MOS) 700. “This oven meets the needs of the mid- and large-size processor, with capacities of 4,000 to 7,000 lbs.,” Huisinga says.

JBT’s Gunawardena explains changes in its GCO-II-1000 oven. “We have essentially designed a smaller, dynamically simliar version (GCO-II-660) of the GCO-II-1000 with space saving improvements to the air handling system,” he says. “This patented feature significantly reduces the overall length of the oven while improving efficiency.”

Cowherd also says that a greater variety of processors are looking to bolster their cooking capabilities. “Now, small- to medium-size processors are contending for key accounts with access to a new range of micro- and mini-sized continuous thermal processing equipment,” he says. “These machines have many of the same features of their larger predecessors, but they are power-packed with sizable throughput per footprint comparison. And because the units are smaller, they are flexible and designed to process a range of products from meat and poultry, to vegetables, potatoes and ready meals.”
Energy boosters

Energy efficiency remains another priority for processors as they look at cooking systems. Naess notes that Cook King’s oven/broiler uses about a third of the amount of gas compared to other similar systems.

At GEA CFS, the new CookStar combines vertical and horizontal air flow in one oven. “By saving on cooking time, steam, belt cleaning and radiation losses, it also provides energy savings of up to 7 percent,” reports Paul Verbruggen, product manager.

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