Product Knowledge Guide: Cook-Chill Systems

A cook-chill system allows users to precook large batches of pumpable or pourable food products and then rapidly chill them for use in the future. Food products typically prepared using a cook-chill system include soups, sauces, dressings, curries, rice, beans, stews and stocks. Advantages of the process include lower costs, improved product consistency, extended shelf life and lower risk of food contamination.

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A common misconception about cook-chill is that only very large operators can use the system and that it requires a major investment in equipment to start. Actually, any size foodservice operation — from a single location restaurant to institutions and even food processors — can use a cook-chill system and can implement such a system for an investment of less than $400 for a ring stand, impulse sealer and ice bath.

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For larger operations, equipment in this category includes steam-jacketed kettles, pump fill stations, tumble chillers and blast chillers. Kettles range from 75 to 400 gallons in capacity. Ice or glycol based, the tumble chillers and blast chillers quickly cool product to less than 40 degrees F. Supplies include cook-chill pouches, which staff can heat-seal or use aluminum clips to keep shut, labels, crates and dollies. To prepare food for serving, staff use moist heat to warm the bags by placing them directly into boiling water or in a steam table.

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Cook-chill systems are typically computer driven and programmed to meet the required cooking parameters in the fastest times possible, maximizing equipment throughput and minimizing energy consumption. The bags used in the process feature an oxygen barrier to extend shelf life to approximately 30 days when refrigerated, depending on the product, while preserving the food's taste, texture and aroma.

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A newer type of cook-chill system is a three-part unit that incorporates both cooking and chilling in the same piece of equipment and also includes a quench system that stops cooking when foods are done. Staff place raw products, such as pasta, potatoes or vegetables, into a basket in the cook section. Cooked food is tipped into the basket in the quench section, which stops the cooking process. The product is then tipped again into the chill basket to bring product down to 40 degrees F. Finished product is then deposited onto a dewatering conveyor and taken off as required to be bagged or taken to the next step in a process. The system can produce up to 165 pounds of pasta, 260 pounds of potatoes or 110 pounds of rice in 30 minutes or less.

Common Applications

  • Foodservice operators use cook-chill systems to produce soups and sauces in large quantities, resulting in a more consistent product with a longer shelf life, reduced waste and lower labor costs.
  • Cook-chill systems can be a good solution for a single location restaurant that offers daily specials with varying customer demand. By utilizing a cook-chill system with a ring stand, impulse sealer, bags and ice bath, the chef can prepare large batches of soup during slow times and store these for up to 30 days refrigerated. Staff can pull product from the cooler and quickly reheat it to meet demand, freeing the chef to perform tasks requiring more skill. This can translate into minimal product waste and lower labor costs.
  • Central kitchens can utilize this method, too. By utilizing cook-chill in a central production or commissary facility, the sauce is produced in large batches by the corporate chef, then delivered in one-gallon bags to the various food outlets, where it can be reheated and used as needed. Taste and quality is consistent across the property.
  • A multi-outlet restaurant chain can utilize the cook-chill method to produce dishes, entrée components or sides in large batches. The products are made in a central kitchen, then shipped to the various restaurants, even in multiple states. The flexible bags stack well, making them easy to ship and store. Customers receive product with the same taste, texture and quality, regardless of which outlet they visit.
  • Mid-sized institutions, such as a hospitals, long-term care facilities or universities, places that supply more than 20,000 meals per day, can benefit from a cook-chill system, which can be used to produce sauces in small batches. This reduces meal preparation time and waste.

Specifying Considerations

  • Determine what type of products staff will make using the system prior to choosing the type that will work best in their facility.
  • Verify the heating/cooling sources needed, such as steam, electric, ice and glycol.
  • Estimate the throughput the system will need to generate by looking at the pounds per hour for each of the products the system will make.
  • Assess the need for flexibility moving forward. This will help plan for additional capacity and/or product line expansions.
  • Operators need to look at how much space is necessary to house and use the equipment and allocate the proper amount.

Specifying Mistakes to Avoid

  • It is a mistake specifying to meet today's demand without taking into account future growth in both capacity and flexibility to produce different products.
  • It's typically best to purchase cook-chill packages as a whole. Taking a system-based approach maximizes equipment efficiencies and ensures all of the pieces work well together.
  • Avoid delaying a cook-chill system purchase due to a lack of understanding of the benefits of the system.
  • Specifying a cook-chill system without the chilling part of the equation would be a big mistake. While it's easy to heat food, bag it and seal it, if the item is not pulled down through the danger zone quickly enough through chilling via an ice bath or blast chiller, there is a strong potential for foodborne illness.

New & Notable Features

  • Recipe management systems have been developed to control cook-chill systems. These systems store and monitor hundreds of recipes to force operators to follow a logical sequence to minimize operator error, provide tight control of ingredient additions and allow for accurate temperature and data capture and recording. The end result is accurate HACCP monitoring and complete traceability.
  • Cook-quench-chill systems provide the advantages of cook-chill for products that go beyond soups and sauces, such as pastas, potatoes and vegetables. The addition of the quench station arrests cooking at exactly the moment of doneness so that pasta and vegetables are fully cooked, while maintaining the proper texture. The design of the system minimizes product damage, a major issue for many pasta systems to maximize yield.
  • Tumble chillers now offer water recovery and recycling options that greatly reduce water usage and costs.
  • Multifunctional units have been developed for foodservice operations with minimal available space. For example, a cook tank tumble chiller can act both as a tumble chiller during production and a retherm unit during normal serving times.

When to Replace

  • Safety is compromised: Replace systems with outdated safety systems as soon as possible.
  • Wear and tear: Remove cracked steam jackets from service.
  • Inconsistent cooking temperatures: If consistent cooking temperatures and times are no longer attainable, a new cook-chill system is warranted.
  • Changing needs: If the system components cannot be retrofitted with options that improve production and functionality, a new system may be necessary.
  • Older units: With older units, parts may become obsolete, which compromises repairs and maintenance. In this case, purchasing a new unit may be necessary.

Maintenance Musts

Quality, well-maintained cook-chill equipment can last 20 years or more. Here are four maintenance tips.

  • Utilize preventative maintenance programs provided by the original equipment manufacturer.
  • Using the equipment at the specified capacities and loads will ensure a longer service life.
  • Cleaning the equipment regularly with proper methods is imperative to keeping the system operating properly.
  • Educating and training the production team and maintenance team on the equipment should be a priority.

Environmental Advancements

  • In terms of environmental advances, there have been a number in this product category. For example, steam efficiencies have increased, while steam usage has decreased. Recipe management systems provide effective HACCP process control.
  • Also, these systems recycle water where possible. Cook-chill systems also significantly reduce food waste and help make better use of labor. All equipment is fully safety interlocked.
  • New systems can greatly reduce cooking times, which minimizes energy consumption.

Editor's Note: FE&S thanks Eric Norman, FCSI, of MVP Services and Brett Daniel, FCSI, of Camacho for assisting with this article.

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