Market Guide: Tomatoes


This time a year in the Bay Area, markets can turn into a wide sea of different tomatoes. Some are firm and almost storybook red, others are lumpy and misshapen, and there are long skinny ones with almost mealy flesh. Each of these tomatoes has unique flavors, textures and uses but how do you know which will be the best one to use for your grandma’s famous tomato soup? Or sliced up on a large platter for a simple September meal? Below you’ll find a guide to tomato shopping and eating – how to choose, how to store, which ones are best for sauces, canning, slicing, salting and just plain munching.

Storing Tomatoes: The best way to store your fresh tomatoes is out of the fridge, on your counter and out of the direct sun. If fruit flies are a problem, loosely drape a tea towel over the bowl or plate to keep them bug free. Heirlooms should be stored stem side down (so their bottom side is face up) on a flat plate and avoid stacking them if possible. Never store your tomatoes in the fridge as the cold temperatures break down the cell membranes and cause the flesh to become mealy.

Heirlooms: Heirlooms are the funniest looking of tomatoes and come in a wide range of colors, from deep purple and black to lemon yellow and everywhere in between. Typically, the darker the heirloom, the higher it is in acidity. To pick a good heirloom, look for rich color and a firm but not rock hard flesh. Check for discoloration where there may be very soft spots and try to find ones with the most evenly firm flesh. Heirlooms have thin skins and bruise easily so handle with extreme care. Never stack your heirlooms or place in a plastic bag; the best way to transport them is in a shallow box. Green Zebras and Aunt Ruby’s for example are green when ripe – a ripe green tomato will be firm, but not hard, and with some yellow tones to the skin. With their thin skins and watery flesh, I find heirlooms best fresh. I love to slice them raw with a little salt as a salad or on a thick piece of bread.

Roma Tomatoes (San Marzano): Roma (San Marzano being one popular Italian variety) is the best saucing tomato. Eaten raw, their flesh can be a bit mealy and less flavorful than other tomatoes, but once cooked they make a thick and flavorful sauce. These tomatoes can be much softer when ripe. When cooking these its best to use the ripest tomatoes possible and these store (either canned or as frozen sauce) very well.

Dry Farmed Early Girls: These perfectly red, perfectly round tomatoes are firm when ripe and extremely sweet. After the start is planted in the ground and initially watered it is no longer watered. This causes the plant to go into a bit of shock, producing less fruit with a thicker skin, but the result is sweet, concentrated flesh. The sweetest tomato option, Early Girls, are great fresh, roasted, in soup or in a sauce. With such thick skins, often people like to score the bottom with a small “x” then quickly blanche the tomato. After plunging in a bowl of ice water the skin will slip right off. These tomatoes are perfect for snacking with a little salt, or slow roasted with the recipe from our August Newsletter. Early Girls can well whole, as a sauce, or even slightly pickled.