Whether it's used to discuss baseball or computer software, the aphorism "meat and potatoes" means that a thing is basic and perhaps essential. And meat is the first word in that equation.
Meat, and more broadly, animal proteins including poultry and seafood have traditionally been the common centerpiece of most American meals.
But in today's kitchens and food processing facilities, meat has to go beyond basic to deliver essential protein but within a much more rigorous set of consumer expectations.
"When I go out, to a restaurant, or when I buy meat at the store, I want a clear understanding of how the meat is produced and packaged," says executive chef Chris Hansen of the OSI Group, Aurora, Ill. "That can mean everything from what the animal was fed and other animal welfare issues, to the appearance, and visual cues like marbling. The last thing I think about is price. I think consumers have a very specific short-list of what they expect."
Many consumers are working toward including a higher ratio of plant-based foods in their diet, so whether meat is the center of a meal or an accent point, it has to be great quality.
Animal proteins in their traditional cuts and forms have always been expensive to produce, and more often than in the past the cost is finding its way to food processors and consumers.
OSI operates more than 50 manufacturing facilities worldwide producing a broad variety of meats and protein-based products ranging from raw bacon to assembled sandwiches, primarily for quick-service restaurants and private labels. Hansen says chefs, food scientists and meat companies like OSI now expect to get more from each animal and to make the protein they have go further.
"In some cases that means people are reaching more deeply into the carcass and using cuts that might not have been utilized before," Hansen says. "There is also a move toward animal protein being more of an accent rather than a main feature of a meal."
Hansen also sees a place for sous vide cooking principals to be used in food processing. With this process, meat can be packaged raw in plastic pouches and immersed in a hot water bath for an extended period to cook it thoroughly but gently. It has certain advantages including improved flavor and texture, and reduced risk of post-processing contamination.
So processors, whether they are small specialty companies or global entities like OSI, must find ways to deliver processed meats, fresh meats, frozen meats and meat-based foods that are flavorful without being too costly. They also must come up with products with greater shelf life and stability that also have a healthful nutritional profile.
In many cases, meeting these goals has become a matter of portion control, and advances in handling and packaging practices also help. But the use of certain ingredients also can help meat perform better, with or without the potatoes.
A pinch (or more) of salt
Alef Sausage Co., Mundelein, Ill., was founded in 2000 with the goal of producing traditional European-style sausages for specialty delis and grocers. While it is still a small company with just 15 full-time employees, its business has grown steadily and it now has specialty and mainstream retail customers across the U.S. and Canada.
Founder Alec Mikhaylov says the company depends on quality whole meat ingredients, spices and flavorings. "Our goal from the beginning is just quality," he says. "We make a premium product with fresh meat from Smithfield and Farmington. We only use fresh, never frozen."
The company produces dozens of SKUs in three categories: cooked salamis, dried salamis and bologna/mortadella products. Product literature describes gentle flavors and "memorable aromas." For all Alef's products, spices are important for maximizing those flavor and aroma attributes.
"Our suppliers provide spices that are ground fresh to order," Mikhaylov says. While sodium nitrate is used as a preservative in many cured meat products, Alef has recently rolled out a natural, better-for-you line that relies on celery powder.
"Celery powder is a natural sodium nitrate. You can achieve the same shelf life," Mikhaylov notes. "Celery products also provide a clean label benefit. Although they actually contribute nitrates they can be labeled simply as celery on the ingredient deck."
In terms of size, Perdue Foods Salisbury, Md., sits at the other end of the spectrum, as the largest integrated poultry producer in the U.S. But just like Alef Sausage, Perdue has customers who want better-for-you products, so Perdue's R&D teams work hard to formulate products that can meet those expectations.
A couple years ago, Perdue rolled out its Simply Smart line of minimally processed cooked chicken products made with no preservatives and only natural ingredients. Celery seed can be found on the ingredient deck of some of those products, too, including a recently introduced gluten-free breaded chicken tenders product.
Perdue's Simply Smart chicken is made with whole cuts of chicken breast and includes Original Roasted Chicken Chunks, Original Grilled Chicken Strips, Lightly Breaded Chicken Chunks, Lightly Breaded Chicken Strips, and Lightly Breaded Chicken Filets. The company says each item has at least 40 percent fewer calories, at least 50 percent less fat and at least 25 percent more protein than the USDA standard for breaded fried boneless chicken.
Of course in most processed meat application, more than a pinch of salt is needed, says Doyle Keffer, salt technical services applications manager with Cargill Foods, Minneapolis.