Talk to many chefs these days, especially in fine dining, and they’ll tell you that “local” and “seasonal” are top priorities when purchasing fresh fruit. But to fulfill menu obligations and meet customer demand, operators must sometimes resort to buying fresh fruit out of season—an easier job now that our global economy makes it possible to source fruit from around the world any time of year. Another popular option is frozen fruit—processed today to better retain quality and flavor. To make the smartest buys, each of these choices should be weighed in terms of cost, availability and end use.
The seasonality debate
“Seasonality is still important when it comes to buying fruit,” says Barbara Boyce, VP of programs for the Produce for Better Health Foundation (PBH). “Growers don’t want to see fruit on the menu when it’s below its prime, but operators are requesting product when it’s not in season.” PBH has just initiated a marketing campaign to get more fruit onto restaurant menus, especially at QSR and casual concepts—a feat that would be impossible without relying on imports during the winter. To add to demand, exotic fruits grown in warmer climates outside the United States have skyrocketed in popularity and are now mainstream ingredients in smoothies, salads, appetizers, desserts and even entrees.
What’s in season?
Much of the imported winter fruit comes from Central and South America, particularly Chile and Mexico. Grapes, peaches, plums and nectarines are the largest crops coming in from these sources. Bananas and pineapples are shipped to the United States year-round, primarily from Costa Rica, Honduras, Ecuador and Guatemala. “We source as close by as possible, so transportation time is kept to a minimum of a few days,” notes Marianne Duong, a foodservice spokesperson for Dole. Tropical fruits that fall under the specialty category, such as mangoes, kiwis, papayas, guavas and certain melons, may be shipped from as far away as New Zealand, South Africa and Fiji.
Prolonging the season
Hardier fruit varieties, mostly apples and pears, are often kept under controlled atmosphere (CA) storage to extend their “season” to the summer months following the previous fall’s harvest. Boxes or pallets of fruit are placed in large, airtight rooms and the oxygen level is reduced, usually by the addition of nitrogen gas; carbon dioxide levels are also controlled. Temperatures are maintained at 32 to 36 degrees and humidity at 95 percent in the sealed space.
CA storage allows the fruit to slowly mature without becoming overly ripe for up to 12 months or longer. According to the USDA, certain varieties of softer fruit, such as plums and grapes, are now being stored in controlled environments (regulated temperature and atmosphere) to prolong shelf life for a few months. On the flip side, tropical fruits like bananas, kiwifruit and mangoes are held in CA rooms pumped with ethylene gas to hasten ripening.
A number of purchasers still believe that peak flavor and quality comes from fruit that is shipped and sold soon after harvest, says Dean Simon, president of Pro*Act, a produce distributor with 64 distribution centers nationwide. “As a former chef, I encourage our foodservice customers to choose locally grown produce first and U.S.A.-grown fruit second. The closer you are to the source, the better the sugar development of the fruit. You’re just not going to get a peach out of Chile that tastes as good,” he comments. When fresh fruit is in small supply, Simon advises operators to be flexible, reserving scarcer seasonal fruits in specials and using imported fresh fruits in regular menu items that require ingredient consistency.
What about frozen?
Seasonality is not an issue with frozen fruits—they’re picked and processed at their peak of ripeness and retain flavor and nutrition. IQF (Individually Quick Frozen) fruit is the gold standard for frozen quality; each cut and prepped piece is frozen individually, packed in re-sealable bags and frozen until ready to use. Specific quantities can be removed and thawed as needed, then stashed back in the freezer—reducing waste and prep time.
Once frozen, the risk for contamination in fresh fruit is very low. Moister, softer fruits such as strawberries, grapes, plums and cherries have better texture and eye appeal in fresh form, while frozen peaches, pineapple, mangoes and other firm fruits are comparable to fresh if handled properly.
Frozen fruit product cutting
- Led by Stuart McAllister, Sr. Business Development Manager, Dole Packaged Foods
- Inspect cases. Each should contain two 5-pound, resealable plastic pouches.
- Packages should be frozen on arrival with no signs of thawing or leakage. IQF fruit should not be frozen in a block; that may indicate defrosting and refreezing.
- Thaw fruit in pouch by placing in refrigerator for 1 to 2 hours. Or pour fruit onto platter and thaw in refrigerator 30 to 45 minutes. To save time, microwave on defrost setting for 1 minute. Berries thaw very quickly by any method; larger pieces of fruit take longer.
- Examine fruit for signs of freezer burn or deterioration in shape, cell structure or texture.
- Taste the fruit “as is” for true flavor.
- Use the fruit in an application to test its performance. Try it from both its frozen state (in a smoothie, for example) and thawed state (in a salad).