It would be ill-advised to scarf down a pizza that's been sitting on a shelf for three years. Unless, it's military-grade pizza we're talking about.
Scientists at the U.S. Army's Natick Labs look to be on the cusp of introducing one of America's most popular dishes to a slowly expanding menu of custom-made, ruggedized meals. Classified internally as MREs (Meals, Ready-to-Eat), the packets of durable, yet instantly-edible entrées were introduced in the 1980s as a palatable upgrade to freeze-dried and canned rations distributed to troops assigned to long missions. It didn't take long for soldiers to realize though that, even with a selection of a dozen entrées, what they were getting was, in the truest sense, survival food.
On one hand, using thermally sealed retort pouches to lock in moisture, while holding off spoilage, allowed for entrees with a wider range of fresh ingredients and more balanced nutrients. On the other hand, they tasted terrible, or so soldiers reported. Those serving in the infantry mocked these early offerings, calling them "Meals Rejected by Everyone" or "Meals, Rarely Edible." Nowadays, the selection has doubled, with more appetizing options like spaghetti and a vegetarian tortellini. Still, the holy grail, the most sought-after food inside the barracks, was pizza.
Coming up with a way to apply the same shelf-life-enhancing technology to "za," the most requested item not on the menu, would prove to be quite a challenge. A skilled coalition of chemists and food researchers, who previously engineered shelf-stable sandwiches that don't get soggy, was charged with the task.
The problem with pizza is that the ingredients—cheese, tomato sauce, pepperoni—possess varying levels of moisture and acidity. This meant the research team needed to figure out what combination of additives would make it so that each ingredient remained separate and stable at room temperature, otherwise they'd risk the bread getting soaked in tomato sauce—a situation ripe for mold and bacteria growth. To get the tomato sauce to hold its moisture, project head Michelle Richardson experimented with various sugars, including rice syrup, before settling on glycerol, a safe, tasteless humectant that's used as a stabilizer in ice cream. Adding certain gums and enzymes to focaccia bread, she discovered, kept it from going stale. And finally, to ensure that the pizza didn't go bad, she tweaked particular properties of the ingredients, like the acidity of the sauce, cheese and dough, to ward off bacteria and the negative effects of oxidization.
The military will serve the pizza to select personnel for taste-testing in August, with fully-baked pies slated to go into production as early as next year. The good news is that the initial reviews, from those who have tried it, are postive.
"It pretty much tastes just like a typical pan pizza that you would make at home and take out of the oven or the toaster oven," team member Jill Bates told the Associated Press. "The only thing missing from that experience would be it's not hot when you eat it. It's room temperature."
This latest recipe gives hope that field rations to come might just be more gastronomically-pleasing. So, what’s next on the Army's culinary agenda?
“Everybody loves pizza...so it’s really something that we’ve been looking forward to,” Jeremy Whitsitt, of the Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center, told the Army Times. “A close second would be beer, but I don’t think we’re close on that one.”