It's not always easy to spot a good tomato from just a quick glance. Too many times, I've been duped by one that looked juicy and meaty, but actually ended up being watery and flavorless. When a tomato is good, it's really good (see: all these amazing tomato recipes), and when it's bad, you kind of feel like you've been taken advantage of by a piece of fruit—especially if you spent a lot on some you found at the farmers market.
Luckily, there are ways to determine if a tomato is good or not without slicing it open. For SELF, Katy Green, produce field inspector at Whole Foods Market, breaks down everything you need to about the different varieties of the fruit (including the best ways to cook with each of them), when it's in season, and what to look for to ensure you walk away with the best tomatoes every time.
First, get to know the most common types of tomatoes.
There are hundreds of types of tomatoes (really!), but Green says beefsteak, roma, cherry, grape, and heirloom tomatoes are the most common varieties you're likely to encounter. They're all delicious, and they're all great in different ways.
For example, Green recommends using beefsteak tomatoes in sandwiches, because their large size makes for the ideal slice to layer in a sandwich. Romas are great for sauces and soups because they have fewer seeds; grape tomatoes are just small enough for snacking, and cherry tomatoes just big enough for salads; and finally, she says heirloom tomatoes are best eaten raw and sprinkled with salt, because they're basically the caviar of tomatoes.
Whichever tomato you're buying, look for the same things.
No matter the variety of tomato, you'll be able to tell if it's good or not from the same indicators. Green says to start by avoiding tomatoes with any noticeable blemishes, bruising, or wrinkled skin. "Skin should be taut without wrinkling," she explains, "discoloration or dehydration on stems and calyxes [the little green star-shaped leaf beneath the stem] can indicate age or improper storage condition, and if the calyx or stem is present, it should be green."
Once you've eliminated all the obviously bad options, it's time to get a little touchy-feely. Green says that good tomatoes will be heavy for their size, so be sure to feel around until you find just the right one.
You're almost to the perfect tomato! There's just one last thing you have to do: Give it a sniff. If it smells sweet and earthy around the stem end (where it was picked off the vine), Green says you're in the clear. If not, it's back to the drawing board—er, produce aisle.
Even though you can buy them all year long, they're technically only in season in July and August.
The thing about tomatoes is that they're only ever really good when they're in season, from July through August. In fact, they're so much better during the summer, some people flat-out refuse to eat them any other time of the year, and it's highly unlikely you'll spot them on the menu at most restaurants.
Green says that this is probably because tomatoes have been bred to be shipped long distances over the last 60 years. "Generally speaking in fruit breeding, when one characteristic is increased, you often see a decrease in characteristics like flavor or texture," she explains. "This is what has led to beautiful-looking tomatoes with low sugar, mild flavor, and mealy texture." So while mass-produced tomatoes may have a thicker skin that allows them to last longer, they also generally don't taste as good as something grown locally might.
Because they aren't bred to travel long distances, locally or regionally grown tomatoes have a shorter shelf-life, but a way better flavor. Sadly, these locally grown tomatoes aren't typically available out of season, so if you do want to eat tomatoes any other time of year, you'll have to settle for something a bit less flavorful.
Contrary to popular belief, you cannot continue to ripen a tomato after it's been harvested.
If you've ever watched a tomato go from green to red, you probably think that means it's continuing to ripen, like an avocado would. But Green says that it actually isn't getting anymore flavorful—only the color is changing.
"Tomatoes are a non-climacteric fruit, which means that their sugar development stops once the fruit is removed from the plant," Green explains. The reason they often become redder is because of a gas tomatoes produce called ethylene, which is also found in things like bananas and apples. This gas increases the amount of lycopene in tomatoes, which is the chemical responsible for their vibrant color. However, it has no effect whatsoever on the sugar content of the fruit. So while ethylene will make your tomato redder, it will not make it tastier.
Put your perfect tomatoes to work in these recipes.
Cheeseburger With Herbed Corn Salad
A burger with an actually amazing slice of tomato is truly an out-of-this-world experience. Get the recipe here.
This Italian-style breakfast is all you're going to want to eat this summer. Get the recipe here.
Kale Salad With Chickpeas, Tomato, and Feta
This salad deserves the best tomatoes you can find. Get the recipe here.