The best-tasting tomatoes arrive in farmer’s markets and backyard gardens during the hot months of August and September. Summer tomatoes and heirloom tomatoes are a revelation. Succulent, sweet and bursting with astounding flavor, tomatoes rank as America’s most popular home garden crop.
Botanically, the tomato is a fruit — a berry, to be precise. In 1893, however, the US classified it as a vegetable to settle a trade dispute. Whatever you want to call it, the tomato is central to the cuisine of many lands. Raw, cooked, dried, fresh or canned, its versatility is indisputable. And if that isn’t reason enough to sing its praises, the tomato is a nutritional powerhouse. It provides dietary fiber, vitamin C, iron and potassium, and is the major dietary source of lycopene. Recent studies suggest that lycopene, a carotenoid that gives the tomato its red color, is a potent antioxidant than may help prevent cancer and cardiovascular disease.
The tomato has a long history. A New World native, it was cultivated by the Aztecs and Incas as early as 700 AD. The Spanish introduced tomatoes to Europe in the 16th century, but acceptance was slow, in large part because tomatoes are members of the poisonous nightshade family. They finally gained acceptance as an edible food in the 19th century, and by the mid-1800s, close to a thousand varieties of tomatoes were being grown across the United States, most of them regionally specific. It’s from this diverse "seed pool" of heritage tomatoes that dedicated conservators and gardeners rescued the varieties known as heirlooms today.
How to select and store tomatoes
Regardless of variety, the best-tasting tomatoes are fully ripe. Choose specimens with a noticeable fragrance, a sure sign that they were picked ripe. They should feel heavy for their size and yield to gentle finger pressure. Avoid tomatoes with deep cracks, blemishes or signs of mold. Never buy refrigerated tomatoes; the cold kills their flavor and can make the flesh mealy.
Keep unripe fresh tomatoes in a paper bag at room temperature until they ripen. Store ripe tomatoes at room temperature, out of direct sunlight, and use them within a day of purchase. (Heirloom varieties are especially perishable.)
Wash your tomatoes thoroughly and cut away any damaged or bruised areas before using. Discard tomatoes that are mushy or split, appear wilted, look discolored or smell bad. Never refrigerate whole tomatoes, but always refrigerate cut tomatoes.
Tips for using tomatoes
Ripe tomatoes are juicy and will begin to release liquid as soon as they’re cut — even faster if they’re salted. If your tomatoes have thick skins, blanch them in boiling water for 30 to 60 seconds (the harder the tomato, the longer the time needed), then shock them in ice water; they should then be easy to peel.
Why choose organic tomatoes?
Cherry tomatoes are #11 (and other tomatoes are #32) on the Environmental Working Group's “Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce,” a list of produce that carries the most pesticide residues when grown conventionally. So choosing organic tomatoes makes good sense to help keep synthetic chemicals out of your diet — especially for children, whose growing bodies are so much more susceptible to environmental chemical exposures than adults’.
At Earthbound Farm, we grow our tomatoes without toxic synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, using sustainable farming methods that protect the environment and help keep pesticides out of our soil, air, water, and food supply. Organic food is the healthiest choice for people and the planet — and we think organic tomatoes taste better, too!
WhatsOnMyFood.org from the Pesticide Action Network shows you searchable results for tomatoes and a wide range of other organic and conventional foods. It’s an easy-to-use and empowering tool for learning about pesticide residues and their health effects for all of us.