The rise in fast food, convenient ready-meals and time-saving industry shortcuts, has meant time is increasingly removed from how we grow, produce, cook and enjoy our food. But at what cost? Food writer and author of The Missing Ingredient: The Curious Role of Time in Food and Flavour, Jenny Linford, gives us her take on it.
Eating is essential for life. It is an act we repeat over and over again throughout our lives to sustain our bodies. Historically, it was understood that the preparation of food took time, from sourcing ingredients (through hunting, fishing, growing and trading) to the gutting, plucking, picking, kneading, pounding and grinding required before cooking could begin.
Today, labour-saving devices, from breadmakers to food processors, make food preparation quicker and easier than ever before. Despite this, we seem to begrudge the time spent preparing and making food. The impatience that characterises modern life is manifest in our approach to cooking.
The rise of the ready-meal
‘Cooking from scratch’ is the term now given to what was simply called ‘cooking’ by my parents when I was a child; it specifically means starting with raw ingredients. For those who don’t wish to make food in this way there are now numerous options. Since its invention in America in the 1950s, the ready-meal has moved from being an exotic novelty to a ubiquitous staple. The advent of the microwave in domestic homes means that chilled and frozen meals can be quickly and effortlessly heated through.
The Horsegate scandal in Europe in 2013, when it was revealed that meat-based foods were being adulterated with undeclared horse meat and pork, caused a dip in ready-meal sales. Since then though, the ready-meal market has bounced back and it is generally regarded as a buoyant sector of food manufacturing. Indeed, in Britain a recent report from business intelligence provider Key Note forecast that the market value of the ready-meals market would grow by 15.7% between 2015 and 2019.
For those looking to cook for themselves, there are numerous already prepared ingredients designed to take time out of the process. Grated cheese, chopped onion, bagged salad leaves – simple kitchen tasks that previous generations took for granted now present commercial opportunities.
Mass food production: ‘time is money’
The history of food production has seen the move from individual producers towards mass-manufacturing. This shift brought with it the squeezing out of time from the making of food. ‘Time is money’ in the world of industrial food production, and much resourcefulness has been spent in minimising time in processes. A striking example of this is the Chorleywood process, invented in Buckinghamshire in the early 1960s. It radically reformulated the ingredients and the method of making bread. Lower-protein flour, fat, yeast and additives are combined through a few moments of violent, mechanical agitation in powerful mixers.
The resulting dough rises rapidly, meaning that loaves of bread can be baked far more quickly than bread made traditionally, as it had been for centuries. Today the Chorleywood process is used to produce 80% of Britain’s bread. The results of bread made this way are dispiriting: light, insubstantial in texture, unpleasantly claggy to eat.
And yet, around the world, there are examples of traditional time-consuming processes mimicked with short-cut methods by industrial food producers: brine-injected bacon, plastic-wrapped ‘aged’ beef, fizzy beers created by adding CO2 rather than using natural fermentation, ‘smoked’ cheese made with smoke- flavoured additives . . .
Time: the missing ingredient
Time is at once fluid yet implacable. Despite much human ingenuity being expended, we find it impossible to genuinely reproduce its effects on shaping and creating our food. We need to recognise what a truly remarkable ingredient time is – find pleasure in its proper use in the whole food chain, from growing and making to cooking – in short, make time for it.
Take back time in how you source and cook your food. Make your own sourdough with this easy guide, read more on why slow-grown chicken is better, or choose artisanal cheese matured slowly with care.
Extract from The Missing Ingredient: The Curious Role of Time in Food and Flavour, by Jenny Linford. Published by Particular Books.