Harvesting & Storing
When to Harvest
Fruit that is fully ripened on the vine has a much fuller flavor than fruits that are picked early and then allowed to ripen. Many cherry tomatoes, however, have a tendency to crack if they stay on the plant, so they should be picked at the peak of redness, or even a tad before.
When daytime fall temperatures are consistently below 60 degrees Fahrenheit, fruit will no longer ripen on the vine, so it is time to bring all mature green fruits indoors, either on the vine or off (see Ripening That Huge Crop of Green Garden Tomatoes).
How to Store Ripe Fruit
Wash and dry your tomatoes before storing. Unless you’re planning to store your tomatoes for over a week, a windowsill, counter-top or bowl works fine. If you know you won’t use them in the next few days, then lower temperatures (a cool entryway, the refrigerator) will help preserve the fruit. Contrary to our common practice in the US, storing in a refrigerator is not otherwise recommended, as the cooler temperatures can reduce flavor and cause mushiness. Your fresh-picked tomatoes will last longer on the kitchen counter than store-bought ones, which are probably a few days old when you get them.
Other Uses for Ripe Fruit
If you end up with too many tomatoes to eat at one time, try these storage methods:
• canning, which will preserve your tomatoes for a year or more;
• freezing, which can be used for up to eight months;
• drying, which can keep tomatoes for more than a year.
How to Ripen Green Fruit
Here is a topic that brings out the best — or worst — in tomato growers. Drop this topic into the midst of a covey of back-yard tomato growers, and watch the waters begin to seethe.
Most of us grew up placing unripe tomatoes on a sunny windowsill — emphasis on sunny. However, every expert source recommends placing them in a paper bag (see Using & Storing Tomatoes). Light, so essential to growth and to setting fruit, is not needed to ripen the fruit. Hence, the dark place. While light is unnecessary, humidity and temperature control are critical during ripening. Tomatoes kept on a countertop can become too dry, while those in a plastic bag can mold or ferment. Hence the paper bag. Temperature is also important, and the paper bag acts as a miniature greenhouse, trapping some of the day’s heat. (When you trim back tomato foliage at the end of the season ‘to let the sun reach the fruit,’ it’s the sun’s heat, not its light, that helps ripen them.)
There’s another advantage to the bag. Tomatoes, like most fruit, emit ethylene gas as they ripen. This gas, a byproduct of ripening, is also a stimulant for ripening. When you store unripe tomatoes in a bag, the ethylene emitted by the riper ones will stimulate the others to ripen. Since most fruits emit ethylene, you can use another, ripe fruit to hasten the ripening process. Bananas work especially well because they emit more ethylene than most fruits.
If the bag doesn’t appeal to you, remember that one of the best sources of heat is still the sun — and we’re back to that sunny windowsill. One expert source advises that one never put tomatoes on a sunny windowsill! (complete with exclamation point) because the sunny side may actually rot. If you turn them daily, though, rotting is unlikely, so go ahead. The light may not be helpful, but it doesn’t hurt, and the humidity control is not much of an issue with nearly-ripe fruit.
If it’s the end of the season, and you’re dealing with scads of green tomatoes still on the vine, the time-honored method of ripening tomatoes indoors is to cut the vines and hang them intact, upside down, in a dark place. Believe it or not, most of these tomatoes will indeed ripen. Those picked when their outer color changes to a lighter, more translucent shade of green known as mature green will fare better than those that are still a dark green. These very unripe fruit are candidates for other uses.
Other Uses for Green Tomatoes
Everyone knows, now, about fried green tomatoes, but if you hunt here and there you can find recipes for chutney, pickles, and even pie made from green tomatoes.