By Nadia Arumugam |

Tomato Picking & Storing Primer

So now you’re starting to panic.  Your heirlooms are beautifying the terrace with their kaleidoscopic red and sunny yellow palette, and your sultry cherry nubiles are infusing your studio with their eau- de- tomate scent from their window perch. So yes, you’re starting to panic. Is it time, or isn’t it? You don’t want to be plucking precious fruit from the vines, only to find you were overly hasty, and that first bite you’ve been anticipating for months translates to insipid, worse-than-supermarket pulp.

Alas, allay those concerns – soothing advice is at hand.

When to Pick
Now, I don’t mean for the fear to seep back into your heart, but you really have to use what intuition and instinct you can muster to tell whether your tomatoes are ready to be picked. You see, there’s no exact science, ideally they should be picked when they are as, um, ripe as possible, but this could be anywhere between about 60 to 85 days from the time seedlings are planted.

Please don’t look at me like that, I’m not a fraud, I promise. But here’s what you do, conjure up an image and a scratch n’ sniff patch of what your ideal tomato would look, feel and smell like. We’re talking plump, traffic-light red (unless you have a variety that’s not red… in which case, well-colored, would work), pungent with all the best aromas of summer and tomatoes, and one that has just the slightest give when you give it a gentle squeeze (not rock-hard, is key ). This’ll give you a good model to use as a guide. Why this is a more sane approach than it may first appear to be? Tomatoes ripen from the inside outward – so if they look ripe to you, they almost certainly are. It’s important not to miss the boat, as over-ripe fruit fall off the vines, bruise very easily, spoil quickly and can ruin your gardening kudos.

Caveats – ok, there are always caveats, this is real life, after all. Luckily for you there are only 3:

  • Cherry tomatoes start to crack if left too long on the vine, so pick them just before they are at their peak redness.
  • Heirlooms ripen before they completely turn color, so in this instance, pick before the tops of the fruit are entirely colored, and the skin is smooth and waxy.
  • Caught in a heat wave? Listen up – tomatoes stop ripening when temperatures up above 86 F. If you’ve had long, hot days, your tomatoes might never go beyond an orange hue. The chemical that gives them that luscious red color is no friend of the searing sun. If this is the case, cut your losses and bring the tomatoes inside.

Although tomatoes continue to ripen when they are off the vine, they taste inordinately better when you leave just hangin’ and feeling right at home on the plant until perfectly mature.  The main reason being that the fruit have their own steady and plentiful oxygen supply for as long as possible to ensure all of their sugars are properly processed. I.e., it makes for the best eats! Do keep an eye out for the ripening lovelies though, as they become increasingly attractive to birds and insects the riper they are. If you’re feeling anxious about your tomato children’s safety, you have my permission to go get them a little early.

The lowdown on how to pick, and more, after the break…

How to Pick
Now that you’ve studied, scrutinized and communed with your tomatoes and decided that it’s time some brave soldiers make the transition from plant-to-plate, here’s 2 ways to pluck:

  • Grasp the fruit firmly and twist until its snaps off
  • Use clippers to cut the fruit close to the stem

Storing: The Fridge is Your Tomato’s Enemy
It’s not just that tomatoes and cold temperatures don’t mix, the cold actually sets out to ruin tomatoes, destroying the flavor and bulldozing all over the texture leaving the poor souls mealy, mushy, and bland.  The best place for tomatoes is on your kitchen counter, or a windowsill, basking in a bowl, or loosely covered (wash and dry them thoroughly first). They’re at their best at 55-75 F, contrary to what some, ahem, other blogs, might say, they actually don’t like direct sunlight. They’ll keep for a good week or so like this, but if you want them to last a little longer, find somewhere that’s a little cooler. Keep them with their stems up – a small point, but it stops them from bruising.

Help, I Have Green Tomatoes
Don’t worry, it’s not all fried green tomatoes for breakfast, lunch and dinner, for you. Remember what we said earlier about tomatoes continuing to ripen once you pull them off the vine, well, if you were a little eager, or summer never really came to your hood and your tomatoes are on the under ripe side, here’s a solution. This won’t yield you the best tasting tomatoes of your life, but they’ll brighten up a salad or pasta sauce just fine!

  • Place the unripe tomatoes in a brown paper bag, loosely close it up and place somewhere warm, not hot, and out of sunlight. The bag acts like a miniature greenhouse, trapping much-needed  heat and moisture. Surprisingly, light isn’t necessary for the tomatoes to ripen up. Also, something else important is going on inside that toasty space. The tomatoes are releasing ethylene gas, a byproduct of the ripening process. This also happens to be a stimulant of ripening, so keep it in the bag and it’ll speed up the whole process. If you really want to fast forward things, throw a banana into the bag, which emits more ethylene than most other fruits.