High-tech Tomato Taste

Feb. 24, 2002

About six months pass between the time a tomato seed is planted, bears fruit and is made into a pizza sauce.

And then 15 seconds is all it takes for a good pizza cook to spread a spoodle's worth of it on a sheet of dough.

Chances are strong the cook never gives a thought to the effort required to make that sauce -- especially during a Friday night rush. But to ignore the details of how that happens is to miss a story steeped in history, born of hard work and shaped by high technology.

"To think any part of the pizza business is off the shelf and standard is dramatically wrong," said Ron Peters, founder and CEO of Paradise Tomato Kitchens in Louisville, Ky. The company is a custom tomato sauce manufacturer for several foodservice chains. "It's never as simple as most people might assume."

Canned Presentation

Once harvested (see related story, "From the Field to the Factory"), tomatoes are taken to one of two types of canneries: one for stewed tomatoes; another for tomato paste. They're next unloaded into water flumes that wash and transport the fruit into the cannery.

Using a mix of machines and human labor, the tomatoes are sorted graded and moved to an area where they are peeled using one of two predominant methods: caustic peeling; and steam peeling.

Caustic peeled tomatoes are bathed in a solution of water and lye, which dissolves the skin. Steam peeled tomatoes are blasted briefly with steam and then moved quickly to a chamber where, under pressure, the skin literally explodes off.

In a stewed tomato cannery, the tomatoes are left whole, diced or cut into strips mechanically, and placed in a blending kettle where seasonings are added and the product is cooked.

When finished, the hot product is placed in cans, which are topped off with tomato juice or puree, vacuum sealed and then moved to a cooker. To kill any microorganisms, the filled cans are heated to an internal temperature of 190-205 F for about 45 minutes.

To halt the cooking cycle, the cans are moved to a rotary or belt cooler, which bathes or sprays the containers with cool water. Once sufficiently cooled, the cans are dried, placed on pallets and shrink-wrapped.

Paste Case

A half century ago, stewed tomatoes made up 75 percent of the tomato processing industry's output. Today, it's just the opposite.

"Changes like that have moved the industry from a fresh pack industry putting up product once a year, to a remanufacturing industry making sauce year round."

Chris Rufer Founder, Morning Star Packing

Over those 50 years, technological advances in processing continually reduced the cost of manufacturing tomato products, which, in turn, ultimately improved the quality of tomato paste.

"Before then, processors would put up tomato paste in large cans, which were used to remanufacture tomato products later," said Chris Rufer, founder of Morning Star Packing in Woodland, Calif. "But with the larger cans, you couldn't cool the product off fast enough, and you'd have a bad-quality product."

Specifically, the paste was more brown than red, and bland to boot.

Throughout the 1960s and '70s, processors learned to concentrate tomato pulp to paste using a combination of heat and vacuum. The vacuum's lower-than-atmospheric pressure caused the pulp to boil in different stages ranging from 115 F to 194 F, rather than at 212 F in an open kettle. The finished product not only retained much of its bright red color, but was much fresher tasting as well.

Bulk of paste also was significantly improved. Injecting the paste into a vacuum chamber cooled the product rapidly, which preserved product integrity.

It then could be stored in tanks holding tens of thousands of gallons rather than just individual containers. The paste then could be pumped into any-size container, including enormous bins holding 3,000 pounds of product.

"That saves on costs for transportation because you're shipping the concentrates only," said Rufer. "Changes like that have moved the industry from a fresh pack industry putting up product once a year, to a remanufacturing industry making sauce year round."

Custom Blended

Chains strive to ensure their pizza sauces taste the same whether their stores are in Missoula or Miami. Therefore, chains have relied increasingly on custom sauce manufactures to perfect and produce their signature products.

Sauce manufacturers work closely with product developers at pizza chains to establish flavor profiles, then manufacture, package and ship those products as needed, year round.

Those efforts begin with as early as December, with continual communication between sauce manufacturers and tomato processors. The work typically culminates in long-term visits to California, where manufacturers monitor the packing of their products during the harvest.

"The communication process is an orchestrated scenario all through the year," said Peters, whose company custom manufactures pizza sauce for five of the top 15 U.S. pizza chains. "As the harvest season in California starts around July, we get in unison with the packer and the grower. And then when it's time to run our products, I and my QA (quality assurance) people go to California."

Even when Peters isn't in California, he's in constant contact with at least two representatives of his company who monitor the entire pack. Results of quality tests are reported hourly, giving Paradise's staff the opportunity to look for variances. "If we find a concern with those, then we postpone our run to get it right."

Like Paradise, Red Gold, Inc., invites its customers to see the pack for themselves. Though the company is a Midwestern processor based in Elwood, Ind., Red Gold buys its paste from California processors.

"We want them to see the process and understand what really goes in to it," said David Halt, director of foodservice for Red Gold. "There are a lot of details people never think about until they've seen the process for themselves."

At the Factory

At Paradise, paste shipments are received by rail in massive 3,000 pound containers. With each container comes an extensive amount of data about that particular batch of paste. Armed with key information such as the processing date, its water-soluble solids (a measure of concentration), pH and sugar-to-acid ratios, the production staff can target which customer's product will be made from that paste and how.

"We even want those bins shipped to us in a certain sequential order so we can use them in our own sequential order for production," Peters said. "Every step of the way, we're using a lot of information to determine how best to handle that product."

The vast improvements in paste, said Peters, have allowed factories like his to make products year round rather than just during the harvest as was done for most of the last century. Adding seasonings just before the sauce is packed, he believes, lowers flavor degradation occurring over long storage times.

"Some might say those flavor changes are marginal, but I'd disagree with them," said Peters, whose company packs its products in flexible plastic pouches. "Making sauce year round gives us a lot of control over the flavor and freshness."

Topics: Pizza Sauce

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