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there’s more than one way to ripen a tomato

tomatoes-ripeningAH, THE JUICY JOY OF A RIPE TOMATO—IF YOU CAN NURTURE ONE unscathed to that perfect shade of orangey-red, that is. In a hot, dry summer the chipmunks (who demonically begin taste-testing at about half-ripe) drive me to picking early and ripening every fruit indoors—which might not be such a bad thing, it turns out. It raises the topic of how to turn a tomato red (and perhaps the need for a recipe for green tomato “mincemeat,” too, just in case our magic fails).

what is ripening, anyhow?

RIPENING SOUNDS A LOT LIKE A MIDLIFE CRISIS in retired professor Brian Capon’s little masterpiece, “Botany for Gardeners.” His section on the topic, called “Hormones and the Aging Process” (!!!), outlines the biochemical events involved in what we hungry gardeners and cooks regard as a fruit reaching perfection. It’s actually the beginning of the end.

It’s all part of a bigger plan: Green chlorophyll breaks down and other pigments surface—which along with increasing softness and rising sugar content serve to attract animals (who will in turn serve to disperse the seeds inside). And the beat goes on.

The flavor change comes from the decline of tannins (whose pucker-up taste cleverly staved off those same beasts until the seed was ready). Chalk the softening up to ethylene gas (present in increasing amounts in aging fruit), which helps break down cell walls and membranes.

how to hasten ripening in the garden

IF YOU’RE WORRIED FROST MAY BEAT YOUR CROP to the finish line, a few tactics can induce hurry-up mode. One is called root-pruning, and couldn’t be simpler.  Simply insert a spade just 6 inches or so into the soil in a circular pattern, circumnavigating the plant 1 foot away from its main stem.

Should cold nights threaten, be ready with fabric or plastic to keep frost off the vines. Even in cold zones, first frosts are often followed by another warm spell, and you’ll eke out more vine-ripe fruit.

usda tomato ripeness color chart

what color is your tomato?

OK, SO MAYBE THEY’LL NEVER BE MARTHA STEWART paint-chip names, but tomato colors have official designations, thanks to the USDA Tomato Ripeness Color Chart (1975 edition, above).

Is your fruit simply a stubborn Green (self-explanatory) or is it Breakers (a break in the color from green is starting to be evident), or are you already at Turning (10 to 30 percent red showing) or Pink (30-60) or Light Red (60-90) or Red (more than 90 percent)?

when to give up and go indoors

I ALREADY SUGGESTED TWO INSTANCES: Do your ripening indoors whenever animals, or prolonged cold, threaten to get to the crop before you do.  But intense heat can take its toll, too, says the Illinois Urban Extension, which recommends picking “pink” fruit when temperatures are over 90.

Alice Waters (in “Chez Panisse Vegetables”) isn’t alone in suggesting ripening indoors as a regular practice, picking when the shift from orange to red begins, reportedly to maximize sugar and acid content.

But what to do with the unripe tomatoes once inside? Here’s where it gets interesting—as in mixed advice. I confess to being a windowsill ripener, which apparently isn’t so bright (tee hee).

Most extension services recommend some kind of darkened space instead, achieved by tactics including:

  • sorting the haul into categories: those showing some red, full-size green fruit (called “mature green”) and other green, and then…
  • wrapping each fruit in newsprint to place in trays with others like it, or…
  • placing similar-condition fruits in brown paper bags closed loosely, not stacking fruit upon fruit but in single layers, and…
  • sometimes putting a bit of apple peel inside to up the ethylene, or…
  • (if there’s no getting past oncoming weather) getting drastic by cutting down entire plants at the base and hanging them, fruits attached, in the cellar or garage…
  • with all of this ideally happening in a cool, dry spot at 65-70 degrees.

Sorting by ripeness stage allows you to check on each batch, by opening just a few test wrappers.  Mature green fruit should reach ripeness in about two weeks.

Everyone agrees: No refrigeration (unless you simply must keep fruits you plan to cook in a day or so from decaying). Rather than use the fridge, I prefer to freeze fruits whole in bags at peak ripeness, if I can’t use them now.

some will never ripen, no-how, nowhere, no way

THERE ARE ALWAYS HOLDOUTS, those who won’t cooperate even if given the TLC above. Immature green fruit, for instance, can’t turn red—no matter how your coddle it. How to tell which can and cannot?

Get out your knife. A tomato must be at least “mature green” to ripen off the vine, and if you’re not sure if yours are at that stage yet, sacrifice a representative fruit.

Slice it open, and look inside: If it’s gelatinous, it has a chance of ripening after harvest. You may also notice some color change on the interior, perhaps a yellowish tone—another optimistic sign that similar sized fruits will get there in time. If not: Skip to the green-tomato mincemeat recipe, below.

chopped tomatoes for making saucerecipes for all shades of tomatoes

FIRST, A LITTLE TOMATO MEASURING TIP: In a recipe, 1 pound equals about 2 cups of chopped fruit (or roughly 3 medium tomatoes). With that knowledge, you could make:

everything i know about tomatoes

THAT WOULD AMOUNT to this, from seed-sowing to favorite varieties to every manner of what ails them—and even how to graft one. Seriously.

  1. Luke says:

    This article is perfect for my current situation! It’s unexpectedly warm this time of year where I am and there’s still quite a few tomatoes on the plants. Many have been green for quite a while (lack of light maybe?) but are just starting to turn. I will definitely try picking when orange and ripening inside as you suggested. Great article!

  2. Bruce Irwin says:

    I have had good luck in picking the green tomatoes at the end of the season and ripening them up by sitting in a window sill. Good flavors all the way into December.

  3. Mary Kay says:

    I usually go by the following guideline: if a tomato has turned from green to white around the stem or blossom end, it will eventually ripen indoors. (Professional tomato farmer taught me this.) If no white shows, it’s fried green tomatoes time!

    1. Leo Vanderpot says:

      Thanks for posting this. Somehow, even though I’ve only done cherry tomatoes this year, I think that white around the stem image will stay with me and be useful in the years to come.
      Sending it along to my daughter.

  4. Kathy in Westminster, CO says:

    Good morning Margaret. I’m in Westminster Colorado, just north of Denver and I’m having a good tomato summer. We had an extremely wet and cold May and June so I am very lucky. I planted a new one this year: Shady Lady along with Celebrity and a determinate Roma. I also planted a San Marzano which I finally gave up removing any suckers from. I’ve been making batches of your tomato sauce to freeze and I love the way it perfumes my house. It reminds of my mother and late summer growing up in Ohio. I added some some fresh oregano leaves with the basil and a whole head of garlic? Priceless! What two types of tomatoes did you plant in your upstate NY garden? I love receiving your Sunday morning musings filled with gardening, authors, cooking and advice. Thank you.

  5. Suzanne Stimpson says:

    Thank you for your wonderful piece on tomatoes. For years I worked at our local garden center where Russell Morash was a regular shopper. We got to talking tomatoes one time. He said he picked his when they started turning. He wanted to get to them before the chipmunks. I do the same now, for the same reason. Though I will cut out a few small teeth marks after they ripen.

  6. mindy says:

    A TERRIFIC PIECE, as always. clear, detailed, comprehensive. Chapeaux, Margaret!
    Quiz: “Who is among the greatest women’s baseball players?'”
    “why, Margaret Roach, of course. She always has all the bases covered.”

  7. Cathleen Maloney says:

    Hello Margaret! We so look forward to seeing your piece on Sundays. Our PNW valley weather has been a little cooler than normal this summer so the tomatoes aren’t ripening as quickly. AND…we have a squirrel helping himself when the dog is not out to chase him off. I don’t mind sharing a few, but this nonsense of him taking a bite out of each tomato is frustrating. So we pick when they are just starting to turn and place them in the windowsills. This way we get to enjoy the bounty. Our kitchen table also sits in front of the window and has been turned into a tomato ripening center. Oh the things we gardeners do for the prize of a ripe tomato! Enjoy your week!

  8. Shaina Boone says:

    This article is so helpful! I’m in Chicago, with 8 plants in Earthboxes and 2 in above ground beds. I’ve got 14 foot, yes 14 foot tall plants supported by two rows of metal rods and twine up from the ground to my decking, and a variety of pests and varmints. A very large molting grasshopper on the rainbow zebra, a groundhog or raccoon on the old german, and and a squirrel on the cherries, in additional to several outbreaks of whiteflies and aphids. Lots of Arbico and live trapping pest management going on. All that said, I have been trying to beat the bites by bringing in early, but didn’t know if that was a good idea. I’m glad to read the above and know i’m on the right track. Much obliged!

  9. JOSEPH Lee MCCOLLUM says:

    If I can only grow one thing it would be tomatoes. I plant about 25 plants each year , different varieties , different maturity times, and we eat tomato and cheese sandwiches with Dukes mayonnaise from june to october. Just can’t beat a soggy tomato sandwich. The next best is tomato pie!! Thoroughly enjoy your articles,

  10. Su Welty says:

    Thank you for the photos that show that you don’t have to keep the root to hang your tomato plant. I’ve been searching for verification of this. Hard frost expected in two days. Tomorrow’s the day to hang my plants!

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