Food & Nutrition

The Skinny on Tomatoes

Get the lowdown on the star ingredient in gazpacho, salsa, spaghetti sauce, fried green tomatoes and so much more.
Published July 14, 2016
Colonial Americans believed them to be poisonous. The French considered them an aphrodisiac. Italians dubbed them the “gold apple:” pomodoro. But no matter where you hail from, nowadays tomatoes are an essential part of a tasty, healthy, diet.

At their peak from June through September, tomatoes are as versatile as they are waistline-friendly. They’re a good source of potassium and high in vitamins C and A. Cooked tomatoes also provide lycopene, an antioxidant thought to reduce the risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease and macular degeneration. In fact, the tomato is the biggest source of lycopene in the American diet. And tomato lycopene absorption is maximized when tomatoes are cooked with little oil — think chili and spaghetti sauce.


Choosing and Storing

When buying, look for firm, deeply colored and blemish-free tomatoes that feel heavy for their size. Store stem-side down at room temperature, away from direct sunlight. And whatever you do, don’t put them in the fridge: cold turns the flesh mushy and drains tomatoes of flavor. Buy only what you’ll use within a few days.

Visual Buying Guide

More than 7,500 varieties of tomato are grown around the world, but only a handful are widely available. Keep our visual breakdown of tomatoes handy during your next trip to the farmers' market.


​The largest of all tomatoes, these can weigh as much as 2 pounds each. In stores, you’ll see mostly red or pink varieties, but at farmer's markets a wider color spectrum is available. The best tomato for slicing, beefsteaks have a distinctive kidney shape and the quintessential tomato flavor. Since their flesh is relatively firm, they’re also good for cooking.


This doesn’t indicate a variety so much as a farming method. Most supermarkets sell tomatoes that are picked green and ripened with ethylene gas — which changes the color nicely but does nothing to impart flavor. Ripening on the vine produces a richer, more tomatoey tomato, and also a much more perishable one. But beware: “Vine-ripened” tomatoes in large stores may be picked as soon as the first blush of red appears, which is far different from a fully ripe tomato. Shop at farmstands for the real thing. You’ll pay a premium, but it’ll be worth it.


There are thousands of varieties, each with its own distinct coloring and flavor, like the striped, spicy-tasting Green Zebra or the maroon, smoky-sweet Cherokee Purple. Buy some at the farmer’s market and experiment: Try a tomato salad with three or four different heirlooms, some fresh basil, a drizzle of olive oil and a squeeze of lemon.


Oblong, with meatier flesh and fewer seeds than other varieties, these are the preferred tomato for cooking — but they’re also popular raw. In fact, if you’re craving a salad during the winter, plums are your best bet for anything close to real tomato flavor.


Another option for year-round tomatoes are Camparis. Relatively new to the tomato scene, they’re round, smaller than a plum tomato but bigger than a cherry one, deep red and remarkably sweet. There are only three suppliers for the entire country, though, so you may not find these everywhere.

Yellow or Orange

Yellow or Orange 
When it comes to tomatoes, yellow and orange generally signal a sweeter treat, since yellow and orange varieties have less acid than their red brethren. They also add gorgeous color to a dish.

Grape, Cherry & Pear Grape, Cherry & Pear
These bite-sized varieties are ideal for salads and snacking, and perfect for kids. They’re sweeter than larger tomatoes and often have firmer flesh. Grape tomatoes are the most popular: They look like tiny plum tomatoes and are exceptionally sweet. Cherry tomatoes are round and slightly larger, with a little less sugar and a little more juice; they’re the ones that squirt when you bite into them. Pear tomatoes come in a variety of colors, with yellow and red most common, and are — surprise — pear-shaped. They, too, can be quite sweet, and are usually small enough to pop in your mouth.
  Green Tomatoes
No, these are not the ones made famous by a certain book and movie. Instead, they’re fully ripe if still green—like Green Zebra tomatoes with stripes of lighter and darker green across its skin. Green tomatoes are moderately sweet. Many have a natural spiciness—not hot like a chili, but a slight peppery edge. Enjoy ripe, green tomatoes with sweet salad greens like Boston lettuce. Or slice them on turkey sandwiches with hearty, whole-grain bread.
  Black Tomatoes
Technically not “black,” these run the gamut from very dark purple to a deep, rich burgundy. They grow as small as ping pong balls or as large as soft balls. In general, the smaller ones are sweeter; but almost all black tomatoes have a certain umami quality, more savory than almost any other tomato. Because of their flavor, black tomatoes go beautifully in chopped summer salads with lots of raw, sweet sugar snap peas, green beans, runner beans, carrots, fresh lettuces, and tangy radish sprouts.