The Ultimate Guide to Tomatoes
Everything you need to know about summer’s shining achievement — buying, storing, and enjoying every juicy bite
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Tomato guide photographs by Olga Ivanova
In the Northeast, where I live, we’re fast approaching my favorite time on the food calendar: tomato season. This past weekend my weekly farmers’ market had a few heirloom tomato varieties on offer with hefty price tags (and rightly so — the first of the season is a big deal!). But within the next two or three weeks, tomato plants will be pumping out their bounty, more and different varieties will start to come in, and the buying (and eating!) frenzy will begin.
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How to buy tomatoes
When I shop, I always try to spend a few minutes speaking with the farmers. Who knows better than they do how to select and store fruits and vegetables? Over the years, I’ve picked up some seriously helpful tips.
The #1 piece of advice I receive from farmers at the market? Don’t squeeze the tomatoes! You risk bruising the delicate flesh, and if you then put it back, do you really think the next person will want to buy it? Instead, look for these markers of deliciousness.
The color should be bright and vivid, unless it’s an heirloom variety with a naturally dusky appearance.
Pick up the tomato gently and take a sniff. It should be aromatic and distinctly tomatoey.
Consider how it feels in your hand. A tomato that feels heavy for its size will be nice and juicy.
With cherry and grape tomatoes, look for firm skin and intense color. No puckers or wrinkles!
How to ripen tomatoes
Once you get your bounty home, you’re faced with what to do with your tomatoes. If they're still quite firm and don't have much fragrance, you can ripen them.
Store unripe tomatoes at room temperature, in a single layer, stem side down. That helps them retain all their juices while they ripen.
You know a tomato is ripe when it feels somewhat soft and smells fragrant. Just how soft depends on the type of tomato — heirloom tomatoes tend to be softer than roma tomatoes, for example.
How to store tomatoes
Let's say you happened to get overeager at the market, or your home garden is going gangbusters, and you are now faced with more tomatoes than you can use in the near term. You've got options.
How long do tomatoes last? Ripe tomatoes only keep one to two days before they become mushy, overripe blobs, so you need to eat, refrigerate, freeze, or can them.
How to tell when tomatoes are bad. If tomatoes are squishy, moldy, and/or oozy, they are bad and you should send them to the compost bucket.
Can you refrigerate tomatoes? In short, yes. I heard for years that you should never refrigerate a tomato, because the cold air would turn it mealy and flavorless. According to scientists, there’s some truth to that. But it’s more complicated than a blanket “never refrigerate tomatoes” statement. The cold will extend their shelf life and keep them from ripening further. It does affect their flavor, though, so let refrigerated tomatoes come to room temperature before you use them.
Can you freeze tomatoes? Yes, but they will get mushy once they're thawed, so plan to use them for cooking. Remove the peels (see how to blanch tomatoes, below). Then pack them in airtight containers, leaving about 1/2 inch headspace, and freeze up to 1 year.
How to blanch tomatoes. Blanching is the same as peeling tomatoes. Bring a pot of water to a boil, add tomatoes, and boil until their skins loosen easily with the tip of a knife, usually 15 to 30 seconds. Then transfer the tomatoes to ice water until they're cool enough to handle. Now you can easily pull off the peels.
How to can tomatoes. Despite their sweet-tart flavor, tomatoes are considered a low-acid food. Canning is easy, but it's important to follow USDA guidelines to prevent botulism. Add 2 tablespoons lemon juice per quart and boil the jars of tomatoes in a water bath for 45 minutes. This recipe for How to Can Tomatoes takes you through all the steps.
The basics: How to slice and dice tomatoes
Do you have a super-sharp knife? If so, slicing and dicing tomatoes is a breeze. If not, reach for a serrated knife such as a steak knife or small bread knife to avoid mashing the tomatoes as you cut through the skin.
How to slice tomatoes. Set a tomato on its side and simply cut through to create round slices. Cutting the tomato horizontally like this will give you pieces with both skin and juicy interior that hold together for topping a burger.
How to dice tomatoes. First cut wide slices. Then stack a few slices at a time and make parallel cuts. Turn your knife 45 degrees and make a second set of parallel cuts to create small pieces.
Health benefits of tomatoes
Tomatoes are an excellent source of the antioxidant lycopene, a type of carotenoid (pigment) that gives them their bright red color. They're also a good source of vitamin C and potassium.
Types of tomatoes
Tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum), a member of the nightshade family, originated in South America thousands of years ago. And while there are thousands of different varieties of tomatoes, the basic types of tomatoes we have in the marketplace are heirlooms, beefsteak, plum or roma, and cherry or grape. Read on to learn more about them and how to enjoy them in recipes.
When I was a kid, heirloom tomatoes didn’t exist. Well, they existed, but mostly in people’s private vegetable gardens. I didn’t experience the glory of a perfect heirloom until I was well into adulthood. Now, they’re all I think about this time of year — Brandywine, Cherokee Purple, Green Zebra, Mortgage Lifter, Black Krim — even the names are alluring. Rather than a specific type of tomato, “heirloom” simply indicates an older, non-hybrid tomato variety, one that hasn’t been cross-bred to make it uniform and suitable for early harvest and shipping. This means they’re more delicate than supermarket types, and usually more flavorful. Some varieties are suitable for cooking, but I mostly eat them raw, to let the tomato flavor really shine.
With spectacular tomatoes, it takes very little effort to make a memorable salad. In this one, large heirloom tomatoes and cherry tomatoes meet up with salty feta, chopped herbs, and briny capers. A mix of colors — red tomatoes, yellow tomatoes, and green tomatoes, say — makes this especially stunning, with no extra effort. Add some sourdough toast to sop up the exquisite juices, and I could eat this all summer.
Speaking of bread sopping up the juices, have you ever tried panzanella? When I have ripe tomatoes and just-past-fresh bread, nothing makes me happier. It takes a little more time than a regular ol’ salad, since you toast the bread a bit first and then let the mixture sit and infuse the crunchy cubes with sweet-acidic-sharp flavors. Add some leftover chicken, fresh mozzarella, or other protein, and it’s a complete meal.
Think of this as the best open-faced BLT you’ll ever eat: Toast slathered with mayo, topped with sliced heirlooms, crisp crumbled bacon, and chopped chives. With so few ingredients, make sure you’re using the most flavorful types of each. Hand-slice the bread off a good loaf from the bakery; choose a nice, smoky bacon; and of course use only perfectly ripe heirlooms.
At the height of summer, I don’t want to spend a lot of time with a hot oven. Which is what makes this tart so ideal: You’re only baking the puff pastry crust for about 15 minutes, then spreading on a ricotta-basil-lemon filling. Top it all off with oodles of sliced heirlooms and a simple garnish. Ta-da, it’s ready!
When you picture a tomato, odds are a large tomato called a beefsteak pops into your mind. These slicing tomatoes are what you turn to when you’re looking to top a burger or add flavor to a grilled cheese sandwich. They’re large and meaty so they can stand up to a lot, but they also have a lot of juiciness, which can make sauces or soups too watery.
Tomato is a fruit, so it’s no surprise that it pairs beautifully with other fruits. Here, peaches and fresh-cut corn combine for a simple, sweet, and flavorful salad. Tangy feta on top keeps it from going too far towards sweetness.
On a hot summer night, it’s hard to beat the ease of a no-cook pasta sauce. This one calls for nothing more than diced beefsteak tomatoes, a little bit of sweet onion, fresh mozzarella, and basil. It should be on the table in under 30 minutes.
The word “simple” is in the name of these beauties, but the flavor is anything but. Italian sausage, scallions, baby spinach, and feta get mixed with cooked orzo, then stuffed inside scooped-out beefsteaks and baked. You wind up with something that feels both sophisticated and old-school, in the best way.
Turn to this recipe when your impulse control fails and you come home with too many beefsteaks. Cut them in half, season with truly basic ingredients, douse with olive oil, and roast. The juices cook out, the flavor intensifies, and you’ve got something so delicious you can pretend you bought all those tomatoes on purpose. Pop ‘em in the freezer for whenever you need a hit of summer.
Plum or roma tomatoes
Oblong, with thick skins and solid, meaty flesh, plum tomatoes (also called paste tomatoes) are the classic option for sauce, and are what’s inside cans. All this makes them great for cooking — but it also makes them perfect for raw dishes where you want something less watery than a beefsteak. Famous San Marzano tomatoes, traditionally grown at the base of Mt. Vesuvius in Italy, are an especially sweet, low-acid, and meaty plum tomato.
Cold, refreshing gazpacho is one of my favorite ways to use up a bunch of ripe plum tomatoes. Two pounds go into the blender along with some cucumber, bell pepper, red onion, and garlic. The whole thing gets whirred together, with olive oil adding richness and sherry vinegar adding a burst of acid.
Roasting brings out the umami in plum tomatoes. This one extra step leads to a sauce that’s so intensely tomatoey, you’ll want to eat it right out of the pot.
This fresh tomato salsa works beautifully with plum tomatoes, because their firm texture won’t lead to a watery mess. Is there anything sadder than a salsa that weeps so much it softens your tortilla chips? With so few ingredients, make sure your tomatoes are fully ripe.
Cherry or grape tomatoes
When I need tomatoes in the off-season, I turn to the bite-sized varieties. They’ve got the most tomato flavor year-round. This time of year, though, I mostly opt for cherry — in particular, deeply flavored varieties like Sun Gold. Round cherry tomatoes are more delicate than their grape-shaped cousins, with considerably more juice. In this category you'll also find tiny pear tomatoes, and a variety of nontraditional colors like black cherry. Use them raw for snacking and in salads, roasted, or sauteed until they burst.
Grape and cherry tomatoes make excellent fodder for skewers. They’re self-contained so you don’t need to chop anything, and they can hold their own against a flame. Here, they add a sweet, juicy contrast to beefy steak and intensely herbal chimichurri sauce.
A brief soak in a mixture of olive oil, red wine vinegar, lemon juice, onion, and garlic elevates humble little cherry tomatoes into a versatile condiment superstar. They’ll dress up even the most ho-hum chicken breast.
Cumin seeds add a surprising pop to this easy appetizer. Toss the tomatoes with those seeds plus some other simple seasoning and roast, then broil to give them a bit of char. Serve them over lemony yogurt with bread for scooping.
I can’t get over how easy and yet special this recipe turns out to be. Crisp up the skin of white fish fillets in a skillet, then add cherry tomatoes and lemon wedges and slide it under the broiler. That direct heat bursts the tomatoes and caramelizes the lemon, making an instant sauce for the flaky fish.
Bonus: mix-em-up tomatoes
Sometimes the bounteous displays overwhelm my good judgment and I come home with gorgeous specimens of all shapes, colors, and sizes. Their differing water contents and skin types can make it challenging to use all the tomato types together, but where there’s a will there’s a way, right?
When summer tomatoes are at their peak, you really don’t need much more than a drizzle of good olive oil, some flaky salt, and a few grinds of pepper. That said, I love to liven things up a little — like with this salad, which tosses several pounds of mixed tomatoes with a white balsamic vinaigrette, then tops them with quick pickled onions and peppery microgreens.
Here’s a clever way to get around the different cooking times and textures of mixed tomatoes: This recipe has you slowly cook down whatever kind of tomatoes you have, as long as it adds up to 8 cups of chunks. When it’s all broken down and thickened, an immersion blender takes care of the skins — you wind up with a fresh-tasting, versatile sauce that you can use right away or freeze for those cold winter months.
I love the briny, pungent flavor of a long-simmered puttanesca sauce. This version turns that on its head a bit by leaving everything raw. To make it, you puree some beefsteak tomatoes and seasoning to make a saucy consistency, then stir in chopped cherry tomatoes, olives, and capers. When the spaghetti’s ready you add it to the tomatoes along with some chopped parsley, a few pats of butter for lusciousness, and a splash of starchy pasta-cooking water. The dish is basically ready in the time it takes to cook a pot of pasta. Perfect for a hot summer night!
Here's to tomato season and beyond
Whether tomato growing season is just getting started in your neck of the woods or it's well underway, you'll want to be ready when you encounter an Early Girl, Better Boy, Amish, big beef, Brandywine tomato, or... Here's to continued inspiration with all the varieties of summer's favorite ingredient, as well as all the other fresh vegetables coming into the market.