The Christmas countdown is on for cooking instructions generation
Summer is in full swing, but our Head of Cooking Instructions Natasha Burton says Christmas has come early for her team. As food retailers finalise seasonal ranges for Christmas 2023, they need reliable instructions to help consumers prepare their products.
“Retailers put a lot of time and energy into sourcing or developing unique food products for the Christmas season,” Natasha explains. “All those special touches and variations impact the cooking time and temperature combinations required for a safe, ready-to-eat product. Here at Leatherhead Food Research, we take a scientific approach to devise cooking instructions which consistently deliver safe food that consumers will remember for all the right reasons.”
With consumers looking for convenience as well as quality, the menu of seasonal items requiring cooking instructions can be lengthy. What’s more, with bigger groups to feed on Christmas day, many home cooks commandeer all the equipment in their kitchen. They might microwave the gravy and air fry roast potatoes while everything else simmers on the stove or bakes in the oven. Ensuring products have validated instructions for any relevant cooking method – or clearly indicate cooking methods that are not suitable – is critical.
We’ve summarised important factors to bear in mind based on products we’ve developed cooking instructions for in recent years.
A cooking instructions Christmas menu
Fish and seafood
Ready-to-cook seafood dishes such as bouillabaisse, dressed scallops, or baked lobster tails have become a popular choice, bringing convenient luxury to the Christmas table. The cooking time and temperature must be just right, so the fish is safe to eat but still tender or flaky. For frozen products it’s also important to establish the length of the defrost period, or to establish whether they can be safely cooked from frozen.
The main event
Glazed turkey, rolled turkey, stuffed turkey crown, three-bird roasts…poultry is still the focal point of Christmas dinner for many consumers. Retailers are eager to make it extra special with glazes, stuffings, or trimmings such as a bacon wrap. However, all those little extras can have repercussions for the cooking time. Getting the perfect result, from a sensory and safety perspective, demands careful attention. It may be necessary to adjust the temperature during cooking, and many roasts benefit from resting at room temperature after removal from the oven. Trimmings and stuffings may mean that the defrost of frozen items varies from standard weight-based timeframes too, requiring bespoke calculation.
Many retailers cater to consumers who prefer something different to the traditional turkey roast. Ribs of beef, pork crackling joints, and sides of salmon are popular choices. As with poultry, Christmas variations on standard items may require tailored cooking instructions. With fish-based mains, a delicate balance is needed to achieve microbial safety without overcooking. For beef, consumers appreciate accurate guidance on how to achieve a rare, medium, or well-done product.
With the increase of vegan, vegetarian, and flexitarian diets, plant-based Christmas mains are now a regular feature. Achieving a safe, ready-to-eat product with the ideal sensory qualities may require a series of cooking trials, to avoid dryness for instance.
Ready-made roast potatoes
The convenience of ready-made roasties can be very appealing at Christmas, and many retailers provide fresh or frozen options. Finding the optimum cook time and temperature is key to ensure they are hot and fluffy in the middle, but crispy on the outside. While oven roasting is still the norm, potatoes are a popular choice for air frying, so cooking instructions should ideally encompass both methods.
Pigs in blankets
Whether pigs in blankets are cooked from chilled or frozen, wrapping sausages in bacon impacts time and temperature requirements. This accompaniment is another prime target for air frying, so developing tailored instructions for oven and air fryer is advisable.
From glazed carrots and cauliflower bake to braised red cabbage and buttered sprouts, various vegetable dishes hit retailer aisles at Christmas. If they can be popped in the oven or microwave while the joint is resting, it makes consumers’ lives easier. But as always safety is paramount, and the necessary heat-time combination must be reliably achieved.
Chilled fresh gravy products are the finishing touch of many retailers’ Christmas offerings. Whether consumers opt for the microwave or the stove top, instructions must enable a food-safe temperature without impairing flavour.
Traditional Christmas pudding
Size variations and integral sauces or toppings can all impact the cooking requirements of Christmas pudding. Steam or microwave cooking is the norm for this Christmas staple, but some can be oven baked. Whatever the method, it’s important to land on an effective time-temperature combination that meets safety requirements and delivers a pud that is juicy, not rubbery.
Speciality hot puddings
Extravagant hot desserts such as chocolate bombs are a popular alternative to the traditional Christmas pudding. Some retailers provide new signature puddings every year, so dedicated cooking instructions are a must.
If your Christmas range includes frozen cheesecakes, tarts, or other desserts that don’t require cooking, effective defrost instructions are vital. Trials can determine the optimum timeframe and whether fridge-based or ambient defrost delivers a better result.
Be mindful of safety and sensory properties
While Christmas ranges celebrate enjoyment of food, microbial safety is always the top priority. With that in mind, science-led generation of cooking instructions ensures products are good to eat on all levels. Our earlier post How to develop and validate cooking instructions offers more guidance on time and temperature combinations and other matters such as equipment calibration.
If you’re looking to develop safe and effective cooking instructions for your Christmas range or any individual products, Natasha and her team are here to help. Check out our cooking instructions service or contact us via [email protected]