Marinating and basting are techniques that help keep whole muscle proteins moist and juicy when broiled, grilled or oven baked. With ground and formed proteins – the real deal and plant-based alternatives – there are a range of ingredients that may be added to the blend to ensure succulence until consumption. Some ingredients absorb moisture, keeping it in the matrix. Others manipulate protein structures to better bind water. And some ingredients, namely fats, contribute lubricity, which provides juiciness.

The uprise in foodservice pickup and delivery during the pandemic, which was accompanied by longer warming times, amplified the need to formulate succulence into center-of-plate proteins. It will also once again become a concern with the return of hot bars and buffets, where proteins are heated for great lengths of time and may succumb to drying out.

“We have all experienced a dry burger that was held for too long, one that could not hold moisture,” said Janet Bourbon, culinary chef at TNT Burgers, a foodservice division of Cargill, Minneapolis. “With the increase in delivery and pickup options, it’s even more important to make sure that products can stand up to harsh environments.

“Using a blend of raw materials, our meat scientists came up with the perfect fat-to-lean ratio for just the right amount of flavor and juiciness,” Bourbon said. “We use a proprietary mix to create the perfect seasoning to enhance the beef’s natural taste and to guarantee hold time.”

TNT Burgers are individually quick frozen (IQF), which further assists with binding moisture inside the patty. They can be cooked from the frozen state to an internal temperature of 165°F.

“One of the largest hurdles meat manufacturers face is ensuring the quality attributes of their products can withstand abusive cooking techniques within foodservice settings or at home,” said Courtney Schwartz, marketing director, Kemin, Des Moines, Iowa. “Moisture retention and yield enhancement of proteins are essential to offering high-quality products, leading to the brand’s success.”

Formulation compliance

The US Department of Agriculture regulates the ingredients that may be used to manage moisture in meat products; there’s more flexibility with vegan options. With the latter, ingredients must be generally recognized as safe (GRAS) or approved for use by the Food and Drug Administration.

Some of these ingredients are known as humectants. These are hygroscopic compounds that bind moisture to keep things moist.

“With meat patties, formulators typically use textured soy concentrate or textured soy flour,” said Melissa Machen, principal technical account manager-protein ingredients, Cargill. “While textured soy concentrate or textured soy flour are often used in meatballs, they may require additional extenders to help hold moisture and fat.

“Breadcrumbs and cracker meal are common inclusions that contribute to the tender bite consumers expect. The ingredient toolkit opens a little wider for dinner sausages and hot dogs.”

Hydrocolloids, including various fibers, gums and starches are all options. Salts, phosphates and corn syrup solids are other common ingredients that bind moisture, reduce purge and extend yield.

“Some hydrocolloids create a gel matrix to hold water in the product,” Machen said. “Modified food starch holds water, too, but here the starch granules swell and tie up water within the meat matrix.”

Steven Gumeny, product manager, Beneo, Parsippany, NJ, said, “Native waxy rice starch is a trusted choice in poultry processing. In formed products like chicken nuggets or patties, this starch can significantly reduce cook loss and provide a softer texture. The naturally unique structure of rice starch molecules also provides excellent freeze-thaw stability.”

Some sugar alcohols function as humectants. Glycerin, for example, assists with maintaining a fatty, moist texture in jerky. By binding moisture, water activity is lowered, enabling the jerky to be held at ambient temperature.

Sorbitol is another natural moisture retaining ingredient. It is inherently present at high levels in dried plum ingredients. Dried plums are also a source of fiber, which further contributes to moisture binding and holding. And, dried plums contain malic acid, a natural flavor potentiator to round out and enhance savory flavors.

Bascom Maple Farms Inc., Alstead, NH, offers maple syrup that may be used for moisture enhancement. It also binds ingredients and contributes flavor.

“Using maple syrup allows for the reduction of other liquids that may be added for moisture or as a binder,” said Cindy Finck, director of bulk sales. “Maple syrup is used in pork and chicken sausages and plant-based breakfast sausage and savory patties.”

Putting protein to work

Animal proteins are inherently large, highly structured molecules. This prevents them from interacting with water or other compounds in a formulation. There are a range of ingredients that may assist with tricking these large proteins into assisting with holding moisture.

When animal protein is at its iso-electric point (about pH 5.1), it does not bind water very well. However, when meat protein is charged, it attracts water and binds it. Protein gets charged by lowering or raising its pH. That’s one of the functions of phosphates.

Phosphates also chelate ions in the protein system, which contributes to increased water-holding capacity. Chelating divalent ions prevents them from forming cross-bridges between proteins, allowing the proteins to unfold and bind free water more readily.

Food-grade phosphates are derived from phosphoric acid and can assume many forms. The USDA allows phosphates to be labeled as “sodium phosphate,” or in the case of the new generation of no-sodium phosphates, then “potassium phosphate,” even though these are often blends of phosphates with unique functionalities for specific applications. When used with sodium chloride, the ingredient system further increases the water-holding capacity of the protein.

Proper selection and use of phosphates can increase yields by more than 10%, thus reducing shrinkage (moisture loss) and purge (cook-out) during further processing and final cooking. This has both economic and product quality advantages.

Amr Shaheed, technical service manager-food applications, Innophos Inc., Cranbury, NJ, said phosphates also improve freeze-thaw stability.

“For chicken products, we offer an optimized sodium blend geared towards improving texture, color stability and freeze-thaw stability,” Shaheed said. “For beef patties, we offer an optimized sodium blend that improves the water-holding capacity of the patty and helps create a softer texture with a softer bite.”

Rob Ames, director of business development, Corbion, Lenexa, Kan., said, “Salts of lactic acid, such as potassium lactate, are long-trusted tools for increasing moisture retention in meats. They increase the ionic strength of the formulation causing muscle protein to swell and in turn cooked yield to rise.”

Kemin is rolling out a new clean-label line of moisture enhancing-ingredients. These functional proteins provide processors with a complement or alternative to phosphates. By incorporating them into the meat block formulation, raw material input costs may be lowered while simultaneously allowing more natural retention of yield and a juicier bite for consumers.

These ingredients are derived from like cuts of meat, including beef, pork and poultry without any artificial ingredients. By putting like protein into like protein, a manufacturer maintains more of the natural texture and taste in meat products.

“The patented process utilizes a pH shift process that allows native myofibrillar proteins to hold more water and result in improved moisture retention even during prolonged heating exposure,” said Michael Cropp, technical service associate, Kemin. “Typically, the functional proteins are added to the fresh (or green) weight of boneless portioned enhanced meat and poultry cuts without impacting a label declaration.”

In some applications, the ingredient appears on the label with the respective species called out (e.g., beef, pork, chicken, turkey, etc.) and the word “protein,” such as “beef protein.”

Kemin conducted numerous trials to evaluate the impact of the functional proteins’ ingredients on beef and poultry yield, as compared to untreated and phosphate controls. In a trial on cooked chicken sheet meat prepared using a typical commercial process of maceration, vacuum tumbling and impingement cooking, the functional protein improved yield while reducing the starting meat block by 10%. When used in combination with phosphate, the effect included further improved yield over product treated with phosphate alone.

Alternative options

The new functional protein line from Kemin includes a vegan format made with plant proteins. It may be used in the matrix, or in the case of breaded products, in the coating.

“Less oil is absorbed, which results in increased moisture retention from not allowing the oil in and the water out,” Cropp said. “It also improves oil life, as less breading falls off and there’s less free fatty acids in the oil. This leads to cost savings.”

Shaheed explained that moisture management in vegan products is different because of the protein structure. Real meat is made up of fibrous muscle proteins, while plant proteins are globular in structure.

“These proteins can produce significantly different taste and texture and therefore require a combination of mechanical processing (extrusion, shearing, spinning) and additional phosphate technologies to improve the protein functionality and subsequently the moisture enhancement properties,” Shaheed said. “Our technology team is constantly developing new phosphate blends that can interact with the latest alternative proteins in development in the plant-based space to aid manufacturers in solving taste and textural challenges.”

Succulence is important in plant-based meats. According to a 2021 consumer survey conducted on behalf of Beneo, 81% of flexitarians find it very important that meat alternatives are tender and easy to chew like real meat and 74% say those alternatives should be juicy.

Julia Thompson, culinologist, CuliNex, Tukwila, Wash., said, “With plant-based formulation, the objective is to create a structure and system that will hold and retain the moisture and keep it there through to the cooking and preparation steps.”

The protein source and its processing impacts water retention in the system. They are not interchangeable and must be considered carefully.

Soy protein ingredients are useful in meat alternatives. They function not only as a source of high-quality, complete protein, but also perform other functions.

“Soy proteins bind water, stabilize fat and when properly hydrated, serve as the ‘glue’ to hold all of the ingredient in the matrix together,” said Khamfa Phonchareon, design manager for meat and meat alternatives, IFF, Nourish division, Union Beach, NJ. “Another key ingredient for plant-based meats is methylcellulose. It is an excellent ingredient for providing good bind in the absence of meat proteins, good texture formation (bite, chew, firmness), improved juiciness and for increasing yields in heated applications.”

Plant-based burgers – those trying to mimic the real deal – often include as much as 20% added fat, to replicate the 80-20 beef burger, which has long been considered the ideal protein-to-fat ratio. Formulators use a combination of liquid and solid fats to get the right perception of animal fat, with coconut oil a popular solid fat.

“The amount of vegetable fats and oils used in plant-based meats is key,” said Megan Brazil, scientist, AAK, Edison, NJ. “If an insufficient amount of fat is used, the product can eat dry or crumbly. If too much fat is used, the product will eat greasy.”

It’s all about matching the melt profile of animal fats. At the same time, it’s important to not overdo it with any one ingredient.

“It is about what the formulation can hold,” Thompson said. “You are using ingredients that have different water and fat-holding capacities. There is a limit that must be balanced with texture.”

Machen, said, “You also need to consider how plant-based products will be sold. Products sold fresh will require different ingredients versus those sold fully cooked.”