Editor’s note: This article was originally published on March 20th, 2019. Links and content have since been updated.
Frozen meals have been a staple of North American dinners since the 1950s. But have you ever wondered how frozen food is made?
We sat down with our in-house food scientist, Kristine Sung, to learn more about how Performance Kitchen™ meals move from inspiration to finished product, and how the process of freezing food has changed since the introduction of the “frozen TV tray.”
Hey Kris! Let’s start with an easy one: What exactly is Food Science? What do you do in a typical day?
In the simplest terms, I would describe Food Science as a mixed scientific discipline. You deal with engineering, biology, chemistry and physics, but the medium that you are playing with is food. Different careers for Food Scientists can range from testing food quality and safety, to testing new production machinery, to creating new food flavors and textures.
At Performance Kitchen, I help bring our ideas and inspiration to life, experimenting with flavors and freezing methods to ensure that each meal is nutritious, delicious, and easy for our consumers to heat and serve at home.
What inspired you to study food sciences?
I’ve always had a love for food, and wanted to go into Culinary Arts. I was watching the Food Network one evening, and one of the chefs partnered with Knorr to turn one of his recipes into a freeze-dried meal. I started researching how the process of transforming recipes into a take-home meal worked, and discovered Food Science.
How do Performance Kitchen recipes move from inspiration to final recipe?
Our innovation and ideas stem from keeping abreast of current culinary trends and popular diets. Once we have an idea in mind, we work with our manufacturers and product development teams to ensure that each meal reaches our high standards. We begin sampling ideas, working on the flavor profile and selecting specific ingredients.
We work in conjunction with Registered Dietitians to ensure that the flavors and meals we are inspired by are in line with a balanced, nutritious diet.
Our manufacturers do the physical development for us, so we receive frozen samples here in our offices—just like you’d find in a store. We go back and forth until we’re sure that each Performance Kitchen recipe meets both our nutritional guidelines, and the flavor profile we want.
Why are quality ingredients important?
When we first launched, we committed to a promise of providing quality ingredients. It’s important to us to use non-GMO, organic ingredients, antibiotic-free meats, and whole foods. Simply put, the better the ingredients, the better the nutrition, the better the taste.
Something that a lot of people don’t know is that the fresh produce you find at the grocery store was picked far before it fully ripened. For some items, this doesn’t matter because they continue to ripen off the vine—think bananas and avocados. But for many others, they never reach their full potential for nutritional value. We believe in picking vegetables and fruits at their ripest point to ensure they’re at their maximum vitamin density. Because we flash freeze our food (almost immediately after it’s harvested) the ingredients we select usually have more vitamins and nutrients than the fresh produce you’d find in the grocery aisle.
How do you enhance flavor while controlling added sodium and sugar?
Because we use high quality ingredients, they already have a lot of natural flavor! So when it comes to adding herbs and spices to our meals, we believe in enhancing the natural flavors we already have.
Our meals are known for their big, bright, bold spices and herbs.
A lot of frozen food manufacturers use “hidden” salt in the form of preservatives and additives, meaning you might not notice it right away on the ingredient list. Because we believe in limiting our sodium content, we go bold with natural herbs and spices to flavor our globally-inspired recipes.
What is the production process like?
Once a recipe has our final stamp of approval, it moves into production. Each ingredient is chopped, mixed, and assembled down a semi-automatic conveyor line. The components are then deposited into our bowls in measured proportions to ensure that each meal is optimally balanced.
After everything is prepared and portioned, a protective film is applied to the bowl to seal in flavor and keep it airtight. Then they’re off to the flash freezer, where each bowl is blasted with icy cold air as it moves along a conveyor belt. Once they’re fully frozen, they are sent to packaging and moved into a traditional freezer, where they wait to be shipped off to grocery stores or your home.
How does flash-freezing work to lock in flavor? How is this process different from traditional freezing methods?
In order to understand how flash-freezing works (and why it’s better for your food), we need to understand the science of freezing. When you freeze food, you’re actually freezing the water molecules within it. Because water molecules expand as they freeze, the ice crystals that form can damage the cellular structure of water-dense foods like fruit and vegetables.
In traditional freezing methods, each veggie produces a few large ice crystals that rupture the cell walls, causing a softer texture when they’re thawed or cooked–think grandma’s mushy frozen peas! Flash-freezing works by freezing food quickly and at a much lower temperature, so the water molecules crystallize almost instantly. This produces many small ice crystals, which don’t damage the cellular integrity of the food. What does this mean for consumers? A better tasting, more nutritious meal, with excellent texture.
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