How Are Easy-To-Cook Meals Made?

Producing instant meals is far from an instant process. It takes multiple steps, like cooking, drying, and finally packaging the food before it reaches your local supermarket.

Everyone loves a nice hot bowl of instant ramen, a nice tasty serving of noodles that is incredibly easy to make in a flavorful broth. Just add the packet of spice mix to the water, let it simmer for a few minutes on a flame and voila! You have one of the best comfort foods in the world.

Foods like instant noodles or ready-to-eat microwave meals are all processed beforehand so that minimal effort is needed to prepare them.

So, how are these foods made? What godly technology makes people feel like a chef while just heating up a packet of food in a pan for a few minutes?

The key piece to the puzzle – removing moisture

American anthropologist Loren Eiseley once said, “If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water”. I don’t think too much emphasis can possibly be made as to how important water is to life on Earth!

Dehydrating food or removing the moisture is the most effective way to preserve it. Without water, microorganisms can’t grow inside the food packets, so the chances of the food spoiling in the package are much lower.

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Bacteria and microorganisms need water for their metabolic reactions and to take in their food plus to throw out their waste.

Water is also needed for food to undergo natural organic reactions to decay or break down; enzyme-based reactions that cause food to spoil or darken can’t take place without water.

In summary, drying food increases its shelf life.

Pachino tomato to dry

Tomatoes dehydrating under the sun. (Photo Credit : envato)

There are a couple ways to dehydrate food. The simplest method is drying it under the sun or heating it in small chambers or drums. If a more complicated method is needed, then freeze-drying is the preferred method.

Freeze-drying is a relatively newer method of dehydrating food that doesn’t affect the food quality much at all. Additionally, food dehydrated in this way tends to have a porous structure that allows water to enter inside it easily during hydration, making it quicker to cook.

Freeze drying is necessary when the highest quality food is needed, with a minimum decrease in taste. Not to mention, freeze-drying literally removes all the water from food, so it becomes very lightweight and cheaper to transport. Lots of companies that make camping-friendly food also use freeze-drying.

Freeze-drying is done with the help of a lyophilizer.

A lyophilizer works by freezing an item at extremely cold temperatures (around -40°C) in a vacuum. This creates a  pressure that makes ice shift from the solid phase to the gaseous phase without moving through the liquid phase. In this way, the food is dehydrated without using heat to evaporate water, thus preventing food from being damaged by the heat.

Because freeze-dried food is so easy to hydrate, we get ready-to-eat meals that only require hot water to prepare. However, freeze-drying is quite time-consuming and expensive, which is why this method is usually used for products sold at a premium.

The problem with dehydrating food, however, is that it affects the food quality and taste.

Adding preservatives

Even fancy techniques like freeze-drying aren’t foolproof. Freeze-dried food can also be spoilt if bacteria are able to grow inside the packaging, As such, after the food is dried, preservatives are added to help it stay fresh. This most commonly includes salt or sugar.

Other common spices like chili powder, turmeric, and pepper also help improve the shelf life. Not only do they add flavor to the food, but they also save it from scary disease-causing germs.

Various spices and herbs in metal containers on wooden table

Spices are nature’s best preservatives. (Photo Credit : envato)

Other items that add taste are acids, like ascorbic acid, which is nothing but our essential Vitamin C. Another common preservative is monosodium glutamate (MSG), which improves the taste and adds flavor. However, too much MSG can be harmful to our health.

Preservatives don’t really affect the taste of food, but rather increase their shelf life.

Packaging

Finally, once the food has been prepared, it must be put in suitable packaging. Dry food like instant noodle cakes are sealed in clean packets and kept airtight. A relatively newer style of packaging comes in the form of retort pouches.

They are pouches made from flexible foil, composed of a mixture of aluminum, polyester and polypropylene (plastic).

MRE single veggie

A veg meal packed in a retort pouch. (Photo Credit : Bahamut0013/Wikimedia commons)

Raw or semi-cooked food is stuffed inside these pouches, which are then sealed and heated at high temperatures (240–250°F/116–121°C). This heating is done in autoclaves.

An autoclave is a large steel container with some water inside. Just like a kettle, the water is heated until it boils and steam begins to form. The packed food is sealed shut in the autoclave and the steam stays trapped inside, which slowly builds up the pressure.

The principle of this is that heating an object at a high temperature and pressure usually kills everything on it, making it sterile.

Here’s a tip for all my readers who are germophobes. You can place an object in a pressure cooker with the lid shut for about 45 minutes. Due to the high temperature and pressure, whatever germs that were on the object are now dead.

You have probably seen many gravies packaged in such pouches, with the instruction to put the pouch directly into hot water and allow it to boil for 5 minutes. That’s the advantage of these pouches!

A Final Word

Food technology has come a very long way in recent decades and generations. Thanks to its progression, hungry students can whip up something in no time while studying late at night for their exams. There is incredible variety to this convenient food as well! I especially love ready-to-eat food to satisfy my late-night cravings when I’m too sleepy to cook a proper meal.

The biggest drawback is that, in the drying and packaging process, many important nutrients are lost. On top of that, the food is usually loaded with sugar, which tends to make them quite addictive.

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Any college student can appreciate the beauty of making food in less than 10 minutes. However, eating this type of food really isn’t sustainable as a life choice. Learning how to cook proper meals for yourself is a life skill that you’ll never regret cultivating!

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About the Author

Armaan Gvalani holds a Masters in Biotechnology from Symbiosis International University (India). He finds the microscopic world as fascinating as the business of biology. He loves to find practical applications from scientific research. When not peering into his microscope or nurturing his cultures, he can be found smashing a ball around the squash court or doing laps in a pool.

 

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