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Should You Refrigerate Tomatoes … and If So, When?

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It’s a grand debate: should you refrigerate tomatoes or not? One on side are those who say never. They’re horrified at the thought of a chilled tomatoes.

And on the other side of the issue are fruit flies, bruising, or fruit that’s ready to spoil. The icebox beckons. You want to preserve as much of your crop as possible, right?

The conflict’s quick answer is this: keep fresh tomatoes on your counter so long as you plan to use them in a day or two. Longer than that, and plant to store tomatoes in the fridge. Here’s why.

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What happens to tomatoes when they are refrigerated?

The headline issue is taste. Tomatoes begin to lose their flavor after they've in the refrigerator for a few days -- or even a few hours, so say some true aficionados. T

The culprit is lineolic acid. It’s an ingredient in tomatoes that turns to a compound (called Z-3 hexenel, or Z-3) and gives tomatoes their taste.

But cold temperatures hamper the process that the acid uses to turn into the compound. More cold means lineolic acid doesn’t convert to Z-3 less easily and less abundantly. Bottom line: colder temps means less tomatoey taste and smell.

Yet sometimes, you can store tomatoes in the fridge with minimal impact on its taste. It depends on how ripe the tomato is.

It's okay to refrigerate tomatoes when ...

They’re ripe.

I’m not talking about supermarket tomatoes, no matter how ripe they may appear. They’ve already been refrigerated on their way to you.

I’m talking about ripe tomatoes you pick from your own plants or buy at the farmer’s market or those that a neighbor gives you because she has too many. These are the tomatoes that have reached their peak flavor by the time you pluck them out of your garden and bring them inside.

If you can eat them right away, then leave them on the counter. They’ll last a day or two.

But if you’re overstocked then it’s okay to set fresh, ripe tomatoes in the fridge. The chill will slow their ripening process. But no matter because at this point, they’re maxing out their zesty tang. In other words, more ripening on the counter won’t improve their flavor dramatically.

What about the texture?

What can change in the fridge, however, is their texture. Don’t leave tomatoes in the icebox for days and weeks on end. Cold breaks down cell membranes inside the fruit.

That change is from a “chilling injury,” said chemist Robert Wolke (1928 – 2021), professor at the University of Pittsburgh and a Washington Post food columnist. The tomato’s texture is damaged when the fruit is exposed to temperature below 50 degrees Fahrenheit. They get spongy, grainy, or mealy.

Given that the average refrigerator temperature in 40 degrees, you can see why too many days in the icebox can lead to mushy tomatoes – even though the impact has to do with not only on the temperature and duration of chilling but also on the fruit's ripeness.

Don't store tomatoes in the fridge when ...

They’re underripe.

This is the situation when you definitely don’t want to store your tomatoes in the fridge—chilling them will prevent them from ripening and developing flavor.

Instead, place them stem side down in your pantry or on your countertop to reduce moisture loss. This way, they’ll stay juicy. Keep an eye on them. Once they reach their premium ripeness, it’s time to use them. Otherwise, they may mold or decay right on your counter.

Pro tips for when you refrigerate tomatoes

If you stash tomatoes in the fridge, then remove them in plenty of time to bring the fruit back to room temperature before serving-- about an hour or two before you plan to eat them. By setting them at room temperature you give any remaining lineolic acid the chance to turn into the Z-3 compound, giving the tomato a final boost of flavor.

And another tip. Smaller pieces warm up faster than whole tomatoes. You can preserve as much flavor as possible when you slice or cut tomatoes before setting them in the fridge, especially if you plan to eat them after a day or two. Be sure to seal them in an airtight container or Ziploc bag. Otherwise, skins will dry.

Test tomato flavors for yourself

If you’re unsure about the impact of cold when you refrigerate tomatoes, then try this experiment to test flavors:

  • Pick 4 tomatoes -- same variety, same ripeness.
  • Taste one right away.
  • Set one on the counter. Place two in the fridge.
  • An hour later, remove one from the fridge.
  • Taste the countertop tomato, the short-term fridge tomato, and the long-term fridge tomato against each other (remembering the flavor of the vine-eaten tomato).
  • Decide for yourself!

Bottom line: should you refrigerate tomatoes?

It depends on your palate. Would you prefer to extend the joy you get from eating fresh tomatoes? Then stash extras in the fridge before mold, bruises, and fruit flies set it.

After all, it a decent-tasting fresh tomato better than a rotten tomato that you need to throw onto the compost pile … or no fresh tomato at all.

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