Tomato Recipes: How to Prepare Tomatoes to Use in Cooking

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There are all kinds of tomato recipes! Fresh tomatoes are used in salads, soups, sauces, baked dishes, grilled and roasted items – even as a specialty when fried. They’re versatile and tasty, particularly when just picked off the vine.

That’s the rub. Fresh tomatoes are highly perishable. They require some special handling to get their best benefits. 

(Share your fresh tomato recipes with Tomato Dirt readers ...)

How to choose fresh tomatoes for tomato recipes

Commercial distributors often pick tomatoes when they’re green and let them ripen in controlled environments.

Fresh tomatoes with Tomato Dirt

But tomato flavor develops only when the fruit is on the vine. A tomato’s sugars, acids, and aromas stop developing once it’s harvested. That is, a green tomato’s flavor maintains constant, at about the level at which it is picked, even after its skin ripens.

If you grow your own tomatoes, you’re in luck – pick them off the vine and use them the same day in tomato recipes for the freshest taste.

If you purchase fresh tomatoes to use in cooking, use the “smell test” on stems – if the aroma is deep, the tomato will taste that way too. In addition, when buying fresh, look for these kinds of tomatoes:

Dry-farmed tomatoes aren't watered once blossoms are set. That forces plants to work harder to develop fruit, yielding a deep flavor.
Vine-ripened tomatoes mature before being picked (rather than being harvested when green.)
Locally-grown tomatoes are produced in your immediate geographical area, and are among your best fresh choices. Since tomatoes don’t travel well (despite the tricks commercial growers use), “locally-grown” means nearby – and a shorter distance to your kitchen.

What parts of the tomato give it taste and nutrients?

  • A tomato’s flesh provides sugars and amino acids.
  • A tomato’s juice provides acidity and liquid.
  • A tomato’s seeds provide liquid.

Plum tomatoes have lots of meaty flesh and few seeds, making them suitable for sauces and pastes. Slicing tomatoes have more juice and seeds and less flesh. They’re ideal for eating fresh in salads.

When is a tomato ripe?

Check color, texture, and touch.

  • Color: A ripe tomato is uniformly colored, in a shade true to its variety. An unripened tomato has inconsistent color. An overripe tomato has soft spots and may ooze juice from cracks.
  • Texture: A ripe tomato is smooth, plump, and glossy.
  • Touch: A ripe tomato is not too soft or not too hard to the touch. It “gives” when you press it with a finger. Avoid selecting a tomato with bruises or one that’s overly soft.

How to store fresh tomatoes to use in tomato recipes

Store fresh, ripe tomatoes at room temperature with stem side up to reduce softening. When a tomato is completely ripe, place it in a cool spot and use it as soon as possible before it attracts gnats or spoils. Avoid storing tomatoes in the refrigerator, where cold air dulls its taste and softens the texture to make it mushy.

Unripened tomatoes need warmth (not light). Place them on the kitchen counter, stems up, away from drafts. A sunny windowsill is a warm spot, provided there are no drafts. If your tomatoes are extremely under-ripe, set them in a brown paper bag with a banana or apple. The ethylene gas from both the tomatoes and fruit will help tomatoes ripen quickly.

What if tomatoes are overripe?

The only exception to the “no refrigerator rule” is if tomatoes are overripe – very soft fruit with very high color. Put overripe tomatoes in a plastic bag with a few slits to keep them from losing liquid, or store them a plastic container. Use overripe tomatoes as soon as possible – within 3 days.

Preparing fresh tomatoes to use in tomato recipes

Slicing tomatoes

Serrated knives work best. If you use a straight knife (or paring knife), make sure it’s well-sharpened. Tomato skin can be resistant. Special tip: try a bread knife.

How to remove a tomato skin

For some recipes you may choose to remove a tomato’s skin, especially if it’s tough. (If you grow your own tomatoes, you’ll discover that those from your garden have more tender skin than those commercially-grown.) Here's an easy way to do it.

  • Select a ripe tomato.
  • With a knife, cut an X on the bottom of the tomato, just deep enough to penetrate the skin.
  • Drop tomato into boiling water. Blanch for 20-30 seconds.
  • Use a slotted spoon to remove tomato from boiling water.
  • Immerse tomato in ice water.
  • Use knife to remove tomato core. Skin will slip off.

How to seed a tomato

Some recipes require only the meat of the tomato (minus seeds and much of the juice). It’s not hard to remove seeds and juice.

  • With a knife, cut the tomato halfway through at its “equator” – between the stem and the blossom end).
  • Hold the tomato over the sink or a bowl. Gently squeeze out seeds and excess juice.

Must you always seed and skin a tomato before you use it in tomato recipes?

No. If skin and seeds won’t be noticeable in the dish, you can skip the step. Diced tomato skin curls into tough bits when cooked.

One more tip: if you're going to prepare tomatoes for canning or freezing, consider using a tomato pressYou'll save time and work, eliminate chopping, and reduce waste.

More on using tomatoes in recipes

Share your fresh tomato recipes with Tomato Dirt readers ...

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Harvesting tomatoes: when to pick them ...

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Get more ideas on our Fresh Tomato Recipes Pinterest board.

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