Think about some of your favorite meals — what springs to mind? Maybe it’s pizza, or a nice hot lasagna. Lots of us love pasta with plenty of sauce, or, as the winter months are closing in, we’re settling down with a bowl of soup. Whatever your favorite meals are, I’m willing to bet that more than one of your favorite meals involves a tomato. It’s a reliable staple, and the fresher the better.
Here at Nestlé, we use tomatoes across a wide range of products, from Stouffer’s lasagna to DiGiorno pizza. So we’ve become experts in a big question: in a frozen food, how do we ensure you’re getting the freshest tomato? I recently ventured out from Cleveland to nearby Ottawa, Ohio to visit Hirzel Canning Company, one of our valued suppliers of diced tomatoes.
Steve Hirzel welcomed me to his facility where his team works closely with tomato growers just a short drive down the road. It is clear that the relationship between Hirzel and their growers is vital to their success, as Steve explained: “We trust them, and they trust us — we want the freshest tomato and they want to grow a quality product — so it’s all about being ready and knowing when the tomatoes are going to be at their optimum flavor.”
As we were walked through a tomato field, our guide periodically picked tomatoes and sliced them in half to judge their color, flavor, and moisture content. Picking tomatoes at just the right ripeness is vital for good flavor, and Hirzel’s field man Jeff Unberferth has a nose for when it’s just right.
“Even just looking at the vine and the tomato set Jeff can get a sense of when it’ll be ready,” Steve explains. “He cuts into the tomato to look at cell structure, and can even cut into a green tomato to look at the same thing. Based on that, he can tell if the tomatoes will be ready in 15 or 20 days for picking, and we can prepare accordingly so we pick them at the right moment.”
I was stunned that anyone could tell perfect tomato timing by sight and feel. How did Jeff learn this tomato whispering skill? “Many years of experience can’t be underestimated,” Steve assured me. “If I tried, forget it, I’d be off. Jeff is incredibly valuable as an advocate both for us and for the grower.”
When the tomatoes are eventually ready for picking, the harvester keeps a close eye, taking only the best options. A color and defect sorter on the harvester uses a camera to detect blemishes, dirt, vines and more, kicking out the material that shouldn’t be picked with the fresh tomatoes. It’s even possible to adjust the sensor’s color detection, so you have control over the color of tomato you pick.
Once in Hirzel’s canning facility, the fresh tomatoes are diced or pureed and sent on to Nestlé as the best quality product. To ensure best practices in sustainable farming, Steve has a few tricks up his sleeve.
“Vines are separated from tomatoes in the field and turned back into the soil, while skins and blemishes that won’t be in the finished product are transferred from the facility to be used as compost. We drain the water out and send compost back out to the fields to help future tomatoes grow. We’ve been doing that for about 15 years now. We even take the discarded tomato seeds to be used in pet food, which is actually very nutritious!”
Water use is another area where Hirzel Canning has been an innovator. After the first wash of the tomatoes, water is then recycled and used for things like floating tomatoes out of trucks and moving them through the facility— this means the tomatoes are handled gently, preventing damage. “You try to use as much as you can of all the resources that you have. It’s become part of who we are.”
Capturing Quality, Locking in Flavor
Once the tomatoes have been harvested, it’s vital to turn them around quickly so they don’t lose their freshness. As Steve explains, holding the tomatoes for too long will degrade their quality — they’ve been picked at optimum ripeness for great taste, so that taste needs to be locked in.
“The tomatoes have been vine ripened and picked ripe. If we left them out, natural enzymes would immediately start breaking them down and they’d lose nutritional value — so we have to move fast.”
When Steve says fast, he really means it. The majority of tomatoes in Hirzel’s facility are diced, pureed, and packed within just 8 hours of being picked fresh from the vine.
That’s where Nestlé’s part begins — the freshly packed tomatoes make their way over to our big kitchens in Solon, Ohio, a short drive from Hirzel’s facility. Here in Solon, they go through a final inspection from our ingredient experts to make sure the tomatoes meet our high standards, and then they’re ready to be cooked.
That mixer you use at home to bake? That’s kind of what the mixing kettles we use to make sauces look like — it’s just that our mixers are probably a little bit bigger than yours at home!
Tomatoes are mixed with herbs and spices in the mixers, and then we add this fresh sauce to a Stouffer’s or Lean Cuisine meal and freeze it to lock in top quality flavor.
Visiting Hirzel Canning Company brought together the whole tomato journey for me. I got to see how tomatoes are bred for flavor, grown for flavor, and handled for flavor. That’s why they’re grown until fully ripe, harvested, and then prepared within hours to lock in the freshness. That’s how we get the flavor of a farmers’ market tomato right from to your freezer.
The next time you’re settling down for your favorite meal, and you taste that comforting tang of fresh tomato, give a mental hat tip to growers and suppliers like Steve who are putting their tomato whispering to work.