Shelf-stable food (sometimes ambient food) is food of a type that can be safely stored at room temperature in a sealed container such as a pouch. This includes foods that would normally be stored refrigerated but which have been processed so that they can be safely stored at room or ambient temperature for a usefully long shelf life.
Various food preservation and packaging techniques are used to extend a food’s shelf life. Decreasing the amount of available water in a product, increasing its acidity, or irradiating or otherwise sterilizing the food and then sealing it in an air-tight container are all ways of depriving bacteria of suitable conditions in which to thrive. All of these approaches can all extend a food’s shelf life without unacceptably changing its taste or texture.
A retort pouch is constructed from a flexible metal-plastic laminate that is able to withstand the thermal processing used for sterilization. The food is first prepared, either raw or cooked, and then sealed into the retort pouch. The pouch is then heated to 116-121°C (240-250°F) for several minutes under high pressure inside a retort or autoclave machine. The food inside is cooked in a similar way to pressure cooking. This process reliably kills all commonly occurring microorganisms (particularly Clostridium botulinum), preventing it from spoiling.
The packaging process is very similar to canning, except that the package itself is flexible. The lamination structure does not allow permeation of gases from outside into the pouch. The retort pouch construction varies from one application to another, as a liquid product needs different barrier properties than a dry product, and similarly an acidic product needs different chemical resistance than a basic product.