In the early days, cook-chill systems had a reputation for being difficult to use, but this is no longer the case. Modern cook-chill systems are easy to use, cost-effective and are suitable for kitchens of all sizes.
Cook-chill is a comprehensive system of food preparation, packaging, chilling, storage and distribution. It works by cooking food to a "just done" state, then chilling it quickly (down to 3˚C in under 90 minutes) and storing it under tightly controlled temperature conditions.
The first modern cook-chill systems, developed in the 1970s, were largely confined to institutional catering and suffered from accusations of poor quality. These days cook-chill is regarded not only as a safer way to produce food, but also as perhaps the best way to maintain consistent quality. Moreover, the technique is used in just about every sector of the food service market - from prison catering and fast-food chains to gourmet restaurants.
So what happened? Essentially, both the technology and the techniques got better. And as more caterers realised the clear benefits of a well-run cook-chill system (labour saving, enhanced food quality, lower costs, less kitchen stress and so on), manufacturers started looking at ways to deliver the technology to more parts of the market - which in effect meant developing systems that could be used in smaller kitchens.
Whereas a cook-chill system in the 1970s typically comprised large-scale roll-in ovens and blast chillers, these days the range of equipment is suitable for any food service operation, whether it's preparing 20 à la carte dishes or lunch for thousands.
Cook-chill technology has improved both in terms of sophistication and ease of use, and modern systems are easy to operate
All caterers, whatever the size of their kitchen, are bound by food hygiene legislation and have to maintain a permanent procedure or procedures based on food safety management principles or Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP).
Cook-chill can help with compliance because the whole process, from blast-chill to regeneration, is carefully governed by temperature guidelines and the equipment is specifically designed to meet HACCP requirements.
A traditional cook-serve system can give problems with controlling and accurately recording food temperatures, whereas a modern cook-chill system copes easily with these HACCP issues.
WHAT'S IN A COOK-CHILL SYSTEM?Chill chain - The process of maintaining strict temperature control throughout receipt, storage, preparation, processing, storage and distribution of food.
Blast chiller - Chills hot food rapidly from +70˚C to +3˚C, within 90 minutes, by recirculating low temperature air at high velocity.
Hard blast chill - A programme on a blast chiller suitable for denser items such as meat joints and mashed potato. (A soft blast chill system does the same for delicate products such as fish and desserts.)
Food core - The temperature as measured at the food's slowest cooling point - normally its centre.
Regeneration - The process of reheating pre-cooked, chilled food back to 70˚C or higher.
Many cook-chill systems are built around combi steamers and blast chillers. In the early days both had the reputation for being difficult to use, requiring specialist training and programme knowledge. Not any more. Manufacturers have addressed the issue of usability, and modern combi steamers and blast chillers are straightforward to operate.