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Background to the Regeneration of Ready Meals using Microwave Heating in two parts – The Challenge and The Justification

Part 2 - The Justification

In the first part we looked at the challenges facing caterers and chefs who were interested in finding out whether microwaves could help them to reduce costs and offer their customers a better service. At first, they found out that this new form of heating was limited in its ability to prime cook, defrost and reheat certain types of food. Then as they gradually found ways how to overcome many of these limitations through the application of new handling techniques, they were rewarded with good quality results. Meanwhile the packaging industry, as mentioned earlier in our first part, invented and introduced many helpful heating and foodservice presentation solutions for the users of microwave ovens. These efforts, added to the growing competitive output of more efficient, compact and reliable equipment provided the basis for a rapidly growing market.

As a result, four clear roles emerged for commercial microwave ovens. By the 1970’s they had all become well established in almost every type of foodservice outlet. These four roles were:

Central Kitchen Dispenser
The advent of microwave ovens coincided with an increase in interrupted catering techniques such as Cook-Chill and Cook-Freeze. These not only extended the high quality life of prepared foods, but also enabled the caterer to become more efficient in his deployment of staff and equipment, minimise wastage and maximise food hygiene. Here the microwave oven, whether installed in a hospital ward or trolley, school or industrial canteen played a key role as end heating equipment.

Standby Heater
One of the clearest and most popular roles of the microwave oven was to become a standby heater of prepared meals for shift or night staff, such as you might find in a hospital, police station or hotel guests served from a floor service room. It was also popular as a heater of prepared meals or snack items purchased and dispensed from chilled or frozen food vending machines.

Expeditor of Cooking
In hotel and restaurant kitchens, coffee shops and fast food restaurants, microwave ovens became renowned for their ability to cook foods at very short notice – whether by microwave alone or through being used in harmony with other cooking techniques such as grilling, roasting, frying and steaming.

New Business Opportunity Role
Since microwave ovens were easy to install, used up little space, kept cool and heated snacks and prepared meals in seconds, they created new foodservice opportunities for places where before it may have been difficult e.g. Pubs, Retail Stores, Petrol Station Forecourts, Cinema Foyers, Take Away Snack Bars, Sports Stadiums and vehicles such as Ice Cream Vans.

By this time, the scale of competitive manufacturing had helped to reduce the price of commercial microwave ovens to a level whereby they could be leased, rented or purchased at a cost level of £4-£6 per week. A potential commercial purchaser could easily justify this figure by asking:

Service Would I be able to provide my customers with a better service?
Volume How much extra food could I heat and serve within a given time? How much extra potential profit would that represent per week?
Portions How many food portions could I save by defrosting and/or heating food to order, taking it direct from the freezer or refrigerator as compared to having had it on display or heated, and running the risk of losing it at the end of the day?
Space How much space could I save by using the microwave in harmony with other equipment, by reducing the need to double up e.g. on griddle, fryer or oven and perhaps extraction equipment? How much other equipment cost could I save too?
Energy Energy, at lower power, is used in short bursts, with heating times being reduced by as much as 80% on called order items. How much cost of fuel could I save?

In practice, when many caterers addressed these questions they were amazed to find that sometimes just one of these potential cost saving elements, such as Energy or Portions, more than covered an ongoing weekly leasing cost of the equipment. A combination of the savings usually resulted in an overwhelming justification for renting, leasing or purchasing the equipment. 

High sales of microwave ovens to the food service business, and initiatives taken by food and packaging firms paved the way for their introduction to the consumer market. Consequently, the pace of progress quickened, as more marketing information and resources were allocated by manufacturers and others who could see the coming opportunities. The first competitively priced consumer ovens were launched on the United States market, and it was forecast that if 40 million microwave ovens (one out of every two homes) came to be in daily use by 1985, the nation’s potential annual energy saving was 32.3 billion kilowatt hours – equal to $1.1 billion at 1975 prices. These figures were vastly surpassed, and current developments indicate that there is potential for achieving much greater savings, with microwave appliances becoming recognised not only as major energy savers but also reducers of carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere.

When microwave ovens were first introduced in to the commercial kitchen, they were mainly seen as appliances that would complement the grill, fryer, oven and other cooking equipment. Now in the consumer market, there is a resurgent trend in the appliance industry to integrate two or more cooking technologies such as convection, air impingement, infra red, light wave, steam and microwave into one product. These ‘smaller footprint’ appliances are forecast as the main means of matching  the trend towards householders purchasing high quality ready meals and raw products prepared for convenient fast cooking. This trend was influenced by lifestyle changes that led to more people having less time available for food preparation at the end of the working day.

The initial development of many combination appliances may be traced to the 1970s when the United States Army Natick Development and Research Center, which was responsible for the nation’s foodservice programme and rations development, built a ‘super oven’. This was designed to test the very latest in single and combined cooking techniques. The appliance had capabilities that included variable microwave power at two frequencies, both pressureless and pressurized steam at 5, 10 and 15lbs per square inch, then convected and conventional heat at oven settings that were between 90◦C (220◦F) and 230◦C (450◦F).  It was thermostatically controlled with a cycling error of 5% about set point. The energy sources could be supplied singly or simultaneously, in any combination of manual or automatic mode. The automatic operation was initiated and controlled by a single, pre-punched computer card fed into a card reader.

The same laboratory designed a frozen food vending machine that housed a combined hot air and microwave unit.  Its purpose was to store, regenerate and dispense specially prepared meals and packaged meals for US Air Force personnel at remote locations. To include a variety of popular fried foods, a patented technique of directed hot air (air impingement technology) known as Jet Sweep was tested to see if it helped. It involved forced columns of heated air making perpendicular contact on the product to be heated. Thus, the cold, heavy boundary of air that surrounds the product was penetrated and swept aside by the heated jets of air, promoting uniform heating. This type of air impingement was able to apply more than 10 times as much heat flow to a product’s surface than standard convected heat (when the airflow is parallel to the surface of the object being heated). It was also found that in combination with microwaves, Jet Sweep minimised cooking times and optimised the sensory effects of conventionally heated foods – such as fried foods.

Both these concepts, and others which some may have thought were exercises in wishful thinking, paved the way for the development of many of today’s new heating techniques that could be combined to work with each other or with microwaves in both the commercial and consumer environments. For instance, one appliance combines convection, microwave and air impingement; another combines convection with microwave and radiant heat; another uses a combination of halogen heat and microwaves. Another combined commercial microwave appliance that has won special awards from the industry is a cooking unit which holds up to 10 pans of food that can be cooked with a combination of convection, steam and low-level microwave, and may be harnessed in a special way to reduce conventional cooking times by 50%; it also has a pre programmed low temperature cooking cycle that will reduce meat loss by 10-15%. Today, these and other units have proven themselves in multiple outlets owned by world wide groups, not only as fast, cost effective and reliable cookers/ dispensers of good quality foods but savers of space and extraction equipment.

What does the future hold? Well, almost a decade ago, NCR Corporation , backed by a consortium of the world’s leading banks, introduced the ‘Microwave Bank’ – a means of bringing banking, through a microwave oven, into the kitchen. These devices will heat food through a voice activated computer screen inset in the door, surf the World Wide Web and use email. Touch screen technology has been incorporated within the oven door and voice-recognition software discards the need for a keyboard. Its intelligence system learns users’ preferences and is able to hunt across the World Wide Web for the best bargains. It means that there will be no need for an additional TV set in the kitchen – just watch the microwave oven door. Banking and bill payments , backed by security measures such as voice recognition, iris scanning, fingerprint identification and password protection will enable users to set up direct debits, check credit card balances and access one’s own account any time of the day, from the kitchen.

Through links with supermarkets, it will be possible to have products delivered to one’s home, as dictated by a shopping list that has been developed by swiping product codes into a reader which scans and keeps track of items needed. Furthermore, the built-in intelligence system will develop sufficient knowledge of its owner’s lifestyle to make recommendations on such things as diet, product selection and recipes. For some time now we have had this technology to scan a coded food package and place it in the microwave oven, where it will be automatically cooked or heated to its ideal serving state. Tomorrow, this intelligent oven may work as follows. It is an information appliance that connects the food manufacturer via the appliance to the consumer for precise microwave cooking and nutritional information. The manufacturer develops cooking instructions that optimise the food product quality for microwave oven preparation. The instructions are very precise. By simply scanning the bar code (the bar coder is part of the microwave oven) the consumer provides the microprocessor with the information needed to identify the manufacturer and the specific product. The microprocessor then links the information to the oven’s database with the cooking instructions. If the processor does not find the product in the database, it automatically links via the internet to the manufacturer’s website and downloads the new product’s instructions, then executes them. Using the web button on the oven, the consumer will be able to access other information from the manufacturer’s website related to nutrition, product recall or new products.

Coming soon ….

... Ready meals active container heating guidelines
... Industrial microwave food production considerations
... Breakthrough in Even-Heating Microwave Technology

© GAMA Microwave Technology

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