Ever since the prepared food market exploded, the demand for more gratifying, chef-inspired cuisine has continued to grow. The resulting challenge today is to produce larger volumes of products that taste like they were chef-created in small batches, yet maintain consistency of content, texture and flavor.
Now, prepared dishes of all kinds, whether appetizers, snacks, soups, seasonings, sauces or entrees, can be made better, faster and more consistent, with tantalizing fare that meets the tastes of consumers, thanks to the development of larger, smarter and more flexible cooking equipment.
The successful development of automated, “smart” batch cooking equipment and related processing devices has improved the products, volumes and bottom line for several leading food preparation operations.
A case for smarter batch cooking
Today, many restaurants use prepared foods in place of those made in their own kitchens — it’s more economical and tastes the same or better. National restaurant chains now package the same recipes that made them famous and offer them for retail sales at delis and supermarkets — and smart cooking makes this possible.
“Most of us have had the experience where you get some good prepared food in one store, then go to another store and the same dish is not so good,” says a technology engineer with a multi-lined food processing company. “This usually reflects the use of unsuitable cooking equipment or preparing the foods on site, known as ‘the back of the house.’ Both of these approaches are often problematic in terms of product quality — including taste, texture and consistency — from one batch to the next.”
In the past, batch food prepared at his centralized preparation facility was mostly cooked in conventional vertical cookers, an oval kettle with a steam jacket. Agitators scraped the sidewalls to eliminate product build up or scorch. When finished, the food was pumped directly from the kettle vessel. This slowed down production, often taking the cooker offline 50 percent of the time.
To improve that situation dramatically, the processor adopted a system developed by Material Transportation Company (MTC). Known as the SmartCooker™, it has substantially increased production by operating seamlessly. One of the cookers is always working while another discharges finished foods into the surge hopper. As soon as the finished food is discharged, the other can resume cooking. The result is a continuous flow of foods in substantially increased volumes with improved consistency in taste and texture. To achieve the same output, this system also occupies considerably less floor space than conventional equipment.
“Using this advanced smart cooking technology has improved the overall quality and consistency of prepared food products, especially for chef-driven prepared food suppliers such as us.” says the engineer. “The technology ensures that our sauces, side dishes and soups offer more consistent flavor and texture, and it’s broadened our customers’ prepared food offerings.”
Evolving System Advancements
The food processing engineer says his company first got involved with SmartCooker technology about ten years ago when they collaborated on the system’s original design with MTC, who not only develops and fabricates advanced cooking equipment, but has considerable knowledge and experience in cooking a wide range of prepared food products.
“We design and deliver lab cookers for our customers, and also work directly with them to test the food products they want,” explains Randy Johnson, Special Products Manager of MTC’s Food Division. “And we work directly with them to change their processes over to more advanced and efficient cooking.”
Users typically collaborate closely with MTC in designing systems for each location. “We’ve continued to evolve the systems, incorporating various advancements into the next set of cookers, and we have installed a total of 16 systems. One of the biggest overall improvements is the ability to cook with direct and indirect heating with the highest production rates for the smallest footprint of plant usage. We can put in a recipe and it will go through the correct sequence to cook it properly,” explains the engineer.
“The system’s PLC reduces human error and ensures that the cooking gives a consistent, high-quality product because he can put different recipes into the cook system and the PLC integrates them,” he adds. “This also lowers the labor factor because there are not as many hands needed as before. For instance, the system’s load cells automatically ensure that raw materials are weighed in properly. We have also integrated other tools, such as in-line viscosity meters that provide added accuracy and consistency, ensuring that our products are automatically cooked to the correct level.”
To enhance the advantages of smart cooking, MTC complements its line with a test cooker, a scaled down version of the SmartCooker that holds 250 pounds. Users find this piece of equipment especially helpful in product development, or in the variation of a product.
Another device that is facilitating food processing capacity, quality and flexibility is an automated blender of seasonings and other ingredients of dishes that food processors use in products ranging from seasonings and dry mixes to soups, gravies and fillings.
One of the latest solutions for those applications is the MTC Spice Blender, a stand-alone unit that mixes such a wide variety of ingredients using the same bi-directional mixing ribbon.
“This system provides a significant productivity benefit, because the mixing ribbon is able to handle all sorts of different spices, regardless of viscosities,” explains Steve Hicks, MTC product engineer. “The Spice Blender is available with an optional outside steam jacket, which allows users to heat products and that facilitates blending. For example, some recipes call for thick ingredients such as a 50-lb. cube of margarine. Use of the blender’s heater facilitates the blending of such thicker or heavier products along with the spices.”
The blender ribbon also has a variable speed control, which enables the selection of settings that are most appropriate for blending a specific recipe.
Because of the system’s relatively large capacity, processors can make larger batches. They can also increase production output because the ribbon design allows them to mix greater amounts of ingredients at the same time. This means they can often eliminate the need to mix ingredients in small batches, thereby saving considerable time.
“After blending and discharging one batch, processors can immediately refill with another batch,” says Hicks. “It also gives them much greater latitude with their recipes, so they can make them more complex, if they choose to do so.”
Constructed of stainless steel, the MTC Spice Blender provides long service life with longer intervals between servicing, and is easier to clean. Removable ribbon shaft seals can withstand longer run times with less clean-up time, making downtime very minimal.
“It is a truly continuous system,” Hicks adds. “The only downtime you would normally have is during a sanitation process.”
Founded in 1946, MTC strives to meet the ever-increasing demands of industry by offering the complete sales, design, engineering, and manufacturing of a wide variety of food processing and material handling equipment.
For more information, visit www.mtcworldwide.com.