Saturday, March 27, 2010

STORING TOMATOES for maximum flavor and shelf life

Gardening season in Florida is off and running. The number one vegetable grown in the home garden is the tomato. Of course, actually the tomato is a fruit, but let’s not get picky. A tomato plot is essential to all homesteaders, self sufficiency hopefuls and generally everyone who enjoys a nice salad. The tomato plays such a large part in simple living that it deserves a whole page just on its history. It is not going to get it here. Nor, am I going to talk about growing or even using tomatoes.

I want to speak to you briefly about storing tomatoes for fresh use. Even if we grow our own in backyard gardens, we must resort to store bought tomatoes in the off seasons. Very often, we find ourselves dealing with tomatoes that are not fully ripe. Almost every tomato you buy in the store has been picked totally green and far ahead of its peak ripeness. Even in homestead gardens, the heat or rain may require you to pick some tomatoes before they are fully ripe.  That is the bad news. A tomato that ripens fully on the vine and is picked just before use is ideal and can't be duplicated by commercial methods. However, there is good news. Tomatoes, as a fruit, will continue to ripen even after being picked. People hold them until ripe in many ways – some good, some bad. I will let you know which is which. Also, I can share with you a very effective heirloom method my mother uses and it works very well.

First, never store tomatoes in the refrigerator. One of the major flavor components of tomatoes is cis-3-Hexenal, an aroma compound with an intense smell of freshly cut grass. It is highly volatile and is destroyed anytime it is exposed to temperatures 50f or lower. The fruit will not ripen further and flavor decays quickly. The only exception is if it has been sliced or past ripe and you plan to use it immediately.

Second, if you want to ripen tomatoes keep them in a cool, dry confined space like a bag or box. If your tomatoes are extremely green or if you need to speed up ripening you can do so by increasing their exposure to ethylene. Ethylene is a gas produced naturally by all fruit as part of the ripening process. It also speeds up that process if present in higher amounts. Placing them in a paper bag or box will concentrate the gas and speed up ripening. If you really want to speed things up place a ripe apple in the container with the tomatoes.

My mother always keeps a special box around for storing and ripening tomatoes. She takes a small sturdy box and covers it with decorative paper. Of course, the decoration is not necessary, but it makes the box look nice in the kitchen. Then she lines the bottom of the box with several sheets of paper, newspaper will do. She often uses the soft cardboard dividers from cases of can goods to keep the tomatoes from touching each other. You can get the grids from the grocery if you ask them for some. Items like canned soup come shipped in cases with the cardboard grids used to keep the cans separate. She them places the tomatoes carefully in the box, stem side up and never touching any other tomato. The paper works to cushion and keep them dry. So now to provide darkness, she places the lid back on and puts the box on top of the refrigerator. Mom swears by this and has done it for years.
You can slow down or speed up the ripening by how closely you pack the box. The more tomatoes next to each other the more ethylene they share and the quicker they ripen. Again, adding a ripe apple would speed it up. Conversely, if you want to slow it down then leave the lid ajar so the gases can escape.

Hope this little mixture of heirloom and scientific wisdom can help you make the simple life a tasty one also. Once we get really into the summer, I will share some interesting ways to use the flood of tomatoes we often get from the homestead garden in high season. But until, then we are stuck with store bought. I certainly hope this tomato box can become a useful tool in your kitchens as it has been in ours.

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