Creative Foods, a division of the United Kingdom’s Brake Brothers, finds the perfect recipe for improving process flow, product quality and consistency on its pasta cooking and cooling line.

In the United Kingdom, everyone knows the name Brakes -- the company’s delivery trucks can be seen everywhere. As Britain’s leading supplier to caterers, with a range of more than 15,000 products and sales exceeding $3 billion (1.5 billion pounds sterling) annually, Brakes is a key driver in the U.K. food market.

One of Brakes’ many specialty divisions, Creative Foods Ltd., makes prepared frozen meals, sauces, soups and desserts for the U.K.’s foodservice and catering market, which includes restaurants, pubs, hotels, schools, hospitals, automotive service stations, and travel and leisure facilities. It provides its products in a variety of formats for caterers to cover different options, like individual- and multi-portion meals as well as in-pouch and foil-tray varieties. The company also produces a range of individual sauce pouches for serving with meat, fish, pasta or vegetables. Quick and easy to use, caterers simply reheat, pour and serve.

All of Creative Foods’ recipes are individually tailored to meet customer requirements and incorporate fresh meat, vegetables and dairy products. The company produces a range of prepared meals, from traditional British favorites like steak and ale or cottage pie, to Italian, Indian and Oriental dishes. All of the products are frozen immediately after production. The freezing process acts as a natural preservative, allowing the company to increase the amount of fresh ingredients in its products.

Many of the company’s entrees include cooked pasta -- a culinary trend which is gaining momentum in the United Kingdom -- and typically use the long noodles such as fettuccine, linguine, tagliatelle and spaghetti. While these staples are a delicious part of many of Creative Foods’ meals, the long pastas typically are difficult to process and tend to stick together, damaging the product quality and increasing waste.

“We do quite a range of products incorporating different pastas,” said Howard Batey, factory general manager at Creative Foods. “Ninety percent of the time, we are running pasta. The remaining 10 percent is vegetables like carrots and potatoes, and a small amount of rice.”

Like most U.K. manufacturing facilities, Creative Foods had been using a batch system for cooking, quenching and chilling the pasta used in its recipes. Typically with the batch system, a basket with pasta is dropped into a tank of hot water, where it stays until the pasta is cooked. The basket then is lifted out and the cooked pasta is put into another tank filled with cold water, where it is quenched to take the heat out of it. The temperature reduction achieved in this tank does not reach the desired chilled temperature for the pasta, however, so it is then put into a third tank of chilled water. The chilled water tank reduces the pasta’s temperature to below 41°F (5°C), the desired range. While effective with many styles and types of pasta, the batch processing system did not deliver the results Creative Foods wanted in all cases.

“An increasing part of our business is in the long pastas like spaghetti, linguine and tagliatelle,” Batey continued. “We could not find a system that could adequately cook and cool these pastas at the volumes we were processing without it sticking together. So, we resorted to buying-in our long pasta, precooked and chilled.”

Shaped pasta was cooked and cooled in-house, according to Batey, using steam-jacketed vessels. This method did not provide as much control (in terms of timing of the cooking and cooling) as the company would have liked because the process was effectively a manual one.

“Our batch cooking and cooling [operations] had limitations on how much pasta we could process at any one time,” said Batey. “We were struggling to keep up with our production demands, trying to keep all of our lines fed with cooked pasta.”

To accommodate growth in this production segment, the company decided to upgrade its process line for cooking pasta. Company engineers determined that equipment capable of processing all types and shapes of pasta -- particularly the long pastas such as fettuccine, linguine, tagliatelle and spaghetti -- was necessary.

“We were looking for equipment that could not only cook, but that could also cool, so we could maintain better control over the entire process,” Batey explained. “We needed very fast cooling so we could get more consistent product quality. At first, we could not find any equipment that could cook the long pastas without the strands sticking together. That was the single biggest factor we were looking at resolving with automation.”

With the cooker/cooler, product is fed into the machine by a water-cushioned in-feed flume. The zone cooks the pasta, including delicate products such as the long varieties, before the product is transferred to the cooling zone. The automated system ensures consistent process parameters for temperatures and recipes.

Ultimately, Creative Foods found a pasta cooking system that eliminated the clumping and sticking problems in Clean-Flow from Lyco Manufacturing, Columbus, Wis. The pasta cooking/cooling solution utilizes a rotary drum that provides water injection for agitation to keep the product in uniform suspension while moving through the unit.

The Clean-Flow design incorporates a screw that is encapsulated in a stationary wedge-wire screen in the area from 3 o’clock to 9 o’clock. The tolerance between the screw and the screen is less than a grain of rice. The water agitation injected through the screen keeps the pasta product off the floor of the screen, so it is maintained in total suspension. Damage to fragile product is a fraction of one percent, less than in a conventional rotary drum setup.

Having a truly continuous method of pasta processing is relatively new in the United Kingdom. The ability to run multiple products throughout the production day at different temperatures and at different retention times is one that Creative Foods quickly embraced, though.

Batey says this flexibility is what attracted Creative Foods to the Clean-Flow system. “The internal parts can be cleaned much more easily, which means changing between different products within the same day could be done more quickly.”

Like many other food processors, Creative Foods has shifted its production toward shorter runs and wider product selections, which places a heavier emphasis on equipment that allows about quick changeovers, fast cleanups and short turn-around times.

“Our plans were to process relatively short runs of different types of product. This meant putting through different shapes and types of pastas, and even completely different products within the same day, such as switching from processing vegetables to pasta,” Batey noted.

On a standard commercial cooker/cooler rotary drum, it typically takes 2 hr to complete the cleaning for a line transition, which makes it impractical to execute more than one transition per 8-hr shift. With the Lyco system, Creative Foods’ cooking and cooling line meets the needs of quick changeover by speeding up the sanitation process, which allows the company the flexibility to run a variety of products daily on the same line.

In addition, consistent process parameters for temperatures and recipes, automatically controlling the pasta cooking and cooling hour after hour, outperforms the batch method used formerly by Creative Foods, according to the company.

“The quality of our pasta products has improved dramatically, in part because we now have absolutely consistent cooking times -- we are not relying on manual intervention -- and because the cooling cycle is now immediate,” Batey explained. “We have almost totally eliminated product damage, and we are running our long pasta through the system as well -- no longer buying it out.”

According to Batey, the Clean-Flow line handles the pasta much more gently than the batch equipment had, particularly with the more delicate varieties. With the new system, Creative Foods is processing approximately 2,640 lb (1,200 kg) of pasta per hour through the continuous pasta-processing line.

“Some days, we run the line for 16 [continuous] hours,” Batey concluded. At those production rates, Creative Foods will be able to keep up with even the most voracious appetites.