The cook-chill concept was created in the 1960s as a way for caterers to safely produce large quantities of quality food in advance. It has come a long way from its start.
Cook-chill systems are common in schools, hospitals and correctional facilities, yet this bulk cooking method can benefit any size operation looking to save labor, decrease food waste and improve product consistency.
With the cook-chill method, foodservice operators can precook and rapidly chill any amount of food for use at a future date or time. This method allows users to prepare large batches of pumpable or pourable food products, such as soups, sauces, dressings, curries, rice, beans, stews and stocks.
Robert Jacobs, principal at Birchfield Jacobs Foodsystems in Baltimore, has been in the foodservice industry since 1988 and at the forefront of centralized cook-chill production. He has developed more than 50 cook-chill operations around the world. “Cook-chill is about cooking to a production schedule rather than a menu,” says Jacobs. “By cooking to inventory, operators get the most efficiencies out of the equipment they’re using, and another benefit is they only have to clean up once.”
Cook-chill systems offer a variety of advantages for operators. This method is versatile for use in any size or type of operation. It addresses time management issues and provides greater control of the production process.
By using cook-chill, operators can optimize their time, production schedule and labor. When used during an operation’s downtime, the busier periods are not as hectic because much of the work has already been completed. This method ensures added safety since the cooking and chilling environment is more controlled.
With large quantities of food typically produced at one time, equipment is better utilized, adding to back-of-house efficiencies and economies of scale. And because food is essentially ready to go when needed, service is quicker and more reliable.
Not only is cook-chill versatile enough to handle a wide range of menu options, but food presentation can be enhanced due to time gained from advance bulk production. In addition, for large-scale operations with multiple locations, centralized cook-chill facilities ensure consistency across various sites.
Another advantage: Preparing dishes in advance minimizes waste as precise portions are prepared with this method. This saves money, which results in increased profitability. “Cook-chill saves on food costs because, at the receiving kitchen, you’re not overproducing,” says Jacobs. “Operators also get more yield with this method; for example, instead of losing 20% with shrink [from traditional cooking], you only lose 3%.”
Labor savings is one of the biggest benefits. With cook-chill, operators can increase food production in their existing back-of-house footprint with their current staff.
“With centralized production using larger equipment, less staff is needed to go from the breakfast to dinner meal period because rethermalizing is quicker than a la minute cooking,” says Jacobs.
Space requirements vary greatly. Jacobs has developed cook-chill operations in as little as 5,000 square feet up to 250,000 square feet.
“Necessary square footage is dependent on incoming delivery schedules and how much storage is needed,” says Jacobs. “It’s best to have a feasibility study with a cost analysis before committing to cook-chill.”
A Wide Range of Applications
One misconception about cook-chill is that the system is geared for very large operations and requires a major equipment investment. This is not the case as it can be used by those with a single restaurant, too.
“The biggest change in this segment has been equipment developed on a smaller scale for private enterprises,” says Jacobs. “Now, there are cook-chill components that are more affordable, so it’s easier to get involved in this production method.”
The size and type of operation will shape what type of cook-chill operation is appropriate. When used by a central kitchen or commissary that services various foodservice outlets with the same menu, corporate chefs use cook-chill systems to produce large batches, which are then typically delivered in 1-gallon bags to the various food outlets and reheated and used as needed. This helps ensure flavor and quality are consistent across the property.
A multi-outlet restaurant chain can utilize the cook-chill method in a central kitchen to produce dishes, entree components or sides in large batches. The products are 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.
Midsize institutions, such as a hospital, a long-term care facility or a university that supplies over 20,000 meals per day, can benefit from a cook-chill system. This reduces meal preparation time and waste while allowing these operations to expand their menu offerings more easily.
On a small scale, cook-chill can be implemented with a ring stand, an impulse sealer and an ice bath. Larger operations will generally require steam-jacketed kettles from 75 to 400 gallons in size, pump fill stations, tumble chillers and blast chillers. Supplies include cook-chill pouches, which can be heat-sealed or clipped with aluminum clips, as well as labels, crates and dollies. To prepare food for serving, bags are warmed using moist heat by being placed directly into boiling water or in a steam table.
In large-scale cook-chill systems, a kettle is used for cooking, a pump fill station for packaging the food into specialized flexible packaging and a tumble chiller to quickly cool product to less than 40 degrees F. 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 are designed with 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. Any type of moist heat can be used to retherm the product for serving, including placing the bag in boiling water or in a steam table.
“Recently, we’ve worked on more restaurants than anything else, although cook-chill is predominantly used in healthcare, corrections and schools,” says Jacobs. “It’s not a one-size-fits-all production method.”
There have been innovations over the years with this cooking method. One involves three-part cook-chill systems, which incorporate both cooking and chilling in the same unit and also include a quench system that stops cooking when foods are perfectly done. These systems are fully automated units with three sections. Raw products, such as pasta, potatoes or vegetables, are put into a basket in the cook section. Cooked food is tipped into the basket in the quench section, which stops the cooking process when foods are cooked. 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 before moving on to the next steps in the 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.
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 error, provide tight control of ingredient additions and allow for accurate temperature and data capture and recording. The end result is accurate monitoring of HACCP and complete traceability.