AH, 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.
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.
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:
- My quick tomato sauce (great for freezing)
- Tomato Junk (how I use up the last of everything in the garden)
- Green Tomato and Apple Mincemeat (great in pies, and also as a chutney–and meat-free)
- Herbed, roasted tomatoes to freeze
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.