Meat packaging has come a long way in recent years; especially with commercial applications for oven-ready raw meat products. Current applications for oven-ready packages for raw meat products include vacuum packaged meat with a secondary or outer package such as a sleeve, netting, box or other type of pouch. The first level of vacuum package is for containment while the secondary package is to convey product identification, cooking instructions, branding and nutrition information and other label requirements.
Oven-ready packaging has many advantages and provides a way to add value to many raw poultry and other meat products. One advantage is convenience. The packaging eliminates the time for meat preparation. Consumers tend not to like having to handle raw poultry and with other meat cuts they are often unsure how to prepare and season them. The poultry products in oven-ready bags and are generally pre-seasoned and often marinated. For consumers, the ease of removing the outer container and having the product go right into the oven is a huge benefit.
For processors and foodservice, this packaging also presents an opportunity to market a variety of meat cuts as well as many different flavor profiles. Specifically for poultry, oven-ready packaging for whole birds and parts is a means of adding value through marination and flavor profiles to target retail and foodservice markets. Additionally, vacuum packaging is common in the poultry industry so the majority of companies already have vacuum packaging equipment, so there is not a need for capital investment of new equipment.
Vacuum packaging and cooked characteristics
Another advantage of oven-ready packaging is that the products are vacuum packaged. This is similar to the concept of sous vide where product are vacuum packaged and cooked in the package, but with sous vide cooking the products are cooked in water in a thermal circulator or similar equipment.
Regardless of having vacuumed packaged meat products cooked in water or being able to cook the meat in the oven, the vacuum packaging provides a tremendous improvement in cooked meat quality. Meat and poultry cooked in vacuum packages maintain the juiciness and yield of the product during cooking, and the packaging also reduces cooking time.
Traditional cooking methods would likely include a dry heat cooking applications such as an oven or grill. While these cooking methods are often used, meat products can be overcooked and dry out. I have tried pre-seasoned ribs and poultry cooked in oven-ready packaging and both products had exceptional eating quality. The meat is definitely juicy, but the cooking process also helps to tenderize the meat. The ribs literally fall off the bone. In terms of reduced cooking time and temperature the package could withstand, ribs were fully cooked in 1.5 hours at 400 F. Depending on the type of packaging, the product cooking times and temperature maybe different, but the specifications will be indicated on the label.
Effects of steam in cooking
During the cooking process, steam is generated in the packaging from the meat juices, and cooking with steam is one of the most efficient cooking processes in terms of a faster rate of heat exchange compared to other cooking methods. Since steam is generated in the package, browning of product surfaces is inhibited. However, product can be browned on the surface prior to putting in the vacuum package.
Because steam builds up pressure in the package and is needed for the cooking process, it is important that the packaging has leak-resistant seals. Oven-ready packaging is ideally designed to be durable and abuse resistant for both distribution and the cooking process. The oven-ready packages can be self-venting or may require a small slit to relieve some of the pressure built up during cooking, and instructions on the package will indicate what is required prior to placing the product in an oven.
Food safety advantages
Enhanced food safety is another benefit of oven-ready packaging. From the standpoint of the processor, the product is still raw so it does not fall into the category of high risk ready-to-eat products that would require Listeria monitoring programs. Oven-ready packaging would also provide safety in foodservice applications as well as for consumers at home. Elimination of the preparation step limits the handling of raw poultry and also reduces the risk of cross contamination as long as the integrity of the package is maintained prior to cooking. Cross-contamination of surfaces, raw and cooked products, utensils and people with pathogenic bacteria are events that are often attributed to foodborne illnesses. For consumers, the ease of removing the outer container and having the product go right into the oven is a huge benefit in term of convenience and safety.