An Expert's Quick & Dirty Rules for Buying Good Tomatoes

August 24, 2016

Despite the fact that there are so many tomatoes around, all year round, not all tomatoes are good tomatoes. And choosing a tomato for its big, raw break in a salad is the equivalent of produce judgment day.​

Red all the way through = good tomato. But is that always true? Photo by Ali Stafford

On one hand, the beefsteaks, the Brandywines, the Purple Cherokees so absurdly sweet and flavorful that you almost can't bear to look them straight on. These go to tomato sandwich heaven.​

On the other, the kind of tomatoes that inspire people to implore that restaurants leave them off salads entirely: "It’s not that I don’t like tomatoes, it’s just that I extremely hate specifically your pink, soggy, mushy, shapeless excuses for tomatoes," writes Jarren Bird. These are relegated to cobbler.​

But which tomatoes will be good and which will be bad? When is buying a pound from the grocery store self-sabotage and when is it a safe choice? How can we know which tomatoes will be fit for raw consumption?​

The closer a tomato is grown to your kitchen counter, the better it’s going to taste.
Barry Estabrook

Amidst this harsh, confusing world of tomato judging emerges the refreshingly simple logic of Barry Estabrook, author of Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit and self-defined tomato geek.

Photo by James Ransom

"I grow a lot of tomatoes. I have a fairly big garden and probably 90% of the fresh tomatoes that I eat over the course of the year come out of the garden," Barry told me. "There’s a simple rule I have: The closer a tomato is grown to your kitchen counter, the better it’s going to taste."​

Here's how Barry breaks it down from best- to worst-case tomato scenario:

  1. Grow your own.
  2. Go to the farmers market.
  3. Go to a grocery store in season and buy a tomato grown as close to your location as possible.
  4. When you go to the grocery store out of season, "it’s not worth buying as far as I’m concerned; you’re paying too much money for a suggestion of tomato taste and quality."

But I—a known consumer of a winter tomato or two—nag: What's the best case in the worst-case scenario?

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"If you put a gun to my head and said you have to eat a tomato in January," Barry imagined, "[I'd choose] a Cocktail tomato—bigger than a grape or cherry but smaller than a ping pong ball—grown hydroponically." Those little tomatoes have flavor because "they’re small-fruited; it’s not like the plant has to extend nutrients to get a giant fruit." And Barry says he actively avoids tomatoes from Mexico all year round, due to concerns over working conditions.​

With the wisdom of a true tomato geek in mind, choosing tomatoes just got a little easier.

Do you have a simple rule of thumb for tomato-choosing? Tell us in the comments below.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • PHIL
  • Annabel
  • Robert Wennersten
    Robert Wennersten
  • M
  • Rachel
I used to work at Food52. I'm probably the person who picked all of the cookie dough out of the cookie dough ice cream.


PHIL August 26, 2016
That's too bad Annabel, You should try and grow your own if you can , even if its just a few plants, it is worth it.
Annabel August 26, 2016
I've been disappointed with most of the farmers' market tomatoes supposedly grown locally in my area (North Alabama). The main varieties grown seem to be "packing house" types: extra firm and bland, on par with what's in the grocery store at twice the price. Most of the supposedly heirloom ones are pretty uninspiring too flavor-wise.

Is it the soil? Is it that the farmers' market supply is the same as what's being shipped to the wholesaler? Whatever it is, I've mostly given up buying tomatoes, other than cherry/grape-types that I can taste first, at my area farmers' markets.
Smaug August 26, 2016
The fact is, farmers' markets these days are a far cry from the old notion of farmer Jack sending his son with the bad leg out to pick a basket of ripe peaches and drive them down to the market; mosder farmers' markets are a full scale commercial operation- most of the sellers are full time, moving around to different locations during the week, and face a lot of the same problems with picking, storage, transportation etc. as do large scale marketing operations. They are usually more careful than supermarkets about what they're selling, but the image of a dedicated farmer hand picking a tomato at the peak of perfection and hand delivering it to market on a velvet pillow is somewhat overdrawn.
Robert W. August 26, 2016
I once talked tomato with the owner of a market where I shopped. He said they only carried tomatoes as a courtesy to customers. He said they all came from Mexico and none of them were any good any more. (This was maybe 25 years ago.) Since then I've tried to buy tomatoes at farmers markets.
M August 24, 2016
You guys should expand on this for "ugly" produce, and what buyers should look for/not be concerned about/cut out/avoid! :) Esp. the gorgeous wonkiness of heirlooms.

As for tomatoes out of season - I have brands/farmers I stay with year-round, otherwise I'd have maybe a few weeks of prime tomato buying.
PHIL August 24, 2016
I like the gnarly looking tomatoes,. they are more interesting looking, maybe I'm wrong but they seem to taste better.
Rachel August 24, 2016
"The closer a tomato is grown to your kitchen counter, the better it’s going to taste."​ - truer words have never been spoken.
Smaug August 24, 2016
The only really reliable test is the smell test- the stem end should smell strongly of tomato. Won't happen in the supermarket; if you find someone at the farmer's market selling really ripe tomatoes, keep him.
702551 August 24, 2016
Barry's four-level best-to-worst scenario is applicable for most other produce as well, not just tomatoes.

I'm with Barry on the undeniable absurdity of buying fresh tomatoes in the dead of winter.
702551 August 24, 2016
Oh, at my town's farmers market, there are usually a couple of stands that sell hothouse tomatoes almost all year long. I refuse to buy these even though they are locally grown.

Tomatoes -- even in California -- have their season. Not buying out-of-season tomatoes.
PHIL August 24, 2016
I agree with Barry, the supermarket tomatoes even in summer can not live up to a fresh picked tomato. I picked a few and ate them in a simple salad with red onion and cukes, so much flavor, you can't even compare it to store bought. off season the Eli & Ali are good. as well as the small grape tomatoes, anything else stinks.