Inside Airline Catering – From Kitchen To 36,000 Feet

It is easy to take a look at a standard airline meal without considering the effort that has gone into delivering each portion. More often than not, passengers would be taken aback at the amount of time and consideration that goes into creating a menu and then producing each dish. Airline caterers certainly have their work cut out, and the result is seen in that extra bit of comfort in the air that only a hot meal can bring. This is a look inside airline catering – from kitchen to 36,000 feet.

Catering at 36,000 feet is more complicated than it seems. Photo: Bill Abbott via Flickr

It’s just normal food, right?

For those who do not have the luxury of flying business class, your typical selection of choices come mealtime consists of two or three options. Airline catering, however, is influenced by a little-known yet vital piece of information: At cruising altitude, a person’s sense of taste may be as much as 30% less than on terra firma. A passenger’s ability to perceive saltiness and sweetness is significantly affected, that those who prepare the menus have to overcompensate otherwise the food tastes bland and unpalatable.

Interestingly it is only saltiness and sweetness that is affected, with sourness and bitterness more or less the same as on the ground.

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Passengers’ sense of taste may be affected by up to 30% at altitude. Photo: Roderick Eime via Flickr

Altitude isn’t the only factor making extra work for caterers, but also the lack of humidity – leading to a decreased sense of smell. This can also contribute to a lack of taste sensation, meaning the airline has to work twice as hard to present its passengers with a delicious dish.

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How it’s made

The chefs responsible for creating the recipes and standardizing portions and cooking methods are under great pressure to deliver a product that stands up to the rigors of the cruising aircraft cabin. It is imperative that caterers get the taste and seasoning perfectly right, and this calls for a scientific approach.

Once a new recipe has been turned into a portion of food, the chef(s) will enter a pressurized cabin that is designed to mimic the same conditions as the aircraft cabin at 36,000 feet. After their own taste buds have been affected accordingly, tasting commences and discussions are had about the balance of sweet, savory, bitter, sour, and spicy. Now, once the dish is cleared, the caterer is ready to put it into mass production.

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Preparation

Pre-flight

In preparation for delivery to the various airline carriers, airline catering companies will take the test meal and prepare each and every portion based on the “master plate”. This means being exact and precise about portioning and seasoning every single time, in order to offer the same taste experience to each and every passenger.

Every dish that is served in the aircraft cabin must be identical to the master plate. Photo: Darren Foreman via Flickr

Once the master sample plate is presented at the caterer’s assembly facility – also known as a gigantic kitchen – strict quality control measures are in effect to ensure that each and every meal is perfect. This normally takes place around ten hours before the departure time of a flight, after which each meal is blast-chilled for transfer to the aircraft. Only once quality control has been rigorously applied may the final products go out for delivery to the various airlines

Inflight

Once the partially-cooked and blast-chilled meals arrive at the departing aircraft, the portions are stored on specialized racking that fits into convection ovens. When the time approaches to serve the inflight meal, these racks are inserted into the convection ovens, where they are exposed to high heat for around 20 minutes. This takes place immediately before serving to ensure a warm meal, as well as giving the passengers the feeling of eating a freshly cooked plate of food.

Choice?

Even though it appears every conceivable step was taken to ensure a delicious meal is delivered to your tray, it still remains pre-cooked and re-heated. Therefore, a few parting words of advice:

  • Avoid the pasta as it is probably overcooked.
  • Do not bargain on fried food to be crispy.
  • Expect the chicken to be dry.
  • Anything slow-cooked, such as a stew, may well be your best option if you are looking for succulence.

Have you ever had a really great inflight meal? Or perhaps a terrible one? Let us know about it in the comments.

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George

Best meal I had in Economy was a slice of pizza on an American Airlines flight. They need to get rid of the tray with a dozen items on it. and just hand out slices of pizza.

Vedant Ganesh

On board SIA, the food is finger lickin’ good.

Angie

British Airways had the most delicious chicken breast I’d ever eaten. And this was economy!

Trent

Meatloaf on United back in 2003 on a DC-10. Was it the best airline food I’ve had, nope. But did it surprise me the most, very much. It was moist, good temp, solid taste!

Joanna Bailey

For a minute I thought we were talking about the rock star 😀

Norm

Sea bass on AirBaltic departing Riga Latvia in May 2016 at 23:30pm. Cost was 15 Euros, which included 187ml wine.

Tom Boon

What did you think? I had fish on airBaltic before and found it particularly bland.

Human Passenger

American Airlines transcontinental Business class. The chicken was extremely good (for airline food, of course)