Cook-chill is the name given to a catering system in which food is thoroughly cooked and then chilled rapidly in a blast chiller to a temperature of 3°C or below with in 1.5 hours. The food is stored between 0°C and 3°C until required for reheating. The food is usually produced in a central production unit (CPU) and transported to satellite kitchens for regeneration (reheating).

There are usually nine stages in a cook-chill system:

  • bulk storage;
  • preparation;
  • cooking to at least 75°C;
  • portioning, packaging and labelling;
  • blast chilling;
  • storage at or below 3°C;
  • distribution at or below 3°C;
  • regeneration to at least 75°C; and
  • serving,

The following benefits are claimed for the cook-chill system:

  • cost-effectiveness – fewer staff,  reduction in overtime, shift and weekend working, central purchasing, better utilisation of equipment and reduced floor space;
  • better staff conditions and less work in unsociable hours. Staff turnover is usually reduced;
  • flexibility – orders for meals can be accepted at much shorter notice;
  • more accurate portioning and less wastage; and
  • improved consistency, quality and palatabillity compared with meals kept hot, above 63°C, for long periods. Complaints of dried-up and overcooked food should not occur.

Cook-chill demands considerable management and supervisory skills and considerable forward planning. In order to ensure the safety of cook-chill the following rules should be observed:

  • good quality raw materials;
  • good design to ensure linear workflow from raw material to finished product. Cross-contamination must be avoided;
  • controlled thawing of frozen ingredients;
  • the implementation of HACCP or systems based on the principles of HACCP;
  • high standards of hygiene, especially personal hygiene;
  • food cooked, without delay, to a minimum temperature of 75°C;
  • food portioned and chilled to below 3°C within two hours of cooking;
  • hygienic food containers utilised and date marked;
  • the refrigerated store should maintain food between 0°C to 3°C and should be fitted with indicating thermometers and alarms;
  • the maximum life of the food is five days, including the day of production and the day of consumption;
  • should the temperature exceeds 5°C it should be eaten within 12 hours; if the temperature exceeds 10°C during storage or distribution it should be destroyed;
  • refrigerated vehicles are preferred for distribution but pre-chilled insulated containers may suffice for short journeys;
  • food must be regenerated as soon as possible when removed from storage; and
  • a centre temperature of at least 75°C should be achieved using effective heating units. Service should commence within 15 minutes and temperatures should not drop below 63°C.