From large food conglomerates to boutique artisanal companies, product developers are creating higher-end products designed specifically for quick preparation, such as cooking in a microwave. This holds not only for frozen or shelf-stable meals but for snack foods as well.

Driving this trend is the knowledge that Millennials have brought to the mainstream the “snack-meal.” Supermarket refrigerator cases are lined with small trays filled with single servings of food. The frozen aisle is bursting with new microwave snacks, from popper style treats, to high-end hand pies, designer burritos, and even gourmet hot sandwiches that now come frozen and ready for the microwave.

These freezer-to-microwave treats boast growing appeal as developers and manufacturers create new technology to make these foods as good as those cooked by conventional means. Consumers across all demographics and increasingly short on time are seeking enticing and adventurous flavors, made fast. This has led to a new interest in microwave and other convenience cooking.

Such formulations not only need to work well for the consumer grabbing a snack at the nearest bodega, but also for the office worker needing a quick meal or a parent wanting a healthy snack that appeals to their children. The challenge is that today’s globally influenced and sophisticated consumer is no longer as willing to sacrifice flavor and texture for that convenience.

“Flavor is always ‘king’,” says Lance May, head of innovation and quality for The Miso Brothers Inc.’s Alpha (Plant-Based) Foods. “After that, the focus is on developing products that have an attractive visual appeal and deliver tantalizing aromas as they are being heated.”

Alpha Foods is just one artisanal company hopping on the microwave train. May describes how the company developed the idea for a high-end frozen microwaveable pocket pie by accident: “The company’s first product innovation was the Alpha Dog, a meatless hotdog that performs, tastes, and looks just like the all-American favorite. However, due to the quality of the ingredients used, the Alpha Dog was recommended to the freezer aisle for a better shelf life.” May further explains that, in consulting with buyers for retail, the issue came up that consumers wouldn’t look for hotdogs in the freezer aisle.

“Also,” May continues, “while the freezer aisle lacked plant-based options, this would be a large behavior shift for the everyday consumer to look for hotdogs as a frozen item.” From that point, the company recognized that there was a huge opportunity in retail to build out plant-based convenience products. “Using the proprietary meatless ‘meat’ innovation we started with, combined with other high quality and high-performing plant-based alternatives, we decided to create plant-based, grab-and-go convenience items,” May says. “This is how the Alpha Burrito, and shortly thereafter, the Alpha Pot Pies were born.”


Where Noodles Roam

Pasta and other noodles have been a fundamental of quick and easy meal products since five-for-a-dollar ramen packages flooded dorm rooms throughout US colleges. For those products, quality was toward the bottom in importance; cheap and filling got top billing.

But such heat-and-eat meal soups are currently enjoying an upscale renaissance, thanks to the global cuisine trend restored flavor to its ruling seat. “Ramen bowls are our most recent innovation,” says John Umlauf, Senior VP of Culinary Operations for American Halal, Inc.’s Saffron Road Foods. “We adhere to authentic recipes in that we use a classic kettle-made bone broth as the foundation. There are no shortcuts or work-arounds.”

Umlauf has crafted these classic Asian noodle bowls without starches, gums, maltodextrin, yeast extracts, or MSG. “Our main technique was to reduce the broth to one-fortieth of original volume, simmering it into a thick concentrate. This keeps the noodle ‘nest’ from getting soggy from sitting in the broth on the way to the freezer. In the vegetarian Ramen Bowl, instead of the bone broth concentrate, we use a mirepoix concentrate, following the same process of reducing a kettle-made broth, using only classic vegetable ingredients. Into this we incorporate a non-GMO, clean-label miso to create a rich, thick vegetable broth concentrate.”

This method keeps broth and noodles “fresh,” flavorful, and with their original textures and mouthfeel when the products are reheated. As with other Saffron Road products, the goal is always to allow consumers to have a perfectly recreated “restaurant quality” eating experience quickly and with portability.


It's About Chemistry

Creating foods for freezer-to-microwave convenience holds a unique set of challenges for the developer. All the components of a food product — protein, starches, sodium, moisture, and fat content — contribute to how the food will behave in the microwave. The determinant to how a particular food will cook up in the microwave is the food’s dielectric properties, or how the food reacts to a huge influx of microwaves.

These properties fluctuate depending on those aforementioned elements in the product. Salt, especially, can change the moisture composition of the food, the water activity, and how the food heats in a microwave. Foods with a heavy salt content can cause hot spots during cooking because they heat faster than lower sodium foods.

Also, foods combining certain ingredients can be tricky. For example, a breakfast burrito with scrambled eggs, potatoes, cheddar cheese, and breakfast sausage crumbles will develop hot spots around the sausage because the fat content will heat up faster than the eggs and the potatoes. The creation of such ingredient-influenced hot spots leads to the possibility of thermal burn. Thermal burn is what caused the hard, burnt areas in overcooked microwave foods.

Proteins and carbohydrates require different attention in microwave food development as well. Certain fresh-frozen vegetables perform well in a microwave. This is because the water content of vegetables helps the quality of cooking, as water attracts, and helps evenly distributes microwaves. However, raw animal protein can be a disaster in a microwave, turning into a flabby, grey facsimile of the original ingredient.

Fat, like water helps to attract and distribute microwaves. So, coating a food in butter, olive oil, or other delicious fat can aid in cooking and crisping. Fat stirred into otherwise fat free foods can add needed flavor and help evenly cook the food. 

Browning of starches, such as in a pie or similar item, has been a “holy grail” of microwaved products. The microwave does nothing for the developer looking to create delicious-looking golden brown foods. In many cases, simply browning the food during manufacturing solves this problem, especially in the case of protein-heavy foods. These are best pre-cooked before heading to the freezing tunnel.

Where cooking processes in the plant can’t always solve the browning issue, manufacturers can find clean browning agents that react with the proteins in food. These agents will work when the product is heated and create the brown exterior expected on roasted, fried, and baked products.


A Binding Proposition

Freezing foods provide multiple benefits. For the manufacturer, shelf life is greatly extended, logistics become easier, flavors remain vibrant, and colors stay true. However, freezing also comes with its share of dilemmas. Developers have to consider loss of moisture, especially during thawing, and be aware that textures will also change.

When microwave reheating is added to the equation, it brings another set of hurdles to overcome. Doughs and pastries develop an unfavorable tough and chewy texture when microwaved, and meats either become tough and rubbery or flabby, stringy, and flavorless. 

With most pre-cooked vegetables and fruits, microwaving turns them mushy, spongy, and again, flavorless. The good news is that there are ingredients and techniques that can solve these issues freezing brings while also solving many of those caused by microwave reheating.

“Refrigeration presents a variety of challenges when trying to achieve the level of national distribution Alpha set its sights on,” says May. “The main issue was limited shelf life. By developing a product specifically for the frozen category, we were able to eliminate the need for preservatives or expensive packing methods, such as modified atmosphere packaging, to ensure there was no compromise in quantity by the time the cooked product made it into the consumer’s hand.”

Liquid leaching from foods (syneresis) is probably the most common problem when it comes to freezer-to-microwave foods. As a food freezes, the liquid within forms ice crystals. These crystals expand and the food matrix ruptures.

As the food thaws, the moisture leaves the product and results in liquid pools in the package (called “purge”). The result is a deteriorating texture and destruction of nuanced flavors. The strategy for developers is to mitigate these issues with functional ingredients.

“When the Alpha team develops a product, we are acutely mindful of moisture migration,” says May says. “We strive to balance the ratio of any component that will leach moisture to the overall composition of that item. When developing products for the frozen category, the focus is on maximizing the overall flavor without damaging the structural integrity of the food during its reheating process.”

Starches and gums can improve the purge problem by helping with water retention. They also help fruits and vegetables by improving viscoelasticity, thus cutting down on purge and that waterlogged, soggy texture these foods suffer from during freeze/thaw/microwave situations.

Starches can bind liquids, making them less likely to purge during thawing. They can also help with sauce separation that often comes with expanding ice crystals. Starches derived from fruits and vegetables offer a clean-label option for thickening, retaining liquid, and gelling properties, as well as helping to manage water activity. These native starches also have the benefit of mixing quickly into foods, making them an easily incorporated ingredient during processing.

Gums can stabilize emulsions, helping to keep sauces intact. They aid with retaining a desirable mouthfeel, and bind a portion of the liquid within, maintaining true flavors. Naturally derived gums, such as locust and guar, help with viscosity, keeping sauces, dressings, and soups creamy and smooth while keeping labels clean.

Starches and gums also improve the quality of foods destined for the microwave. Consumers have come to expect that the quality of microwaveable foods will be significantly less than conventionally cooked foods. 

In the typical microwave experiences, bread and baked goods get tough and chewy; sauces and other liquids leach from foods; fruits and vegetables become soggy; and proteins lose their toothsomeness.

Starches can be added, acting as plasticizers to help bread doughs, crusts, and batters stay tender and retain “fresh from the oven” flavors. Gums will help retain textures, flavors, and fix liquids. The multiple properties of starches and gums are so helpful to frozen products many manufacturers have developed proprietary combined starch and gum formulas to solve the spectrum of headaches frozen food producers face.


Processing the Process

Ingredients and packaging aren’t the only solutions to the problems that plague freezer-to-microwave foods. The manufacturing process itself also is important in helping processors overcome the challenges in crafting upscale quick and easy foods. Dissecting these processes and identifying those areas that contribute a less-than-delicious product can yield unexpected results. 

“The biggest challenge Alpha experienced was maintaining the structural integrity of pie and burrito fillings after switching to an automated depositing process to maximize efficiencies. The goal of that change was to lower the cost of each unit to pass the savings to consumers. In order to effect this, we switched to automatic scaling and depositing equipment. We also are currently exploring different tooling options, along with adjustment to the equipment. The result is to reduce the amount of stress the fillings endure during the production process.”

According to May, Alpha also is vetting a hand depositing process to see how it will affect efficiencies and the cost of its filled products. “Everything we design is done specifically with the frozen cold chain in mind. We developed proprietary formulas for all raw materials used to build an item, as well as proprietary manufacturing practices to ensure the highest level of quality possible."