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. Janeen says:

    Fantastic info! I’m about ready to throw out all my books and just come here. This site inspires me to try new things!

  2. Kathy says:

    Your site lets me take a deep breath and realize it will be alright…..Even if I don’t get everything picked and processed at the appropriate time, …. it will be alright……
    Thanks, you make it more fun and less stress, plus, I don’t have chipmunks eating my stuff, so I am blessed!!!!.

    1. Margaret says:

      You are welcome, Kathy. What a nice message, thank you. If you are short on chipmunks I could send a crew over — I seem to have some to spare! :)

  3. Deb says:

    Fantastic, thanks Margaret! By the way — I’m making more of the refrigerator pickles. And, I passed the recipe along to others. They are a hit here in Tacoma!

  4. Katherine says:

    Very helpful article. My tomato plants practically went dormant during the 2 week July heat wave. They’ve started producing again, but I’m worried that the warm weather won’t hold up long enough for most of them to mature and ripen. Last year the weather was lovely all the way through October and I was still harvesting tomatoes right before Halloween.

    1. Margaret says:

      Hi, Katherine. It always requires a little juggling/trickery here, too, to get all the fruits ripe without mishaps. You never know what — whether cold, animals, whatever — will try to test your patience, right?

  5. David Shepherd says:

    Very helpful information. Thank you for sharing all the details and references. Our growing season is running late this year in the Pacific Northwest but also to add to our adventures so to speak, I took a different sort of tech approach to everything from picking my plants to growing… My update, references and info are here http://goo.gl/wXVqr including an e-book I picked up and recommend. Now if my tomatoes would get to ripening, I can try out some of these recipes.
    Thank you,

  6. Cinda says:

    You say “I prefer to freeze fruits whole in bags at peak ripeness, if I can’t use them now.” Do you do anything at all to them before freezing like removing the skin? Would you then just use these like you would a canned tomato?

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Cinda. I do not. But most people drop the fruits in boiling water for a minute, then quickly into a bowl of ice water to split the skins and make them easy to remove. I don’tmind skins in my sauce, so I freeze them whole. Either way, yes, use them like a canned whole tomato.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Bill. Very interesting! The world of tomatoes certainly is a diverse one; I am always startled at how vast it is, and how different they all look, taste, etc.

  7. Louise says:

    I lived in Bangor Maine for 4 years. No tomatoes ever ripened on the vine without this trick. I was taught this same method for one plant. It was called a sacrifice plant. The rest of the tomatoes were brought to the basement. Cover tables with newspaper and place the tomatoes on top without touching each other. Then cover your tomatoes with more newspaper. Once a week, uncover your tomatoes and check them. Week after week, it was a great surprise. Ripe tomatoes. I love your web site.

    To plant a garden is to believe in the future.

  8. tony thomas says:

    We have been starting a ‘chaos’ garden in the corner of our land. A spot where we discard all of our kitchen scrap seeds and seeds from the garden. It works great. But I have a question: When do tomatoes seeds become viable? We just started adding tomatoes to this area and would like to toss all 10gals of green tomatoes out there.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Tony. The seeds are the offspring of the reproduction process that starts w/the flowers and ends with a ripe, fully developed tomato full of mature seeds. So the ripe seeds are inside ripe tomatoes — don’t save plant seeds from green fruit (or undersized fruit, or diseased fruit…).

  9. Louise says:

    I just picked up a few tomatoes that fell, so I appreciate your timeliness I have joked with friends that the rain and cool temperatures mean we’ll see ripening tomatoes as frost begins, so I’ll begin asking for paper bags at the store.

    Thank you, Maragaret. As always, you have the best timing and ideas.

  10. Charles McAllister says:

    Your site is a winner for sure. As gardening is such a joy it is great to have access to so much valuable info. Thanks, Chuck

  11. Dorothy says:

    I grew up on a horse farm with an enormous garden. Mom always used her green tomatoes to make a wonderful green relish. Heavenly to enjoy throughout the year.

  12. Cary Bradley says:

    If you haven’t tried fermented green tomatoes in the dead of winter, you’ve missed out on one of life’s great treats. If you’ve added a wild grape leaf to the mix, they’ll even still be delightfully crunchy! :)

  13. Greg says:

    That is a lot of helpful information. Thankfully I can just leave mine on the vine until they are fully ripe. Haven’t noticed any pests getting to them in our garden.

  14. Gracjan says:

    I’ve grown tomatoes this Summer and I’ve got a bumper crop! Some of them haven’t ripened, so thank you for the mincemeat recipe -sounds delicious.

  15. Suzanne says:

    Thank you for all this helpful information. This year was particularly difficult for my tomatoes. It seems every critter but me had the chance to eat them. Early on deer attacked my plants, while nearby hostas went untouched. This was a first with the deer. I had huge purple cherokees with chipmunk teeth marks in them. I cut the bite marks off and let them ripen indoors. They still weighed about 1 pound each. It seems I have been doing more indoor ripening this year. They still taste fine. Thank you for the recipe, as I need to remove my remaining green tomatoes.

  16. Joe dudasik says:

    i’ve heard that if your green tomato has a whitish “star” on the bottom side, it will be apt to ripen. If no star, no ripening. An old tomsto farmer trick

  17. debbie paster says:

    This is the first year that I grew tomatoes in my garden in zone 5. I grew brandywine and sun golds. I used serenade fungicide once or twice for yellowing of leaves to ward off possible fungus. I surrounded tomato plants with marigolds, mint, rue, basil and russian sage was nearby. I unfortunately don’t have 8 full hours of sunshine and tomatoes are still turning red but that’s fine. Miraculously no chipmunks ,wild life or insects ate my plants and they grew happily. Next year, I will prune and stake differently. Also next year, I will try marigolds near my milkweeds for aphids. Supposedly rosemary and lavender work as well

  18. Kimberly says:

    For green tomatoes we use the “Southern Solution.” Slice, dip in buttermilk, dredge in cornmeal, then fry in vegetable oil. I shred some lettuce over them and add hot sauce. Never had a complaint about a fried green tomato.

  19. John Schneider says:

    I have 300 tomatoe plants. I pick them when in the breaking pink stage, I place them in 10lb. Boxes and they turn red in about 4 days. I think I might try the apple peals in the boxes to maybe speed up the ripening process. Thanks fir the info.

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