Frozen Food's Gourmet Future
Rising demand for more healthful and gourmet food has driven the production of frozen food that looks and tastes more like fresh.
CREDIT: Jo Naylor
The emergence of frozen food in the early 20th century marked a technological revolution in the way Americans eat and so for decades, frozen food enjoyed high-tech cultural prestige. But the taste and quality of most frozen meals still don't come close to homemade food or food prepared in a restaurant.
Rising demand for healthy, gourmet food has driven the production of frozen food that looks and tastes more like fresh fare. But two main obstacles stand in the way, said Dave Arnold, the director of culinary technology at the French Culinary Institute in New York how food is frozen, and how it is reheated. But by using new techniques and paying greater attention to ingredients, chefs and food companies are now creating reheatable meals that rival meals served in fine restaurants.
According to Arnold, the main obstacle to creating good frozen meals is a lack of respect for the individual properties of each dish or ingredient. The TV dinner is a great example of this problem.
"First of all, it's all together in one packet," Arnold told InnovationNewsDaily. "In the microwave, you just don't want your fried chicken encased in a humid environment with your brownie. Even if it was the best chicken in the world and the best brownie, it's still going to come out bad. There's no way around that. It's an unsolvable problem.
So if you have ingredients that require different kinds of reheating, they should be packaged separately. The ingredients you begin with also play a large role. You can freeze good food badly, and you can freeze bad food well. Neither tastes very good, Arnold said. With enough care, freezing can actually enhance the quality of food, Arnold added.
According to Arnold, stew-based dishes such as Indian curries are among the foods that tend to freeze especially wellwhen they thaw, they go back to a state much as they were pre-frozen.
Keeping frozen food maintained at the lowest possible temperature also improves quality. Even a solid frozen block of meat has some liquid water in it, Arnold said. And cycling temperatures cause this water to freeze into larger and larger crystals, which can literally slice up the cells in a piece of food and can also dehydrate food when crystals form on the outsidea condition known as freezer burn.
Vijay Vij has learned much about the importance of frozen foods' flavor. Vij owns Rangoli, a restaurant in Vancouver, Canada, and his business has expanded to selling frozen, ready-to-eat Indian meals. In scaling up his packaged food business, frozen was the best way to keep the flavor," Vij said. The company is now in the process of setting up a larger production facility to expand shipping across Canada and the U.S.
Vij said his frozen meals come out best reheated in a stovetop water bath or directly in a saucepan, though they can also be microwaved. Other companies, such as Virginia-based Cuisine Solutions, market gourmet frozen foods created in (and intended to be reheated with) a controlled temperature water bath, a method called sous vide.
Arnold said care during the thaw and reheating steps can be the most important thing you can do to make frozen food taste as good as fresh. No matter how well a meal is frozen, reheating at too high a temperature can ruin itcooking meat to well-done when it was frozen at medium, for example. An ideal frozen-food future, Arnold said, might feature some sort of home sous vide system -- a cheap and boneheaded simple reheating bath that everyone could have at home.
"The freezer had a bad rap for a long time," Arnold said. "But more recently, people who make good food are reassessing whether freezing is knock against quality or just another culinary choice."