Advertisement

How to Know What Tomato to Use for That Dish

With so many different types of tomatoes, how do you know what kind to use with certain dishes? See more pictures of heirloom tomatoes.
©iStockphoto.com/hdagli

For most of their 600 years among us, tomatoes have been a tough sell. Native to the Andes of South America, they had to travel to Mexico to find their first appreciative audience. When Spanish explorers introduced tomatoes to Europe, only Mediterranean cooks put them on the menu. Back on American soil -- North America, this time -- they were grown as ornamentals, not edibles.

Today, however, it's hard to imagine the American diet without tomatoes. Annual consumption averages 22 pounds per person, from plate-sized to bite-sized, from cream-colored to crimson, from laboratory hybrids to local treasures.

Advertisement

Advertisement

With such variety, how do you decide which are best for filling a fajita or building a BLT? We'll discuss what makes a good tomato for different applications.

First up: tomatoes are not oysters.

 

Summer is considered the best season to get tomatoes.
Summer is considered the best season to get tomatoes.
©iStockphoto.com/Jim Jurica

Before refrigeration was common, people would say you should buy oysters only in months with an "r" in their name -- that is, September through April. Shellfish spoiled quickly in the summer.

With tomatoes, the opposite is true. Summer tomatoes -- fresh, ripe, locally grown -- are unrivaled in color, flavor and juiciness. Most winter tomatoes in the supermarket were picked green and force-reddened (not necessarily ripened) for the journey from the farm. They're more durable than flavorful.

Advertisement

Advertisement

If you must have fresh tomatoes out of season, greenhouse-grown are reasonable replacements. They're increasingly available year-round, but higher production costs make them more expensive.

If winter tomatoes are destined for cooking, opt for a good-quality canned brand. With high-tech processing, they retain more appeal than their "fresh" counterparts ever had. Choose whole tomatoes -- chopped or diced forms might hide second-rate pieces.

Next, we look at choosing the cream of the crop.

The color of your tomato will tell you how ripe it is.
The color of your tomato will tell you how ripe it is.
©iStockphoto.com/nicalfc

Quality tomatoes are heavy for their size, firm but yielding, with skins that are intact and blemish-free. They have a distinct smell, especially at the stem end, that can only be described as "tomato-y." Tomatoes with no aroma have likely been refrigerated (not a good thing, as we'll see).

A tomato's color and shape should be characteristic of its variety. Color, of course, is a sign of ripeness. An odd shape often indicates that a tomato was literally nipped in the bud by cold weather, which damages its taste and texture. Color and shape together identify the tomato type, such as beefsteak, which in turn tells you whether a tomato is more sweet or acid, more "meaty" or juicy.

Advertisement

Advertisement

Once you find a worthy tomato, how do you keep it that way? Read on to find out.

If you have a paper bag, store your tomatoes in it to keep them fresh.
If you have a paper bag, store your tomatoes in it to keep them fresh.
©iStockphoto.com/Steve Debenport Imagery

Sunlight and heat trigger tomatoes to produce ethylene, the gas responsible for ripening. Once they're ripe, you want to slow the process. Store them in a cool place, about 65 degrees Fahrenheit (18 degrees Celsius), away from heat and light sources, including the windowsill. Use them within three days.

Place partially ripe tomatoes in a closed paper bag to trap the ethylene. They'll come to fruity fullness in three to five days. Include tomatoes in various stages of ripeness to assure a steady supply. Check them daily.

Advertisement

Advertisement

Cold temperatures shut down the tomatoes' ripening mechanism and degrade their tissue. Refrigerate only overripe tomatoes. Better yet, make gazpacho or tomato sorbet. Tomatoes also take well to drying and canning, but freezing leaves them mushy. Thawed tomatoes can replace canned sauce in recipes, though.

Next, we play culinary casting director, finding the tomato "star" for your recipes.

Beefsteak tomatoes fit nicely in sandwiches.
Beefsteak tomatoes fit nicely in sandwiches.
©iStockphoto.com/typhoonski

Tomatoes for uncooked recipes should be easy to work with, sweet on the tongue, and look pretty on the plate. They should be juicy yet firm, having a high flesh-to-seed-and-jelly ratio. Choose those that are thin-skinned and bright in color -- which is not always red. Local growers might offer heirlooms -- older strains, traditional to particular regions -- ranging in color from eggshell to maroon.

Which varieties fit the bill? One popular choice is beefsteak, named for its meaty, raw-steak red flesh. (A pale yellow heirloom, on the other hand, is nicknamed pork chop.) Beefsteaks are conveniently sandwich-sized. A single slice might span an entire hamburger bun or Kaiser roll.

Advertisement

Advertisement

If you're thinking small, consider cherry tomatoes. Half-inch varieties are attractive in salads; one and a half-inch monsters are ideal for appetizers. Most are round and red as their namesake, but farmers markets might offer a mix-and-match of red and gold, round and pear-shaped.

Learn how to peel tomatoes if you want to make delicious sauces.
Learn how to peel tomatoes if you want to make delicious sauces.
©iStockphoto.com/Ockra

Many tomatoes can be used in lightly cooked dishes like pasta primavera. When slow-cooked, they can be less predictable. A beefsteak releases more juice, for instance, so you may have to simmer a sauce longer to thicken it.

To avoid uncertainty, go with paste tomatoes. Paste tomatoes are drier and have more pectin (the stuff that makes jelly gel) to add body. They're also rich in the amino acids that contribute the savory taste, umami.

Advertisement

Advertisement

Plum (or roma) tomatoes, especially San Marzanos, are the choice here. Surprisingly, few plum tomatoes are actually plum-shaped; oval and oblong are more common contours.

Whatever the tomato, skin and seeds will add acidity, which you may or may not want. Also, some people find them unsightly. You might peel and seed tomatoes before cooking, or strain out the offending parts afterward for the desired texture and tang.

Our final tip is for tomatoes in the line of fire.

Cherry tomatoes are great for grilling.
Cherry tomatoes are great for grilling.
©iStockphoto.com/Daniel Troutman Photography

Grilling and broiling calls for firm individuals that can take the heat. Just ripe is better than overly so. In fact, this is a good way to boost the flavor profile of end-of-season or out-of-season tomatoes. Direct, dry heat caramelizes whatever sugar they have. Charcoal and wood fires add smoky notes.

The type depends on whether the heat comes from below (grilling) or above (broiling) and the preparation method. Seeds and jelly can present problems, especially when cooking over an open flame. For grilling on a skewer, choose whole cherry tomatoes or solid chunks of plum tomatoes.

Advertisement

Advertisement

Recipes in which tomatoes share the brunt of the heat with other ingredients encourage other options. Beefsteak halves are excellent for stuffing. The slices hold up when broiled in an open-face sandwich.

For lots more information on cooking with tomatoes, see the links on the next page.

Related Articles

Sources

  • Bame, Megan, and S. Gary Bullen. "A Cost Assessment of Growing Greenhouse Tomatoes in North Carolina." Aug. 7, 2007 (Nov. 22, 2010) http://www.ces.ncsu.edu/cbo/new/gwp/GreenhouseTomatoSummary.pdf
  • Carpenter, Maile. "The Best Way to Use Canned Tomatoes." RealSimple.com (Nov. 24, 2010) http://www.realsimple.com/food-recipes/shopping-storing/food/best-use-canned-tomatoes/00000000000583/index.htm
  • Gigino, Sam. "All About Tomatoes." (Nov. 17, 2010) http://www.samcooks.com/food/vegetables/Tomatoes.htm
  • Napolitano, Pete. "Tomato." (Nov. 22, 2010) http://www.producepete.com/shows/tomato.html
  • Smith, Andrew F. "Tomato."Encyclopedia of Food and Culture. (Nov. 18, 2010) http://www.enotes.com/food-encyclopedia/tomato
  • Texas A&M University. "Tomatoes, Part I." (Nov. 29, 2010) http://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/archives/parsons/vegetables/tomato.html
  • Victory Seeds. "Paste Type Tomato Varieties." (Nov. 30, 2010) http://www.victoryseeds.com/catalog/vegetable/tomato/tomato_paste.html
  • What's Cooking America. "Tomatoes -- How to Use Fresh Tomatoes -- History of Tomatoes." (Nov. 18, 2010) http://whatscookingamerica.net/tomato.htm

Advertisement


Advertisement

Advertisement

Advertisement

Advertisement

Advertisement

Advertisement