There’s nothing quite like growing your own produce. Whether you have a big vegetable patch or a small window box, there’s something very rewarding about preparing a meal using ingredients you’ve tended and watered yourself. Tomatoes in particular have long been a favourite of the green-fingered home cook. Fresh, juicy and flavourful, you can almost taste all the long days of sunshine that went into making them. The only problem is that they can be a bit delicate, and if you live somewhere where it gets cold in the fall, they can be at risk from frost.
If a frost is forecast and you have tomatoes growing outside, there’s nothing for it but to bring them inside out of harm’s way. Sometimes, if the first frost is a little early, your tomatoes may not yet be ripe, which will usually be obvious by their green colour. There are a few exceptions to this rule, as some tomatoes - particularly some heirloom varieties - stay green even when they’re ripe, so you need to feel them to check if they’re ripe or not.
Mostly, however, when people talk about green tomatoes, they are referring to red varieties that are still unripe. These green tomatoes are firmer than fully-ripe tomatoes, with a tangier, more acidic flavour. If you have tomatoes like this, it’s actually perfectly ok to eat them as they are. Their denser structure means they can be deep-fried and baked in casseroles without turning to mush like red tomatoes, and they are a particularly popular ingredient in Southern cooking.
If you prefer your tomatoes ripe and juicy, however, the good news is that they can continue to ripen after they’ve picked. There are several methods people use to help ripen green tomatoes, and we’re going to take a look at some of the most commonly-used.
In a cardboard box
Although they are usually eaten with savoury dishes, tomatoes are technically a fruit, as they contain seeds. And like some other fruits, tomatoes give off a gas called ethylene as they ripen, which encourages the fruit around them to ripen too. To encourage your green tomatoes to ripen more quickly, try placing them in a box with the lid closed to keep the ethylene trapped inside.
Line your box with a single layer of newspaper and place the tomatoes inside, making sure none of them are touching, then place another layer of newspaper over the top, close the box, and leave it somewhere warm. If you really want to speed things up, try adding a ripe banana for an extra ethylene boost. Keep checking back daily, and make sure to discard any tomatoes that develop mould or rot, and to remove any tomatoes that are fully ripe to prevent over-ripening.
In a paper bag
A variation on the box method, the paper bag method involves placing several tomatoes into a paper bag with another ethylene-producing fruit, like an apple or a banana, then folding over the top of the bag to keep the ethylene trapped inside. As above, store in a warm place, check regularly for mould and rot, and remove each tomato as it ripens to avoid over-ripening.
On a sunny windowsill
Contrary to popular belief, tomatoes don’t need sunlight to ripen. They do need warmth, however, and the warmth of a sunny windowsill can sometimes do the job. This can be a bit hit and miss, however, and is more likely to work on tomatoes that have already begun to ripen a little.
Hang up the whole plant
If you have the room, you can actually dig up the entire plant and hang it upside down somewhere warm and dry, like a garage or a shed. You’ll need to take the roots as well, but shake off any soil still clinging to them. With the tomatoes still attached to the vine, they can continue to ripen in a more or less natural way, and many people believe that ripening tomatoes in this way gives them a better flavour.
How to preserve green tomatoes
If you’ve got some green tomato recipes planned, then you’ll want to prevent your tomatoes from ripening. Since tomatoes need heat to ripen, the best way to achieve this is to store them somewhere cold, ideally between 50 - 65°F. An unheated basement or enclosed porch is ideal. Otherwise, they are suitable for freezing.
Recipes with green tomatoes
If you want to try some green tomato recipes, the best place to start is with the classic fried green tomatoes, coated in a cornmeal crumb.
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