Buying the Best

Buying tomatoes at the height of summer is the first step toward getting juicy, flavorful fruit. Here are a few other shopping guidelines.

go for local

The best way to ensure that you get a flavorful tomato is to buy a locally grown one. Why? First, the shorter the distance the tomato has to travel, the riper it can be when it’s picked. Second, commercial high-yield production can strain the tomato plant, resulting in tomatoes without enough sugars and other flavor compounds to make them tasty. Third, to withstand the rigors of machine harvesting and long-distance transport, commercial varieties are bred to be sturdier, with thicker walls and less of the jelly and seeds that give a tomato most of its flavor.

Try an Heirloom

Grown for decades from naturally pollinated plants and seeds that haven’t been hybridized (unlike commercial varieties), heirlooms are some of the best local tomatoes you’ll find.

Looks Aren’t Everything

Oddly shaped tomatoes are fine (only commercial tomatoes have been bred to be perfectly symmetrical). Even cracked skin is OK, but avoid tomatoes that are bruised, overly soft, or leaking juice. Choose tomatoes that smell fruity and feel heavy.

Anatomy of a Flavorful Tomato

The best-tasting tomatoes tend to have thin walls, which leaves more room for the most flavorful part of the tomato: the jelly that surrounds the seeds, which is three times richer in savory glutamates than the flesh is. Some sources recommend removing the seeds to avoid their bitter taste, but we haven’t found that they negatively affect flavor.

Worthy Tomato Tool

A knife works well to core a tomato, but our favorite corer is inexpensive ($2.99) and cuts prep time in half—handy when you’re making our gratin or working with large quantities for stuffing, canning, or sauce.

Go Ahead and Refrigerate Ripe Tomatoes

Standard wisdom dictates that ripe tomatoes shouldn’t be refrigerated. In theory, this is because cold kills their flavor-producing enzymes and ruins their texture by causing cells to rupture. But recently, numerous cooking blogs have challenged this thinking, so we decided to conduct our own tests.

Over two summers, we acquired heirloom and farmers’ market tomatoes that had never been refrigerated (most supermarket tomatoes are refrigerated during storage and/or transport). Once they were ripe, we halved some tomatoes and left others whole. We then refrigerated one set and left the second set at room temperature, storing them until they started to degrade. We stored the whole tomatoes loose and the cut tomatoes either in airtight containers or wrapped in plastic wrap. We then sampled the refrigerated and unrefrigerated tomatoes plain at room temperature and in batches of gazpacho and cooked tomato sauce.

Some tasters noted that the cut tomatoes in the plain tasting had picked up off-flavors in the refrigerator, but once the tomatoes had been cooked, tasters could not tell the difference between the samples. The flavor of whole tomatoes was unaffected by refrigeration. Plus, refrigerating them prolonged their shelf life by five days. Cut tomatoes didn’t last more than a day at room temperature, but they held fine for up to two days in the refrigerator.

In the future, we’ll move both cut and whole ripe tomatoes to the refrigerator to prolong their shelf life. To keep them from picking up off-flavors, we’ll put them in an airtight container, which works better than plastic wrap at keeping out odors.