Do you grow your own tomatoes? It wouldn’t be surprising — 93% of gardeners in the U.S. do! Or maybe you — like me — rely on the grocers or farmers’ market for your “love apples.” No matter where you get them (or what you call them), tomatoes are plentiful, versatile, and scrumptious.
In the U.S., we each eat about 24 pounds of tomatoes annually. And they’re very good for us — a medium tomato has only about 22 calories and provides vitamin C, fiber, and potassium. It’s also rich in the antioxidant lycopene. (Antioxidants are those substances that protect cells from damage caused by free radicals. And free radicals are waste molecules that your body produces in reaction to environmental stressors.)
Tomatoes come in a variety of inspiring (for the cook!) colors — including red, green, orange, pink, purple, black, and yellow. (BTW, orange and yellow tomatoes are usually less acidic than red tomatoes.) Some are soft and meaty, others have an almost crunchy pop when you bite into them. Sizes range from little cherry tomatoes to big beefsteaks, and the flavors swing from sweet to tangy.
Types of tomatoes
Did you know that there are over 10 thousand varieties of tomatoes? We won’t cover them all (!), but here are some you’re likely to come across when shopping:
- Globe — These are ordinary slicing tomatoes. Globes are medium sized and mildly flavored, often used in salads and on sandwiches and burgers. Globe tomatoes come in red, yellow, or green. (Who else loves fried green tomatoes?)
- Beefsteak — Big, mildly flavored tomatoes, beefsteaks are often found on burgers and sandwiches. They’re very juicy, which also makes them a good choice for sauces, salsa, and dips. Red beefsteaks are more common, but there are also green beefsteak tomatoes, which are tart and unexpectedly fun on sandwiches.
- Cherry — Small, round, and colorful cherry tomatoes are perfect for snacking on or tossing in salads. They’re also delicious roasted or grilled. They come in red, purple, yellow, and orange — and all the colors are are tender, sweet, and juicy.
- Cocktail — Good for delicate sauces and in salads, cocktail tomatoes are sweet and juicy. They have soft skins and not many seeds. They’re also perfect for snack trays and dipping.
- Grape — These thicker-skinned tomatoes hold their shape better than other tomatoes when roasted in the oven. They come in a variety of colors and tastes (red will be sweeter; yellow will be tangier).
- Roma — Italian plum tomatoes, romas are oblong and tangy. They’re denser and meatier than other tomatoes and are most often used for cooking, especially sauces, stews, and pastes. They’re also perfect roasted for pasta or bruschetta. For some reason, they’re usually less expensive than other varieties in the produce aisle.
- Heirloom — Don’t miss any opportunity to try an heirloom tomato! They come from seeds that have been passed down for generations and vary in color, shapes (some are quite unusual!), and sizes. They tend to be meaty and juicy, though the taste may range from sweet to tangy. Heirlooms are terrific for salads and dishes where tomatoes are featured. They’re also excellent sliced and simply served with a drizzle of olive oil, splash of balsamic vinegar, and a dash of salt and pepper.
At the grocers or farmers’ market, here’s what to look for:
- Local grower. Tomatoes that were grown nearby will taste better. They’ll be better for you, too. Those that were picked green halfway across the country (or across the border) and shipped unripe won’t have the flavor or nutrition of those grown by a local farmer, ripened on the vine, and harvested just recently.
- Bright, shiny skin and consistent coloring. Green or yellow patches on a red tomato may mean it was picked unripe.
- Weight. The tomato should look plump and feel heavy for its size. BTW, tomatoes increase in weight as they ripen, even after being harvested.
- Texture. The skin should be smooth, with no bruising or wrinkling, and it should give a bit to gentle pressure. (Grape and cherry tomatoes, especially, become wrinkled when they’re past their prime.)
Whether you have a bounty of tomatoes from your garden or a few good picks from the market, here’s how to keep tomatoes tasting their best for as long as possible.
To refrigerate or not to refrigerate?
You may have heard that you should not refrigerate tomatoes, and, in general, that’s true. Refrigerating a tomato will quickly deteriorate its quality — both texture and flavor. However, if your tomato is perfectly ripe, you’ll want to refrigerate it to keep it from going bad on the counter — which it quickly will!
So, bottom line: Unless your tomato is fully ripe, don’t put it in the refrigerator. And to maximize fresh, ripe flavor, don’t buy more tomatoes than you’ll soon be using or putting up. (Go ahead and stock up on in-season tomatoes if you plan to can them!)
On the counter
To keep your tomatoes on the counter until they’re fully ripe:
- Gently clean off any dirt with a clean towel.
- Remove the stems.
- Place them in a single layer; don’t stack them or they’ll bruise from the pressure.
- Keep them out of direct sunlight. Sunlight will both deteriorate tomatoes and diminish their vitamin C content.
- Once a tomato is ripe, use it up or move it to the refrigerator.
There are two main schools of thought about how to place tomatoes while storing — stem side up or stem side down. Some experts recommend storing tomatoes stem side down while they’re still ripening. This keeps moisture from evaporating out from where the stem was, and it keeps mold and bacteria from entering the tomato by blocking air from entering.
Others say you should never turn a tomato stem side down, because the top of the tomato is the most delicate part, and it will become bruised more quickly when stored this way.
Still others recommend leaving tomatoes right side up but placing a piece of tape over the stem area. There’s no one right answer, apparently! (I take the stems off, leave them stem side up, uncovered.)
Need your tomato to hurry up and ripen? If your unripe tomato needs some encouragement, store it in a paper bag with an apple. The apple will release ethylene gas to help it ripen faster.
In the refrigerator
If a tomato is perfectly, lusciously, fully ripe, it needs to be located in a cool spot. Best would be a root cellar or a cool pantry or someplace with a temperature of between 55 and 70 degrees. If there’s no other cool spot, the refrigerator will do. A few tips:
- Place tomatoes near the front of the refrigerator, on the top shelf, rather than in the back, on the bottom, where it’s coldest.
- Let tomatoes come to room temperature before serving, and they’ll taste much better. (If serving sliced, slice while cold, and then let the tomato come to room temp, which it will do more quickly after slicing.)
- Take care not to stack your tomatoes in the refrigerator or to place anything else on top of them!
Can I freeze tomatoes?
You can freeze tomatoes that you’ll later use for sauces or soups (but not for slicing). Remove stems and then remove the skin by blanching them (place in boiling water for about 15 seconds, then dip in cold water. The skins will slip right off.) Then cut them in half. Remove the seeds and place the tomatoes in an airtight container. (You can chop them up if you like.) They’ll keep in the freezer for a few months this way.
For other long-term storage, you can pressure can, dry, or pickle tomatoes, too. The National Center for Home Food Preservation has some good instructions and recipes.
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