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.)


  1. Jon,

    Will picking your tomatoes on the earlier side reduce pressure on the plant and allow it to set more fruit? I have a bunch in the light red phase right now, but due to the cold weather, not a ton of green fruit coming on. Wondering if picking will allow the plant to make more tomatoes?


  2. Curtis,

    Good question. My plants have all slowed setting fruit in the last two weeks because of the cold, but they finally started again. In general, you can encourage larger tomatoes by trimming the plant, but I couldn't find any source supporting the idea that picking ripe fruit will encourage more fruit to set. i think if you follow the basics (removing ripe fruit, selectively pruning, and removing yellowed and diseased leaves), the weather will take care of the rest. When it warms up again, we should start setting more fruit.

    (p.s., unless you're growing determinate tomatoes, in which case you pretty much only get one large harvest.)

  3. Currently I have been working out of town for long periods of time. When I returned after 6 months to my home in Ft. Lauderdale this Christmas, I was surprised to see a tomatoe plant flourishing in my backyard flower bed. Unfortunately I will not be there when the tomatoes are ripe, but that inspired me to plant tomatoes when I return permanently. Nature showed me the best spot to plant and proved tomatoes thrive with no help- who am I to argue.

  4. update from the guy who bought the burpee combo pack and transplanted 2 of ea on Oct 5th in ground:

    Big Rainbow - this plant has my first ripening tomato. It is yellow on the underside and green towards the top. I think I'll pick it in case the bird returns that already snacked on a green one. I might rename these medium rainbows -- fruit size isn't that big yet.

    Black Krim: These plants are on the short side, but producing pretty good #'s and decent size. None have changed color yet though.

    Supersteak: tall plants with loads of flowers, but I haven't seen one fruit yet -- strange.

    Brandywine pink: very slow growing, but is finally catching up to at least the black krim plants in height. Has a few clumps of flowers, but not fruiting yet.

    I know my transplants weren't in perfect condition when planting due to my just using egg crates, black kow soil, and a not so sunny windowsill, but the 80 or 85 days mentioned on seed packs has been way off for me. It will be more like 120 days for me. I guess next year I'll have to start those seeds with a little more care.

  5. Hey, Anon 12:01,

    I've been wondering how you're doing. I got my Burpee catalog a few weeks ago, and I've been eye-balling the Brandyboy hybrid. Lots of people have good things to say about it—better yield than Brandywine, but good flavor.

    Are you sure it's a bird? Norway rats (fruit rats) also like tomatoes. If it's getting eaten at night, it might be rat. Gross, eh?

    As for the harvest-by date thing, I've generally experienced the same thing. Harvest-by dates are figured from when you plant the tomato, not sow the seed, but it's still off in many cases. I planted this year around October 10, so January 10 would have been roughly 90 days. All of the tomatoes I planted had harvest-by dates within 80 days, but I'm just now starting to see more fruit. My paste tomatoes (determinate) will get picked this weekend, I've gotten a few ripe Cherokee purples, the Brandywines are still green, and the yellow pear is actually just now setting fruit heavily after my disastrous run-in with fungal diseases.

    For what it's worth, I typically am harvesting pretty heavily by now, so at least in my case this year, I think my disease issues slowed it down. I'm still setting fruit.

    Also (and this is just a theory), I think our backward season probably slows them down. December is often a fairly cold month, and tomatoes won't set fruit when it hits 50. So it's possible our harvest is slowed down by the temperatures.

  6. Hi Jon, Will from Naples here again. Hope you get notifications of comments on all of your blogs that are from the past! Anyway, do you have a preferred method for ripening off of the vine? I tried brown paper bags last year with a banana to produce gas and really wasn't that impressed. Thanks!