Instant Foods

The term “instant food” covers any dried product that is prepared for cooking simply by adding a measure of liquid, usually water or milk. The first ready-mix food was Aunt Jemima’s pancake flour, produced in St. Joseph, Missouri, in 1889. Other instant baking products, such as cake mixes, had their heyday in the 1960s, when the level of female employment rose. These products were marketed on the basis that home baking was a badge of good housewifery, so instant mixes enabled the busy working woman to cheat a little. In 1946, the R. T. French Company of Rochester, New York, introduced the first instant mashed potato product. General Foods introduced Minute Rice, a dried precooked rice, in 1950.

Before the 1950s, all instant products were produced by traditional air-drying, either at ambient temperature or with added heat. By 1940, a new method, freeze-drying, had been developed in Sweden. Food was rapidly frozen and then placed in a vacuum chamber to dry, because, at low pressures, water passes directly from the solid state to the gaseous state, a process known as sublimation. This was particularly effective for any foods with a high water content, as the water is removed rapidly without damaging the structure of the food. The freeze-dried food is sponge-like in texture and therefore absorbs water rapidly. However, the high speed of freezing and drying required for effective results means that the food pieces need to be no more than 2.5 cm (1 inch) thick. The first factory for freeze-drying food opened in Russia in 1954. Freeze-drying is used commercially for drying vegetables and meat, as well as coffee.