Tomatoes are one of the most vital and versatile vegetables (OK, fruits) to have in the kitchen, but they can also be hard to check for quality. Just because they're are available year-round doesn't mean they're going to be good year-round -- anyone who's ever had a fresh one straight from the honest soil of a home garden knows that eating the eerily perfect tomatoes that show up in the produce aisle in February is like biting into a ball of wet paper. But these perfectly round, red orbs look so immaculate! How can we know whether the tomato we're buying is going to be a juicy treat or a flavorless disappointment?
First, check how the tomato looks on the outside. The best tomatoes are completely free of blemishes and bruises and should be a deep, bright red. Any tomato that looks dull or pale is going to be lackluster. Steer clear of any discolorations -- even a small black spot can mean hidden rot on the inside.
While appearance is a good indicator of quality, don't be fooled by a pretty exterior. Like many fruits, tomatoes are often picked while they're still green, making them more durable for transport but less palatable once they get to the grocery store. Often they ripen in transit, but some tomatoes are sprayed with ethylene gas to speed up ripening. Artificially ripened tomatoes are bland, so for the best grocery store tomatoes, look for the phrase "vine-ripened" or find a farmer's market where you can buy from local growers.
Second, test how the tomato feels. How much give is there when you squeeze it? How heavy is it? A good tomato is firm enough to resist pressure, but not so hard that it doesn't react to your touch. Watch out for soft spots -- they're well on their way to becoming bruises, which reduce the tomato's shelf life. Tomatoes that are no longer fresh will feel unnaturally soft all over, and they're days away from turning into piles of goo. Heft should also be a factor in your decision. Juicier tomatoes are denser, while unripe tomatoes feel a little too light. Touch is also a good way to test heirloom tomatoes, which can be purple, lumpy, tiny or green even when ripe.
Finally, test the tomato for its scent. Smell the tomato up by the stem; it should have a strong, sweet, earthy odor. The more fragrant a tomato is, the more flavorful it will be, so be wary of tomatoes that don't smell like anything. Whenever possible, avoid buying tomatoes in plastic wrap or packaging. The only way to be sure that you're getting a good tomato is to inspect it yourself.