What is flash steaming?

Back in a Flash: How Foods are Flash Steamed

Fire-engine-red ripe tomatoes are perfect for flash steaming, although most machines can handle different varieties and ripeness levels.
Fire-engine-red ripe tomatoes are perfect for flash steaming, although most machines can handle different varieties and ripeness levels.
Jonathan Kantor/Stockbyte/Getty Images

The process of flash steaming is so speedy that standard machines can typically process up to about 30 tons (27 metric tons) in a single hour [source: JBT FoodTech]. That speed is a bonus, since in 2004, each American alone consumed about 19 pounds (9 kilograms) of fresh tomatoes and 70 pounds (32 kilograms) of canned tomatoes [source: Rickman et al.].

Most of the tomatoes grown in the United States come from California -- its tomato crop accounts for about nine out of every 10 tomatoes processed in the country. During the height of California's tomato season, about 2 billion pounds (907 million kilograms) of tomatoes are produced each week [source: California Tomato Growers Association].

No chemicals need to be used during flash steaming, which is always a plus. Flash steaming also preserves the majority of the tomato, so not a lot is lost in the process and what is leftover can be fed to animals or used as fertilizer. And the peeled surfaces tend to come out looking nicer than they would have if left unpeeled, which is good when picky consumers are on the prowl.

Flash steaming isn't only used on tomatoes -- it can also work to peel other foods like potatoes. When it comes to tomatoes though, the ones you see in the produce section tend to be bred and processed quite a bit differently than the ones that get carted off by the truckload for processing within a matter of hours after picking.

For example, unless they're vine-ripened, tomatoes destined to be sold fresh are usually picked while they're still green so they have time to make it to the market, while ones grown for processing by flash steaming are picked nice and ripe so they have the traditional bright red hue. They've also been bred to have thicker skins, which is a good thing for those unlucky tomatoes stuck on the bottom of a 50,000-pound (about 23,000 kilogram) load -- the typical tomato truck haul size.

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