How to get cooking instructions just right
Achieving effective, repeatable time-and-temperature combinations is the central goal of on-pack cooking instructions. But our Head of Cooking Instructions, Natasha Burton, says standard guidance doesn’t always deliver the best outcome.
According to Food Standards Agency (FSA) guidance, food should be cooked until it reaches a core temperature of 70°C for two minutes to ensure microbiological safety. Many food business operators apply this principle to on-pack cooking instructions. We also find that many tend to err on the side of caution. They make sure food holds a higher temperature for longer to eliminate the potential for cold spots and guarantee the destruction of pathogens which might otherwise cause food poisoning.
It’s easy to see why this might be considered the best way to safeguard consistent preparation of safe, ready-to-eat products. Our own research reveals that most consumers rely on cooking instructions, and never or rarely use a temperature probe to check that food is properly cooked. However, this approach risks overcooking food, which can be hugely detrimental to taste, texture, and nutritional properties. Instead of exceeding the 70°C for two minutes rule, it may be better to explore different time-and-temperature combinations.
Alternative time-and-temperature combinations
Official FSA guidance outlines alternative equivalents to the standard time-and-temperature which are just as effective when it comes to food safety.
Achieving a lower temperature for longer (e.g., 65°C for ten minutes or 60°C for 45 minutes) is one option. Another is to hold a higher temperature for a shorter length of time (e.g., 75°C for 30 seconds or 80°C for six seconds).
Understanding how to apply different time-and-temperature combinations to specific products allows food technicians to strike an effective balance between microbiological safety and consumer enjoyment. For instance, a whole chicken, a joint of meat, or a prepared product such as lamb shanks, may benefit from a ‘low and slow’ cook. This can enhance sensory qualities without compromising food safety. On the other hand, fish-based products such as tuna steaks, mussels, or prawns are easily overcooked, and may respond better to a quicker cook at a higher heat.
Science-led approaches to cooking instructions generation have an important role to play here. Trials across a range of domestic cooking equipment can reveal multiple ways to safely prepare a product, but some may deliver a better sensory experience than others.
Rigorous safety shouldn’t hinder consumer enjoyment
Food business operators invest heavily in the development and sourcing of interesting, nutritious products for consumers to enjoy. So, on-pack instructions that result in overcooking by default are counterintuitive and risk damaging brand reputation. It’s far better to take a tailored approach that focuses on the delivery of safe products with excellent sensory properties. There are three key factors to consider here:
1. Determine which cooking methods can be used
Before cooking trials begin, it’s useful to evaluate individual products for compatibility with multiple cooking methods. While some products, such as soup, may only be suitable for stove top or microwave heating, others could be cooked in a variety of ways. For instance, steaks are traditionally cooked in a frying pan or grill, but air fryer cooking instructions may be beneficial too, enabling a hotter temperature to be reached more quickly. The same is true of fish and seafood, as well as poultry products which would traditionally be oven baked or roasted. Air fryers can also be more energy efficient and help preserve the quality of food.
2. Establish how to cook a safe, ready-to-eat product
Cooking trials look to ensure microbiological safety can be achieved reliably and repeatably. Whichever cooking methods are used, equipment of the same type must be checked and calibrated for consistency. Once a suitable time-and-temperature combination has been achieved, this needs to be validated with further trials.
3. Assess the product’s sensory properties
The final step is to check the time-and-temperature combination results in a product that looks, smells, and tastes good, as well as holding the desired texture, whether that’s crunchy, juicy, spongy, or tender. If the product falls short, the method may need to be fine-tuned, with a longer and slower or a shorter and hotter cook. This is where it may be beneficial to experiment with alternative equivalents to the 70°C for two minutes standard. In some cases, ‘for best results’ guidance may be appropriate. So, the on-pack label might indicate that shallow frying will deliver a superior flavour and texture, but that the product can also be cooked safely in the oven or grill.
Be mindful of safety and sensory properties
The number one goal of on-pack cooking instructions is to ensure product safety at scale, despite the inevitable variations in consumers’ domestic equipment. Balancing this with the consistent delivery of desirable sensory properties requires skill and experience. Here at Leatherhead, the cooking instructions team performs more than 15,000 trials per year and our process is UKAS-accredited. If you’d like help generating or validating cooking instructions, we’d love to hear from you. Find out more about our services here or get in touch at [email protected].