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Challenge Accepted: The Impossible Barbacoa Dream

Topic: Challenge Accepted | Industry: Food & Beverage | Author: Jordan Dambeck
Lee Industries Food Processing Barbacoa
Most of the equipment we build at Lee Industries fits into one of two categories. In the first category are projects where a customer comes to us with a pretty clear picture of the equipment they need. For example, they want a 200-gallon steam-jacketed vessel to cook soup using an agitation system gentle enough to protect the integrity of solid ingredients. Well, no problem!

In the second category are projects where the customer doesn’t have specific equipment defined, but rather a problem that is affecting their production process or is an obstacle to their ability to produce the type of product they want. They come to us looking for help finding that solution. Well, challenge accepted!

A food processing challenge that needed to be pulled apart—literally

A recent example in the latter category involved a beef producer, whose marketing strategy for its pulled barbacoa product emphasized its freshness to high-end retail deli and grocery store customers. A key part of this strategy was to enable the deli worker or butcher to shred the meat directly from the barbacoa “slab” in front of the customer, as opposed to having it pre-pulled. The idea being that this presentation would create a fresher and more tantalizing customer experience, which would encourage purchases and justify a premium price point. 

To make this possible, the producer had to fully cook and season the meat to its most tender point, without letting it fragment—or pull itself apart—throughout the cooking, discharge and packaging processes. Their existing method to accomplish that feat was entirely manual, with workers responsible for monitoring, turning and stirring each slab to ensure proper cooking, and then for carefully lifting and transferring each slab to the packaging stage. Clearly, this was a slow and costly process, and the lack of automated agitation was an obstacle to achieving the ideal seasoning and delicate texture desired. The process was also vulnerable to waste as the manual intervention would frequently fray the slab.

How applications engineers solved the product discharge problem

Lee applications engineers studied the situation. When barbacoa is cooked, the membrane on one side of the meat muscle tightens up, forming the ball-like slab. So, while several vessel and agitator styles could accommodate the cooking and heat transfer requirements to produce a consistently tender slab, the real challenge came when the cooking process was complete. Given the size of each slab, discharging product from the bottom of the kettle, typical for most applications, was not an option. The neck of the discharge flange could only be so wide before product would collect in it and prevent agitation. Forcing the product through even a large ball valve would cause shredding. Other potential solutions would reduce the kettle’s heat transfer surface, thereby affecting the cooking process.

Soon, our engineers devised a way to discharge from the top of the kettle. Here’s how it would work:

  • By using a 45-degree inclined agitator, the barbacoa could be gently and consistently mixed at a low speed, critical to achieving the desired product qualities.
  • The kettle would be mounted trunnion style, making it possible to tilt the kettle so that the slabs could be gently discharged from the top onto a tray table, from which they could then be easily packaged.

This innovative solution checked all the boxes: the product would cook precisely as needed to achieve the desired flavor and consistency; the integrity of the barbacoa slab would be maintained throughout the entire process so that it could deliver the most impactful customer experience at the store; and the producer would realize significant quality and efficiency improvements over its existing manual process.

That’s another challenge accepted, and another challenge solved!

To see the barbacoa slabs being mixed and cooked in the kettle watch this ten-second video

For over 90 years, Lee Industries has been meeting the processing equipment needs of food, cosmetics, personal care and industrial manufacturers. If you’re faced with a processing challenge, our applications engineers are ready to help. Just contact us to get started.


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