I used to be really underwhelmed by tomatoes. Being from Washington state, where backyard garden tomatoes don’t even begin to get ripe some years , it was sometimes hard to believe that any tomato could taste good. It wasn’t until I moved to California that I started learning more about why tomatoes are so often bland and tasteless, and how you can find a tomato that’s just the opposite. Believe me, it’s possible!
Here are some tips I’ve picked up over the last few years:
What Kind of Tomato Should I Pick?
There are so many different kinds of tomatoes, sometimes it’s hard to know what type to pick for any given meal. While there are specific varieties like the Early Girl or the large Brandywine tomato, it’s easier to break tomatoes down into categories based on group characteristics. Here’s a helpful guide to types of tomatoes and what the difference is between each one:
When trying to decide which tomatoes to pick for different culinary uses, there are a few guidelines:
- large, round tomatoes are great for slicing, and are best for fresh tomato dishes like salsa, sandwiches, or salads.
- Roma tomatoes are smaller and aren’t watery, so they tend to make good sauces since there’s less water to evaporate.
- Cherry tomatoes are great for tomato skeptics, including kids! They can be eaten whole or sliced in half, and tend to be sweeter than other varieties with a pleasant texture. They’re great on their own, on skewers, or tossed in a salad.
Why Are Some Tomatoes Tasteless?
There’s a little secret that most of us don’t know: commercial tomatoes are often picked while green. But somehow they’re red when they end up in the store. Barry Estabrook wrote a fantastic book all about commercial tomato production in the United States called Tomatoland, and found that commercial tomato growers put these green tomatoes into a warehouse where they’re covered in ethylene gas, which turns the unripe tomatoes red. That means that even though the tomatoes weren’t on the vine long enough to produce sugars, they still appear ripe in the grocery store. Hence, tasteless tomatoes!
Location is also a great way to tell if a tomato might have a good flavor. Of the two largest tomato-producing states in the United States, California and Florida, California tends to produce better tasting tomatoes. It turns out that the humidity in Florida isn’t great for tomatoes, since tomatoes historically grew along coastal, desert areas in South America. So when you’re at the store, look for the California tomatoes.
Finally, seasonality matters! Since tomatoes tend to be summer crops, scientists have been trying to figure out how to produce better tomatoes in the winter months. However, these tomatoes are bred for qualities like a longer shelf life, thicker skin, and disease resistance. Producing a great flavor ends up really far down on the priority list. Until scientists can figure out how to achieve all of those qualities while also making a tomato taste good, summer tomatoes will always be the best tasting tomatoes!
So How Do I Pick a Good Tomato?
Since you can’t always trust the color of a tomato to be a good indicator of quality, how do you pick tasty tomatoes? Here are a couple of tips:
- Make sure the tomato skin doesn’t have blemishes or tears. A dark spot could mean rot underneath the skin. Make sure the tomato doesn’t have soft spots and is consistently firm all over.
- Farmers Markets are great places to find hand-picked, vine ripened tomatoes. If you can’t find a farmers market, look for terms like “vine ripened” in the grocery store.
- Smell it! If you smell a ripe tomato near the stem, it should have a strong, earthy smell.
If you’re looking for tomato recipes to use with your new-found tomato skills, you could try our tomato lover’s pasta salad, a tomato basil quinoa salad, or even this veggie quesadilla with a lime lovin’ salsa. Enjoy!