The Best Way to Store Tomatoes, According to a Tomato Farmer
Their business is good tomatoes, so they know the secrets.
The magic of a perfectly ripe tomato is a fleeting moment in the heat of summer. The window of the year when the large, juicy fruits are at their most impeccable state of flavor, texture, and ripeness is brief, but it is glorious. Whether you’re a green-thumbed grower or you just frequent your farmers’ market on the weekend to stock up on the freshest local ‘maters, you can only get your money’s (or time’s) worth if you properly store these glorious fruits once you’re home.
We asked Andrew Kesterson, farmer at Belle Meadow Farm in Tuscaloosa, Ala., how he stores his own prize-worthy heirloom tomatoes. Even the most ardent tomato fan will learn a bit from Kesterson.
You want to cool the tomato but not make it cold. “Field heat” is the temperature at which the tomato continues to ripen. It tarts just above warmer room temp, so in order to keep ripe tomatoes from becoming overripe too quickly, you’ll need to cool them below this point. A root cellar or wine cellar would be an ideal spot because temperatures are typically between 55°F and 70°F. Even a cool utility room or pantry would work. Avoid the sun, if you can. The rays warm the tomatoes, which could cause them to ripen even more.
A fridge is just too cold. If you put those big, juicy tomatoes in a fridge, you’re doing some damage to the flavor, texture, even the color by halting enzyme activity. For unripe tomatoes, this means the fruit may never fully form its delicious acidic bite, firm flesh, and the proper gel-to-water ratio. For ripe tomatoes, slowing the enzyme activity can reduce some of the flavor you’re seeking. But if you do decide to use the fridge, you can recover the tomatoes just a bit. Be sure to set the tomatoes at room temperature for several hours before you slice into them for a tomato tart. Warming them up will jump-start the enzyme activity again.
The “shoulders” of the tomato, or the part nearest the stem, are sturdier than the delicate bottoms of the fruits. A bit of pressure from a countertop or basket is all it takes to bruise the bottoms. Before you know it, they’ll rot. For better storage, flip the tomatoes upside down, keeping the shoulders on the hard counter. If that part of the tomato bruises, you won’t lose much. You’ll be slicing it off and discarding it anyway. Also, don’t stack tomatoes on one another. The pressure can be enough to bruise the fruits and invite rotting.
Should You Ever Refrigerate a Tomato?
Ideally, no. The cold temps of a fridge do damage tomatoes, and even the best recovery methods won’t help them regain their former glory. But there may come a time when you need to in order to keep a big bounty of really ripe tomatoes from rotting before you can use them.
Storing tomatoes in a fridge will stop the fruit’s enzyme process. This will reduce flavor, increase sugars, and may create a mealy texture. Sometimes, cold tomatoes lose their beautiful colors, too. But this may all be preferable to tossing out a bushel of tomatoes you grew or purchased from your favorite tomato farmer.
If you do decide to chill your tomatoes in the fridge, you can regain a bit of that enzyme activity—and the flavor and texture—just by bringing the tomatoes to room temp before you slice them for a tomato salad or tomato sandwich. Put them shoulders-side down on a counter out of the sun. Let them warm thoroughly before you use them.