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

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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?
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.​

A Very Good Savory Cobbler for Your Not-So-Good Tomatoes
A Very Good Savory Cobbler for Your Not-So-Good Tomatoes

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?​

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

"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.

Tags: Tomato, Tips & Techniques, Farmers Markets, Ingredients