As anyone who has stir-fried vegetables knows, quickly cooking foods at high temperatures makes for crisper, fresher-tasting foods than using slow-cooking methods.

So it is that over the past six years, associate professor of biological systems engineering Juming Tang and his associates have been working on new technologies to produce high-quality, ready-to-eat military rations (MREs) and “humanitarian daily rations” like those recently air-dropped in Afghanistan.

With conventional methods, lengthy processing times are necessary to kill harmful bacteria that can thrive even in hermetically sealed packages. Depending on package size and type of food, traditional  processing can take anywhere from one to two hours. By the time the core is adequately heated, the outside of the meal can overcook.

A microwave sterilization system developed in Tang’s laboratory cuts that time to approximately five minutes.

While the project is still in the pilot stage, the researchers hope their work will eventually allow the military to provide better tasting and more varied meals, including foods such as eggs, mashed potatoes, and macaroni and cheese.

Tang has received more than $350,000 in grants from the U.S. Army in the past three years. Last fall, the Department of Defense and U.S. Army approved a Dual Use Science and Technology proposal for $460,000 for a two-year project with participating faculty members from Food Science and Human Nutrition, Biological Systems Engineering, Mathematics, and Mechanical Engineering at WSU. Several U.S. food processing, packaging, and equipment companies have also committed resources. A consortium hopes to translate the pilot-scale results into commercial processes within the next four to five years. If successful, this technology could be used not only to produce high quality MREs, but also high quality shelf-stable meals for families or institutions.