Whether you've just bought tomatoes—cherry tomatoes, unripe tomatoes, or fresh tomatoes—at the grocery store, ready to whip up a batch of tomato sauce or a fresh summer salad, it's important to know how to store tomatoes and to understand the tomato ripening process. There's lots of talk out there about ethylene gas, paper bags and plastic bags, and how to stop the tomato ripening process—but contrary to popular belief, the answer isn't necessarily to never refridgerate tomatoes. Read on to see why.
As Harold McGee, our go-to guy for all food science questions, laid out in his book On Food and Cooking: “Tomatoes came originally from a warm climate, and should be stored at room temperature.” As in, on the countertop. He notes that anything other than fully ripe tomatoes really suffer after refrigeration in every way—flavor development, coloration, and mealy texture.
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And the same goes for cherry tomatoes—those small, sweet ones born to brighten up any summer salad. However, the key phrase to pay attention to here is “anything other than fully ripe tomatoes.” Temperatures below 55° F (like the inside of your refrigerator) halt unripe tomatoes’ flavor-producing enzyme activity. McGee notes that while fully ripe fresh tomatoes are still susceptible to flavor loss when placed in the refrigerator, some of that enzyme activity can come back if they are allowed to recover for a day or two at room temperature before eating.
Serious Eats did extensive fresh tomato storage research and taste testing and found essentially the same thing: “Because peak-season market tomatoes are already perfectly ripe, they benefit very little from extra time in the heat, and in many cases they are harmed by it, while the refrigerator does minimal harm once tomatoes are ripe.” They kept tomatoes in the fridge for up to four days no problem.
How to Store Tomatoes When They're Ripe
Here's the takeaway: If you have a cool spot in your home, like a wine cellar or root cellar, with temperatures in the 55° F to 70° F range, store fully ripe tomatoes there. They’ll keep well for a day or two, and you won’t risk disrupting any flavor-producing enzyme activity. If, like us, you don’t have a wide variety of temperature zones in your home, rest assured that fully ripe tomatoes will survive refrigeration, just plan for some room temperature recovery time.
But what about tomatoes that aren’t quite ripe? You definitely shouldn’t put those unripe tomatoes in the refrigerator. They need to stay at room temperature, ideally in a single layer out of direct sunlight. And most importantly for keeping them fresher longer, store them stem side down while they finish ripening.
America’s Test Kitchen purports that the benefits are twofold: blocking where the tomato’s stem was prevents moisture from leaving the tomato and blocks air (and thus mold and bacteria) from entering the tomato.
You might have heard not to store tomatoes upside-down because the “shoulders” (the area around the stem scar) are delicate and susceptible to bruising. If you’re worried about that, America’s Test Kitchen has a solution: Place a piece of tape over the stem scar. They found it worked as well as storing tomatoes upside down. And for the super unripe ones, place them stem-side down in a paper bag, and let them ripen somewhere cool or room temperature.
So, it's okay not to gobble up all your tomatoes immediately. Not that we're stopping you. And don't forget to make a few batches of tomato sauce for the freezer, while you're at it.
Do you have any tricks for keeping your tomatoes fresh? Let us know in the comments!
This post originally ran in August 2015, but we're bringing it back for all your summertime tomato storing needs.
Photos by James Ransom
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