Tomatoes are as ubiquitous as they are mysterious. Are they fruits or vegetables? How did a native of South America become a staple of European cuisine? How do you know when one is ripe? Tuh-MAY-toh or Tuh-MAH-toh?
You have questions; we have answers.
Fruit or Vegetable?
As the late Brit raconteur Miles Kington once opined, “Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit; wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.”
Tomatoes are, indeed, technically a fruit. Why? Because fruits, by definition, hail from either a single seed or many seeds that manifest inside and grow from the flower of a plant. Tomatoes grow from small yellow flowers on a vine, which also contain seeds. Thus, botanically speaking, tomatoes are fruit.
Just call the whole thing off when it comes to a definitive pronunciation of tomato; regional accents will always take precedence over whatever Webster has to say on the matter. Listen to the locals and say it like them (especially when the locals are your friends and family, otherwise you will sound like a twit).
Break down its Latin name, Lycopersicon esculentum, and the tomato reveals its true identity: “wolf peach.” Far from some misguided term of endearment, tomatoes picked up the moniker because they were thought to be both seductive and lethal.
Tomatoes hail from a class of vegetation called nightshades, a term that not only sounds like the next Marvel movie but like the kind of plant that might kill you. Many nightshades (like belladonna) will do just that, due to potent alkaloids that they contain. Tomatoes, however, like their cousins eggplants and bell peppers, are significantly lighter on this spectrum and are therefore safe for most. (Those with irritable bowel or other digestive ailments may nevertheless follow a low- FODMAP diet that forbids them.)
From South America to North America via Europe
Though native to South America, the tomato began its journey towards becoming a dietary staple upon its arrival in Europe via the likes of Columbus and Cortés. Essentially decorative at first, tomatoes benefitted from selective breeding and thus moved from the centerpiece to the plate.
The popularity of the modern tomato is, in large part, thanks to the efforts of American botanist Alexander W. Livingston whose “Paragon” breed proved a hit in the States.
Grow Your Own
“Snow White Cherry Tomato is hands down the best beginner tomato,” says Fionuala Campion, founder of Cottage Gardens of Petaluma, a sprawling fantasia of beautifully curated plant life nestled in Sonoma County wine country north of San Francisco. The destination nursery and garden grows seasonally-appropriate organic veggie and herb starts all year long.
“It’s an incredibly productive, disease-resistant BIG tall healthy plant that with minimal effort and over a long harvesting period (because it is an indeterminate variety) yields abundant clusters of lemon yellow, crack/resistant, super sweet, juicy cherry tomatoes,” she says. “Though they're slightly bigger than your classic ‘cherry’ type, they're perfectly sized for snacking, and equally fabulous topping pizzas or adding to soups or salads.”
We adore this cherry tomato and burrata recipe. Reason enough to try your hands at growing them!
Get Down and Dirty
To grow tomatoes at home, Campion recommends starting with great soil with excellent drainage "nicely amended with compost."
"Plant your transplant deeply (and in a gopher cage if they’re a problem) to encourage a good strong root system,” she continues.
She also suggests getting irrigation in place and watering your plant appropriately to the size of the root system and your local weather. Also, consider mulching to help conserve moisture and to add nutrients to the soil as it breaks down.
“Getting your plant off to a great start goes a long way towards ensuring a healthy plant, which then is naturally more resistant to diseases or pests, minimizing the need for pesticides or any other kind of intervention,” says Campion.
She encourages keeping an eye on our your tomato plant for pests or fungal issues; nip either in the bud immediately by hand-picking bugs or caterpillars and removing affected foliage. Also, nets can help ward off birds, deer or rodents that might become problematic.
"Heirlooms,” Campion explains, are varietals of fruits, vegetables, and flowers that have been beloved, grown, saved, and passed on thanks to their unique and valuable qualities.
“The taste of a Brandywine tomato, the texture and flavor of a Jimmy Nardello pepper have made them favorites down the years," says Campion, who grew up in a farming family in Ireland before transplanting to California in 1984. "Every time a new gardener chooses to grow an heirloom vegetable, they’re honoring gardeners of old, continuing the story and savoring a little bit of history."
From the Organic Authority Files
Heirloom tomatoes can turn the simplest lunch into a tastebud revelation. Skip the avocado toast and enjoy heirloom heirloom tomato toast with sea salt instead (so anti-hipster, it's hipster).
Is it Ripe?
“The taste test is always the best for knowing when exactly to harvest your particular variety," says Campion.
"Begin with a gentle squeeze of your chosen taste tester. If it gives just the tiniest bit, harvest and taste. Is it mouthwateringly delicious and just how a home-grown tomato should taste? Then it's ready!“
The OA take: Life's too short to indulge in tomatoes that don't have a silky internal texture. You want juicy, earth-scented, robust fruits that are a bit firm but are miles away from mealy. This optimal texture experience goes hand-in-hand with summertime, which is why we eschew the wintertime halfway-round-the-world options.
If your toms are at all overripe, into the blender for a freeze-ready purée they go (which you'll want when it's the aforementioned wintertime). If they're firm but lack juice, let them ripen another day or two...or three!
Simple Summer Pleasure: Fresh Caprese Salad
The caprese (ka-pray-zay, not caprice) is a luscious salad that comes together in just a minute or two.
Layer the mozzarella slices on top of the tomato slices. Sprinkle the ground pepper on top, followed by the shredded or thinly sliced basil leaves. Drizzle with the olive oil and then with the balsamic. Finish with a liberal sprinkle of the sea salt flakes. Pair with a chilled rosé.
4 vine-ripe tomatoes, sliced 1/4-inch thick; larger varieties are best
1 pound fresh mozzarella, cut into 1/4-inch thick slices
20 or so leaves of fresh basil, shredded or thinly sliced. Recommended: roll the leaves up tightly - think basil burrito - for easy slicing. (You can also simply garnish the salad with whole leaves, as shown above.)
Balsamic vinegar (aged is best)
Coarsely ground pepper
Sea salt flakes
For the olive oil, we prefer Manni Oil's extra-virgin The Oil of Life, loaded with antioxidants and among the purest, finest E we've ever enjoyed. It's practically drinkable, it's that delicious. And look at that gorgeous bottle!
Some Like It Hot
Favor the ooey gooey glory of melted cheese with your tomatoes? Don't miss our delicious grilled chicken panini with tomato and mozzarella recipe (it's the lemon that really takes the flavor up a notch, if you ask us, but don't tell the cheese).
For a hot vegetarian sandwich, try our three cheese tomato panini with fresh basil and a finger lickin' garlic spread. Because three types of cheese is better than one, and that's not just our opinion, it's a well-known preference amongst tomatoes, as well. (We asked.)