More consumers are taking a “back-to-basics” approach to food. They want fewer and simpler ingredients, little to no processing and greater nutritional benefits.

In response, culinary experts are turning to more fresh ingredients and “home-kitchen” type preparations. Likewise, they search worldwide for unique tastes that will appeal to these increasingly specific consumer demands.

Restaurant chefs can control much of the sourcing and preparation of formulations. They also offer foods that are served for immediate consumption by grateful patrons. Meanwhile, however, there’s often a different scenario involving at-home consumer packaged goods. Unfortunately, there are many opportunities for product failure from when corporate chefs create a “gold standard” culinary dish to when a consumer tries the prepared, packaged food at home.

Beef bourguignon serves as a good example of a popular classic recipe that presents flavor and organoleptic challenges when converting to batch production. This tasty French country stew is commonly prepared with beef braised in red wine (typically Burgundy) and beef broth, flavored with garlic, onions and various spice mixes, with mushrooms and pearl onions added at the end of cooking.

Traditionally, beef bourguignon is presented with a side of lightly buttered noodles and garnish.

According to no less an expert than Julia Child, bourguignon is, “certainly one of the most delicious beef dishes concocted by man.” Translating it to the consumer kitchen, however, means confronting challenges with cooking the meat to retain tender texture and flavor; preserving the smooth texture and subtle flavor notes of the sauce; keeping the noodles tender, yet not overcooked; and—most important—ensuring the perfect balance of savory, sweet, salty and umami flavors expected in the dish.

Cooking meat in a traditional way at a production scale, and preserving the texture through processing and freeze/thaw, is the first challenge. Except where dry or wet aging of beef takes place, tenderness is usually modified by ingredients added to improve the animal protein textures.

Some examples of these would be a blend or premix of alkaline phosphates (e.g. sodiumm or potassium phosphates), at 0.24-0.45% of final product weight. Or, one can use proteolytic enzymes, such as papain, ficin or bromelain at 9-15ppm, and applied in a solution through use of a static marinade. Alternately, these may be applied through tumbling or injection.

If enzymes are used, considerations regarding over-tendering must be addressed. This can be done simply by adjusting the amount of enzyme, the pH of the solution (make more or less acidic to fall in the range of pH4.0-7.0) and the temperature of storage (optimal activity is in the 60°F-70°F range).

Flavor Considerations

Dry seasonings will vary in intensity based on where the original plants were grown, what season they were harvested, how they were handled during and after harvest and exposure along the line to temperature, light and humidity through to storage, packaging and secondary shipping.

Most spice suppliers blend different lots of the same spice to ensure consistency, but there always is variability that might not be noticeable in a culinary kitchen making house blends. Additionally, over the shelflife of a product, seasonings and spices can lose their potency due to further oxidation, protein binding, volatile loss or other exogenous conditions.

The use of oils, extracts or encapsulated seasonings and flavors can prevent a significant amount of flavor loss, but there is rarely a one-for-one replacement for dry seasonings. So, from the “gold standard” to the production floor, a process of testing for the correct use level and ability of the chosen ingredient to survive processing and storage is required. In general, oils and extracts are more potent than dry seasonings, so their use is much less.

Other ingredients that protect or enhance the flavor would be natural and synthetic antioxidants, such as rosemary extract, BHA and BHT, as well as flavor enhancers, such as MSG, ribonucleotides, vanilla (at very low use level—less than 0.1%) and sweeteners (also at usage levels of less than 0.1%, depending on the sweetener selected). Suppliers are an excellent source for providing guidance on levels of replacement for common seasonings, especially as unique blends tend to require research.

Preserving appearance typically can be accomplished through processing with added ingredients, such as artificial and natural colors, paprika, caramel color and others.

Sauce Consistency

Developing the sauce and preserving it through processing and freeze/thaw can sometimes be one of the greatest hurdles. Again, the sources of seasonings, type of seasonings, differences among seasonings, extracts, oils and other ingredients, such as natural flavors, that protect or enhance can also effect the final mouthfeel.

Continuing with the beef bourguignon model, for a wine sauce, the gold standard would typically include a wine reduction. This is usually not feasible in production, so wine concentrates or wine flavors would deliver the richness and intensity desired.

Smoothness of the sauce invites process methods such as high-shear blending and homogenization. Ingredients can be added to preserve smooth sauce textures, too, such as using cold temperature corn, potato or rice starches that hold water when heated, or gums that hold water without significant swelling. Examples of the latter would include xanthan and gum Arabic. Stabilizers such as milk powders have also been successful in formulations that allow for dairy ingredient inclusion.

To attain thickness in a sauce, one can use several methods to lower the percentage of water. This can be applied either with ingredients added to preserve thickness, for example corn, wheat, tapioca or other starches; flours (including arrowroot); gums (again, xanthan being well-favored); and using modified starches. Combinations of two or more of these ingredients can help attain a near-perfect textural balance in a sauce. Custom ingredient blends can be specifically designed to improve freeze/thaw stability.

On the Side

A perfect main portion will be handicapped by an afterthought of a side dish. For a dish such as bourguignon, everything from selecting and cooking the noodles to preserving them effectively through freeze/thaw is important. Selection of an optimum type of noodle—fresh extruded and blanched; dry noodles cooked and drained; precooked and individually frozen noodles—the type selected depends on the expected final use by the consumer.

Microwaving, stovetop cooking, baking or frying each have different and unique effects on flavors and textures. Microwave noodles need added starches and gums to retain water during heating, as microwaves will drive moisture out. Noodles for frying require less water to minimize oxidation of frying oil. Stovetop and baking are usually done in a sauce or high-moisture environment where standard noodles will work well.

How sides such as noodles are flavored can create differences both subtle or strong. An excellent way to flavor noodles is to add the flavor to the water used to hydrate them. Alternately, pre-flavored noodles that already contain savory or other seasonings are becoming increasingly available. For plain noodles, flavor typically will be added to the sauce put on them.

It’s difficult to design prepared foods manufactured on a large scale that will taste exactly as if they were served in a restaurant and created from ingredients fresh from a farmer’s market. However, there have been numerous technical advances that, when applied creatively, can significantly reduce the difference consumers perceive between the two.