Overwhelming consumer demand for convenience is driving development of package structures that not only are microwavable or dual-ovenable but also provide taste profiles similar to those of conventionally prepared products. The result is a happy marriage of quick, easy preparation and appetite appeal.
The Simple Steps package from Cryovac uses pre-formed rigid trays made of crystallized polyester (CPET) topped with vacuum skin film over the product. It’s suitable for fresh or pre-cooked meat as well as fresh or frozen vegetables.
Products benefiting from the packaging innovations fall into an array of frozen, refrigerated and shelf-stable food categories. Examples include fresh meat and vegetables, single-serve and family-size frozen entrées and retorted toddler meals.
An intriguing development is cook-in packaging that makes it possible to cook raw meat and poultry in the microwave with no sacrifice of flavor or mouthfeel. Bell AG, Basel, Switzerland, launched such a package in Europe for the Bell Easy Gourmet line of fresh meat and poultry. Bell’s products include Black Pepper Steak and Thai Chicken.
Davide Elia, Bell’s leader of marketing/communication, admits at first consumers are somewhat skeptical that fresh meat and poultry can be microwaved and still taste good. “But once they try it, they are quite surprised how good the products are,” Elia says.
“The quality is extraordinary. The meat is tender, juicy and tasteful. It is easy to prepare, and you can’t do anything wrong. In two to three minutes, you have a perfect steak without soiling the kitchen.” However, he adds, “The typical crust is missing compared to a fried or grilled preparation. The look of the prepared product also is different from a fried or grilled product.”
Bell uses a version of Ready Meals Simple Steps packaging from Sealed Air’s Cryovac Food Solutions, Duncan, S.C. The Easy Gourmet package is a rollstock-formed, semi-rigid tray topped with a vacuum skin film.
“That package lends itself to producing a nice quality piece of meat, even in the microwave,” says Sean Brady, director of Ready Meals for North American marketing at Cryovac. “Because the lidstock stays on [during cooking], it holds the steam inside the package, which helps the uniformity of the cooking of the product.”
A variation on this package, also from Cryovac, uses preformed rigid trays made of crystallized polyester (CPET). The package, topped with vacuum skin film over the product, is suitable for fresh or pre-cooked meat as well as fresh or frozen vegetables.
In addition to providing consumers with the benefit of fast preparation – only 2 1/2 minutes for the Easy Gourmet Thai Chicken – the Simple Steps package offers benefits for processors interested in marketing value-added proteins. Because the meat doesn’t need to be cooked prior to packaging, processing is faster, easier and less expensive than with precooked, heat-and-serve products.
Bell AG is trying to get consumers in Europe comfortable with microwaving chicken or steak with packaging made by Cryovac.
Europe is moving forward with retail applications of the Ready Meals Simple Steps packaging for fresh meat, but Brady says the foodservice market will be the initial emphasis for this package-product combination in the U.S.
A hurdle for processors, as they develop products for this package structure, is the variability of microwave ovens in consumers’ homes. Cooking instructions that would work fine for one household could fail miserably in another, souring consumers on the product.
However, U.S. foodservice chains tend to use standard microwave technology across the board, so a processor can develop products and cooking directions specifically for the chain’s equipment and achieve consistent quality of cooked product.
In the foodservice and retail markets alike, expect this package format to remain on the small side: Packages holding a 3- to 7-oz. serving of fresh meat perform best in the microwave.
New package formats for fresh vegetables and fruits also are harnessing the power of steam cooking. In-package microwave steaming protects the produce’s delicate flavors and nutrients to deliver a high-quality cooked product, quickly and easily.
Sholl’s Freshtables have an invisible valve that opens automatically to allow steaming in the microwave. The film is made by American Packaging.
One of the newer offerings in this category is Freshtables from Minneapolis-based Sholl Group II. Packed in a flexible bag and merchandised in the repfrigerated case of supermarket produce departments, Freshtables are fresh fruits and vegetables augmented with chef-inspired sauces and flavors. The 12 oz. of Freshtables in the bag cook in two minutes in the microwave.
The package material is a proprietary adhesive lamination suited to microwave temperatures, and the bag features a hermetic seal to prevent the product’s lowviscosity sauce from leaking. The consumer does not puncture the bag prior to cooking. The package, which builds up internal pressure when microwaved, uses EsterSteam technology from American Packaging Corp., Rochester, N.Y.