Pre-cooked meat and poultry are in greater demand because retail and foodservice customers, as well as consumers, want more convenient, faster, value-added protein solutions for their menus and eat-at-home meals. Forwardthinking processors know this and continue changing with the times.

Back in 1985, we had no cooking facilities. We slowly got out of manufacturing primarily raw products and now 95 percent of our products going out the door are cooked," says Joe Freda president and CEO of C&F Packing Co., Lake Villa, Ill. "That’s seems to be where everything is going. Mom doesn’t cook anymore."

Cooking methods

Processors have many cooking methods at their disposal, says Tom Surmiak, Product Specialist, CFS North America Inc., Frisco, Texas:

• Water (still being used in some Canadian plants but disappeared in the U.S.)

• Steam; steam ovens (especially spiral systems) are quite popular for high cooking yield. Microwave (rarely used and only in conjunction with convection ovens); exception is bacon cooking where microwaves are predominant – there are 80 lines in the U.S. – but people are complaining about "cardboard" taste, Surmiak says.

• Convection ovens; linear, spiral and double spiral; some ovens have just gentle air flow and some use the impingement technology; CFS ovens combine both. "There are two common systems used for cooking by air; high-volume mass flow, where the velocity of the air is in the range of 2 to 4 meters per second, and low-volume impingement, where the velocity of the air is in the range of 15 to 20 meters per second," Surmiak says.

• Open-flame systems (for specific taste and texture).

• Belt grills; normally used only in conjunction with convection ovens but can be used to cook bacon without ovens.

• Fryers; rarely used for full cooking any more, but still used for products like meatballs or in conjunction with convection ovens.

Other sources added radio frequency and infrared cooking technologies to this list.

When asked why pre-cooked products have become more popular, Surmiak responds, "For reconstitution at home, fully cooked retail products are the safest. Teenagers can just nuke them in a microwave. For foodservice, breaded products are usually only par-fried and non-breaded products are fully cooked [which is safer in restaurants and yields faster reconstitution]."

Trends in fully cooked products include more product variety. "The most prevalent trend in the last few years was glazed products," Surmiak says. "This trend started as glazing prior to cooking and then glazing prior to freezing and then in both places. Now people are trying glazing after freezing."

Sliced/diced, fully cooked chicken products, both white meat and dark meat, for fajitas, salads, etc., are very popular in today’s marketplace. An increasing variety of chicken wings are being featured in different flavors – there are many dedicated lines in the U.S. doing full cooking of wings only.

One common challenge processors face in cooking meat and poultry products deals with line yield. "Keeping yield as high as possible to make money [is the goal for processors]," Surmiak says. "Cooking equipment is a large part of the solution for [achieving] yields."

More processors are fully cooking product today for several reasons, says Doug Kozenski, Sales Manager Process Prepared, Heat and Control, Hayward, Calif. The fast growth of the RTE market has driven this change.

"Processors must be able to provide a wide range of fully-cooked products to a wide range of customers to be competitive in the market," he adds.

Much of the foodservice industry needs fully cooked products for fast instore or on-site preparation, Kozenski says. "Fully cooking the product before it leaves the plant also helps processors maintain good food-safety protocols," he adds. "While there are times when cooked product is contaminated and recalled, the majority of recalls are with partially cooked or raw product."

One major trend in the marketplace is for processors to have the capability to fully and efficiently cook a wide range of products, Kozenski says. Processors are always trying to maximize their yields and product quality, and they also have to be flexible in what they are capable of producing.

"It is becoming a rare luxury to have a single line dedicated to a single product," he adds. "Most new processing lines being installed need to be as flexible as possible to allow for the widest range of products produced. This can require a line to include batter and breading capabilities, frying [both full and par-fry] and oven capabilities. This equipment also needs to be either portable or easily by-passed when not needed."

All processors are challenged to ensure their products are fully and safely cooked while maximizing their yields and product quality. Processors must also identify what differentiates processing equipment and equipment manufacturers that supply the further-processing industry.

"For example, there are many different fryer options available today and while many are good alternatives, processors need to do their homework to make sure the fryer they are choosing provides the best performance for the money," Kozenski adds. "They need to be sure the fryer is properly sized both in square area and available heat, as well as to ensure the fryer can provide and maintain a uniform temperature across the width of the belt. Oversized fryers [greater square area than product requires] will result in a larger oil volume than needed, which, in turn, results in longer oil turnover times and longer filtration turnover times. Both of these issues will result in a more rapid degradation in oil quality and poor product quality and consistency."

Low heat will result in lower-thandesired throughput rates and/or cooks product at lower-than-desired temperatures, he adds. Lower oil temperatures generally result in higher-than-desired oil pick up in the product, which produces a product softer and oilier than consumers find desirable.

Similar concerns apply to ovens. Many ‘impingement ovens’ are on the market, but the term ‘impingement’ is used loosely at times, Kozenski adds. A true impingement oven has highvelocity airflow from both above and below the belt that is evenly distributed across the width of the belt and down the length of the oven. "Achieving even or uniform cooking across the belt is where many impingement ovens fall short," he adds.

Processors can help themselves immensely if they take the time to look at competitive options and listen to and verify the performance claims and characteristics manufacturers present. "Cost is always a major component in a purchase decision, but more often than not you will come out ahead if you first ensure the equipment you are considering can meet all process requirements, provide maximum versatility, ensure uniform cooking of product regardless of where it is located on the belt and is properly sized," he adds. "Sometimes this will mean you pay more, but in the long run you will easily recoup the investment."

Points of difference

Three things are driving meat and poultry customers to fully cook their products today, says Ramesh Gunawardena, manager of Technology & Process Development JBT FoodTech, Sandusky, Ohio: food safety, convenience and quality "that can differentiate to satisfy various consumer tastes to the last bite."

Cooked meat trends are driven by growing demand for healthier food and ethnic flavors on the consumer side. Meanwhile, rising energy costs have driven customers to seek out manufacturing techniques and technologies that deliver cost savings and value.

"The common challenge confronted by processors involve producing safe-toconsume products that are manufactured to the prescribed product quality at the lowest cost," Gunawardena adds.

New technology solutions

The CFS CookStar TurboCook was developed as a spiral oven with three zones – with the second zone providing impingement cooking and browning, explains Paul Verbruggen, CFS product manager. After the product enters in the optimum condition, with high humidity and slower air from Zone 1, the high-speed impingement air in the middle of the CookStar (Zone 2) browns the product surface at the right moment in the cooking process. In Zone 3, the products are cooked to the core with smooth air speed and the right humidity level to increase the cooking yield.

"Only a three-zone oven [like the CFS CookStar TurboCook] can successfully run products, which are glazed prior to cooking," he adds. "A unique combination of three zones, with its own temperature, humidity and airflow, can keep the glaze on the product."

Over the last few years, CFS Cook-Star and CookStar TurboCook have become the industry benchmarks in yield management, Verbruggen says. "In my experience, as the CFS product manager responsible for these two machines, I have seen the yield from the CFS-CookStar repeatedly exceed all other results," he adds.

Verbruggen adds that CFS CookStar TurboCook features include: a heating capacity with 7.1 million BTU to match every required production volume; enables processors to achieve 15 percent shorter cook times, allowing for increased overall production; has the highest uptimes; with three zones, it is extremely flexible for a variety of products; and it has the lowest variation of internal product temperature due to equilibration in Zone 3.

Heat and Control’s newest product is the MasterTherm Thermal Fluid Fryer – a direct heated system that employs an advanced new thermal fluid heat exchanger. "The new design uses a series of longitudinal two-pass Utubes that greatly improve temperature uniformity both across the width and down the length of the fryer," Kozenski says. "This U-Tube design simplifies cleaning and allows for independent expansion of the individual tubes, which greatly reduces thermal stresses and cracking.

JBT FoodTech’s GCO II-1000 Oven represents the latest in spiral-oven technology. The recently redesigned GCO-II includes all the mechanisms to extend processing capabilities with simplicity resulting in improved performance, hygiene and overall operating economy, the company says.

These features allow the GCO-II to have a controlled cooking environment that consistently delivers high yields, throughput and even browning on both sides of the product. It also comes with an optional end of the recipe impingement section to provide deep browning on the most challenging products, the company adds.

Expect more changes

One future trend in cooking will be striving for higher capacities. "Ten years ago, a 6,000 lbs./hr. line was the norm," Surmiak says. "Today, it is 10,000-12,000 lbs./hr. We see capacities reaching 15,000 lbs./hr. in the next five years, but this will require all equipment to be made for this capacity, not only cooking equipment"

Another trend is for multi-stage cooking. "For example, combining an open flame with a convection oven or a combination of belt grill, steamer and open flame, etc.," Surmiak says. "Another trend is for more equipment flexibility, like combining a convection oven with an impingement oven and with a steamer in one machine, like the CFS CookStar Turbo."

One thing many equipment manufactures are pursuing near-term is improved efficiencies of their equipment, Kozenski says. "I would expect to see advances in energy conservation and environmental discharge working with today’s heat transfer technology," he adds. "Energy conservation and environmental discharge concerns are important to all processors for a variety of reasons, but is something that will be addressed as we move forward.

Long-term, new cooking technology will continue to be in development. "In today’s environment, major equipment manufactures are always looking for the next best thing, but the technology needs to be fully vetted before it is offered to the processing community," Kozenski concludes.

As new product trends and products emerge, they will require novel processing techniques and new technologies/ equipment with features that enable those food items to become commercially feasible, Gunawardena says.

"Another trend for the future might be developing technologies that are ‘greener’ in terms of the environmental impact," he adds. "For example, reduce emissions and reduce water usage through more effective sanitation schemes that use less chemicals. These may significantly change onsite water-treatment requirements to produce great dividends."