Not sure about you, but I have been enjoying some very decent hot sandwiches at very unsuspecting establishments, such as mini marts, coffee shops and even — brace yourself — vending machines. (The latter was out of desperation during jury duty, and I was pleasantly surprised that the vended beef dip hoagie — complete with Giardiniera — tasted like it came from the Italian corner sandwich shop.)
Photo courtesy of Caribou Coffee Co.

Just this past week, I was invited to the opening of a new Caribou Coffee store in Chicago. On the menu was this incredible new line of chef-inspired breakfast sandwiches. I met the chef — Mark Miller, senior manager of culinary development, Caribou Coffee Co., Minneapolis — and he explained how the sandwiches are assembled by the bread baker near the company’s Minnesota headquarters and frozen prior to distribution. At the coffee shops, they are heated using both an oven and microwave, for complete warming, and even some crisping, without becoming soggy.

“When developing these sandwiches, I made sure we used the best breads, meats and cheeses,” Miller says. “Each and every sandwich must taste like it was made to order.”

I sampled the Chicken Sausage Apple Daybreaker, which is an apple-seasoned chicken sausage and scrambled egg patty topped with melted Wisconsin cheddar cheese on a buttery brioche roll. There are also options with a turkey sausage patty or turkey bacon, as well as a line of grilled cheese sandwiches with various meats. 

These innovations made me realize that there is a great deal of opportunity for meat, poultry and fish processors to develop fully cooked protein components for the growing area of heat-and-eat foodservice. This not only includes sandwiches, but also the increasingly popular food bar, which typically includes an array of hot and cold prepared foods.

For example, JTM Food Group, of Harrison, Ohio, recently introduced a new line of fully cooked frozen burrito fillings for foodservice Mexican fare. The meats can be used on self-service hot bars, or for line cooks to quickly roll a burrito or even fill a taco.

The line features more than a dozen options including Shredded Chipotle Chicken, Steak Ranchero and Pork Carnitas with Corn. For the health-conscious diner, there’s Reduced-Fat, Reduced-Sodium Beef Taco Filling. In addition, JTM now offers six breakfast Mexican fillings, including the new Chorizo con Pappas with Egg & Cheese.

“JTM’s research-and-development team always has its ears to the market, so we can constantly provide our foodservice customers with new menu options that are on-trend and on-taste,” says Jack Maas Jr., vice president-sales. “Right now, we’re seeing a ‘burrito boom’ across the U.S., as demand continues to grow for new Mexican dishes.”

When formulating fully cooked proteins for foodservice, the greatest hurdle is to ensure an adequate shelf life, as most of these products are delivered through national and regional distributors. Because shelf life is limited by microbial spoilage and oxidative rancidity, which can lead to flavor deterioration and color loss, processors rely on ingredients that prevent either from happening.

Foodservice formulators have an advantage, as one of the big differences between products formulated for foodservice and those packaged for retail is that ingredient information is not readily conveyed to the consumer in foodservice. As a result, processors have more leeway when choosing shelf-life extenders, as consumers cannot discriminate.

Artificial preservatives such as butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) and tertiary butylhydroquinone (TBHQ) have long been the standard to ensure an economically sensible shelf life for fully cooked and packaged meat products. And they continue to be; however for operators with an all-natural positioning, many prefer to use natural shelf-life extenders such as concentrated antioxidants obtained from rosemary and green tea.

These ingredients can also assist with preventing warmed-over flavors from developing, which are the rancid off-flavors that arise when the lipids in fully cooked meats oxidize during reheating and storage. Some phosphates can also prevent warmed-over flavors from developing during refrigerated or frozen storage.

With frozen products, it is important to take precautions to prevent excessive ice-crystal and freezer-burn development, which can occur in products exposed to freeze-thaw cycles. Hydrocolloid blends can typically assist, as they bind internal water and stabilize surface moisture, and by doing so, reduce or eliminate texture degradation in frozen foods.

Now, before I head out to grab lunch at the nearby convenience store, I want to share a concept that debuted at Anuga in Cologne, Germany, in early October, and one I thought worth sharing: a pre-cooked burger that warms in the toaster — the regular, old-fashioned, pop-up toaster.

Developed by Germany’s Tillman’s Convenience GmbH (see the photo) and sold in the freezer, each package contains two individually wrapped, fully cooked beef patties, two pre-cut buns, two packs of the company’s special burger sauce and two paper serving pouches. Both the burger and bun get warmed in the toaster for unprecedented convenience. Watch out Mickey D’s!