Thursday, January 13, 2011

To Pick or Not to Pick?

This time of year always presents a challenge for me. Waiting for tomatoes to ripen is like waiting to open presents on your birthday when you're a kid ... if you're birthday dragged out over weeks and there was a whole host of hungry animals waiting to steal your presents.

But when exactly is the right time to pick a tomato? Should you let your fruit get fully ripe on the vine, or pick your tomatoes earlier and let them ripen inside?

Turns out that ripening is a pretty complex process. As the tomato goes from green to red (or yellow or orange or whatever), a number of tasty and nutritious things are going on inside the fruit. It's busy making carotene and lycopene (both healthy antioxidants), softening, producing flavor compounds, and become slightly more acidic. Notice that I didn't mention sugar content. You'll see why in a second.

Once ripening starts, it's pretty much impossible to stop, whether you're ripening them inside or leaving them on the vine. Along the way, tomato growers use a few terms to describe the stages of ripening red tomatoes, including:

  • Green: Most commercial tomatoes (except greenhouse tomatoes, which are allowed to fully ripen on the vine and marketed as "vine ripened") are picked at the "mature green" stage and either allowed to ripen during shipping or gassed with ethylene gas to promote rapid ripening. Tomatoes picked at this stage haven't had time to develop all the complex flavors yet, and gassing them only shortcuts the slow, complex ripening process. Ick.
  • Breaker: A breaker is a fruit that is just beginning to change from green to yellow, pink, or red, with about 10 percent of the fruit's surface changing color.
  • Pink: Tomatoes at this stage are covered with red on about 30% to 60% of the fruit.
  • Light red: Between 60% and 90% of the fruit is red.
  • Red: Fully ripened, with 90% of the fruit being red.
Technically, you can pick tomatoes any time and let them ripen off the vine—even a fully green fruit will begin to ripen once it's picked. But is there a flavor difference between tomatoes that are picked as breakers or pink and light red, and ones that are allowed to fully ripen on the vine?

Well, here's the truth: it all depends on who you ask.

I'm an Alice Waters fan. You know, Alice Waters, spiritual godmother of the locavore movement, organic vegetable guru and owner of Chez Panisse in Berkeley. Here's what she has to say on the subject:

"Regardless of variety, size or color, the best tomatoes are fully ripe, but not necessarily vine ripened. Experts say the very best way to ripen them is to pick them off the vine just as their color is starting to change from orange to red, and to keep them inside for four or five days, ideally at 59º to 70ºF. This will maximize their sugar and acid content, which actually decreases if the fruit is left on the vine to finish ripening."

Experts? Which experts?

Actually, though, Waters is onto something: J. Benton Jones, author of THE definitive textbook on tomato plant culture, confirms that sugar content in tomatoes does decline as the ripening process continues, but that slight decline actually takes place throughout the ripening process.

Okay ... so what does Barbara Ciletti, author of the tomato garden primer in the book In Praise of Tomatoes say? How about this:

"The best tasting, sweetest tomato is the tomato that stays on the vine, soaking up the sun, until it has reached the glowing pinnacle of its intended mature color."

So if we put Waters and Ciletti in the octagon, who would win?

Anyway, here's how I approach ripening, and obviously, take it with a grain of salt. I do.
  1. Early in the season, I tend to pick tomatoes that are not yet fully ripe because I get impatient. Then I let them ripen inside while I stand over them yelling, "HURRY!" When they are fully ripe, we eat them. But sometimes, I'll break down and eat them before they are fully ripe, with a little salt and pepper.
  2. Later in the season, when we have so much fruit that I'm out of counter space, I let the tomatoes ripen fully on the vine outside and inevitably lose some beautiful ripe fruit to the various beasts that have been watching me grow their dinner all season.
And guess what? It's all wonderful.

(One last side note: this whole question becomes more complex when you're dealing with multihued tomatoes. Black tomatoes can be downright confusing, and striped and bicolor tomatoes present a challenge of their own. But that's a post for a different day.)

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Hi New Readers!

If you dropped by today after reading the Sun-Sentinel article (found here), welcome!

We're midway through tomato season around here, and my first planting is rapidly approaching harvest time. The first plants went outside around the first week of October. I just did a second planting around January 1, so those will be ready for harvest as the spring begins to heat up. So far, this season has been a challenge—it's been all about the fungal diseases this year. But nevertheless, soon the tomatoes will begin to come off the vine, and although I'm expecting a smaller harvest than in years past, we'll still have plenty of fresh fruit for the next few months.

Feel free to poke around and check back every week or so. I try to post about once a week, but it doesn't always work out that way. And if you're a tomato grower yourself, please feel free to share your experience. Because there's no wrong way to grow your own.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Some Garden Photos

I'm preparing a post on the right time to harvest tomatoes (because let's hope you're having to worry about that!). Believe it or not, there's actually a fair amount of conflicting information out there about the "right" time to harvest a tomato for the best flavor. And since one of the primary differences between homegrown tomatoes and grocery store tomatoes is how long they've been on the vine, I hate to drop the ball at the end and either pick them too early or too late.

But while I'm working on that post, I thought I'd post some approaching-harvest pictures. I'm a pretty serious cook (which kind of makes sense, if you think about it), so I love this time of year. This is when a flood of fresh herbs and vegetables start making their way inside as I slowly snip and clip these plants into food-size bits ...