When it's the middle of winter in North America, fresh, local, seasonal fruits are scarce. Imports from the Southern Hemisphere can fill in some gaps, as can the ever-expanding selection of frozen fruit. The latter category offers plenty of variety and convenience; the fruit comes ready to use—peeled, if necessary, and sliced, chunked or diced if appropriate—saving time and labor.
Processors who freeze fruit can pick it at the peak of freshness and ripeness and immediately preserve the flavor and texture through IQF (Individually Quick Frozen) technology. This allows the individual pieces of fruit to travel through a freezing tunnel and become frozen within 15 to 20 minutes. The speed of the process is a big advantage—the product doesn’t have time to break down. The resulting fruit is free flowing and won’t clump together. About 95 percent of frozen fruit is IQF; the rest is frozen in syrup.
“What comes out at the end of the IQF tunnel depends on what you put in,” says Bob Barnhouse, VP of Operations for Dole’s frozen fruit processing division in Atwater, California, “and there’s been a significant improvement in the varieties of fruit grown for freezing. They have better texture, flavor and appearance, resulting in a higher quality frozen product.” Dole is currently working to develop new fruit varieties and experimenting with IQF processes to bring frozen fruit even closer in appearance and texture to fresh.
While frozen strawberries are still the top seller, there’s been growth in blueberries, blackberries and raspberries, as well as fruit blends, such as peachmango and mixed berries. Buyers are also showing interest in specialty fruits, like sliced cranberries and pomegranate arils, Barnhouse adds. For foodservice, the most common packaging is the 5-pound self-sealing poly bag packed two to a carton; 20-pound bulk packs are also available.
When evaluating a frozen fruit product, open the bag and sniff; the product should have a fresh fruit aroma. Appearance is key, Barnhouse explains. The color should be bright and natural looking and last three to four hours at room temperature without oxidizing. “If you’re chopping up the fruit or using it in smoothies, it’s all about color and flavor,” he says. “If you’re using the fruit whole, the size of the pieces or berries should be uniform with no broken pieces.” Finally, there should be no indication of ice crystals or freezer burn.
Proper handling is essential to preserve the quality of frozen fruit. It’s imperative to keep the product at or below 0°F—and preferably at -5°F—throughout the supply chain, including the restaurant kitchen. “It’s best to use the fruit when it’s still slightly frozen and cold,” Barnhouse advises. “It shouldn’t be left out to thaw for a long time at room temperature.”