Come through the big swing doors of the Matraville kitchens. Join the Dinner Ladies product development team and find out how a dish goes from being an ‘idea’ to a perfectly cooked and frozen dinner delivered to your front door.
A recent addition to the menu is our slow-cooked lamb shawarma. Find out why we chose that dish, how we perfected the recipe, and then worked out the best way to freeze and package it. Let’s go…
1. THE IDEA
It all starts at our weekly brainstorming sessions.
The ‘new product development’ team look carefully at the menu and think, ‘are there any gaps in this?’
‘Do we have enough options for vegetarians, pescatarians, gluten-free diners, red-meat lovers...?’
‘Is there a great balance of heat-and-eat, minimal cooking and interesting side dishes?’ ‘What could we add to fill that gap?’
Then everyone jumps in with ideas and suggestions – often inspired by seasonal produce, trying a new restaurant, favourite cookbooks, social media, our cultural cuisines, and what our suppliers have to offer.
If we like a suggestion, there are plenty MORE questions to answer:
‘Is it a dinner solution? For who?’
‘How many sizes would it be sensible to make?’
‘Will it freeze well?’
‘Can we get the ingredients?’
‘How would we package it?’
And, most importantly: ‘Is it achievable?’
First thoughts: There’s a lamb shawarma-sized gap on this menu! Let’s make it a raw meat dish that can be slow-cooked or put on the home BBQ for around 4 hours.
Second thoughts: Let’s cook it here – save you any stress and take away the guesswork about timing and dodgy oven temperatures.
2. LET’S COOK IT!
Once we’ve chosen the new concept dish, Evelyn, our recipe tester, cooks a prototype of the recipe. We all dig in to evaluate the taste and texture, check the seasoning and the ingredient ratios. (These might be subjective – one woman’s ‘good pinch of curry powder’ can be another person’s eye-watering fiery shock. We err on the mild side!)
First test: We cooked a lamb shoulder, a leg of lamb with the bone in, and a deboned leg of lamb. We chose the deboned leg of lamb – it worked best for consistency and convenience.
To get the meat ‘fork tender’, we settled on a long slow overnight cook of at least 8 hours.
Second test: We felt the marinade wasn’t strong enough, so we changed to whole spices and more garlic for the second test.
We tried a few different condiments – yoghurt tahini, yoghurt raita and harissa yoghurt. After quite a lot of (very enjoyable!) taste tests, we chose the harissa yoghurt as the best flavour combination.
3. LET’S GET TO THE PRACTICALITIES
Once we’re happy with the dish, Sarah, the menu director, and Mandeep, the food technologist, confirm the correct portion and serve size.
Megan, our process developer, feeds the recipe into some super sophisticated writing software.
Mandeep works out the nutritional values (these will go on the label).
Megan and Sarah check the total cost of ingredients and work out what price we’ll sell the dish for.
Evelyn then checks it freezes – and defrosts! – successfully.
Sarah works out what the dish should be called.
Evelyn keeps cooking – to make sure the recipe produces the expected quantities, and to finalise the heating and cooking instructions to go on the label.
Megan often has to ‘scale up’ the recipes when we’re using larger equipment and ingredient quantities – this has to be done very carefully. One decimal point in the wrong spot and our Anzac biscuit mix could turn to porridge!
Evelyn’s last cook of the dish is to have its photo taken for the website… say cheese, everyone. Or maybe not!
What size? We worked through sizes… what works best? One size, or a half leg option? We settled on one size for now.
Defrost or not? We did another test that the lamb can be heated at home from both defrosted and frozen – we always prefer it if a dinner can be heated straight from the freezer. We’ve ALL been there – forgetting to take something out of the freezer to defrost beforehand.
4. FROM OUR KITCHEN TO YOURS
Once we’re happy with the recipe, Megan and Oyuka, our process development co-ordinator, develop a step-by-step picture guide for the prep, cooking and packing teams to follow. And away we go! It’s time to cook!
Mandeep organises the labels for the packaging, making sure the ingredients and any allergen ingredients are correct, plus storage and cooking instructions.
Once it’s had its photo taken, Sarah gets the dish up on the website in time for it to appear on the menu and ‘go live’ on the ordering system – she needs to write the description, serving suggestions, and ‘how we make it’.
How will it get to you? We decided we would deliver the cooked lamb in a bag, with a convenient baking tray for cooking at home. Yes, that’s right – we even think about whether you’ll have the right-sized baking tray, and then take away that worry!
Thank you to the fabulous Dinner Ladies new product development team:
Sarah Boswell, Menu director
Megan Shatar, New product development specialist
Mandeep Gill, Food technologist
Evelyn Morris, Recipe tester
Oyuka Myagmar, Process development co-ordinator