Latin name: Lycopersicon esculentum
Uses: fruit/vegetable, sauces/condiments 

What are tomatoes?

A tomato is the edible fruit of the tomato plant, usually with glossy red, orange, or yellow skin. (Though there are also white, green, pink, brown, and purple varieties). Tomatoes are botanically a berry, but most people consider them a vegetable. There are thousands of tomato varieties, ranging in shape from ordinary spheres to pear, plum, or even heart-shaped. 

Size-wise, they vary from tiny cherry tomatoes to hulking behemoths weighing several pounds apiece. You’ll sometimes see interesting “heirloom” varieties that are deeply lobed or with unusual streaks and stripes on the skin, and new varieties are always being developed.

Why are tomatoes healthy?

Tomatoes are a fine source of vitamin C and dietary fiber, but otherwise they’re mostly water. They do contain other bioactive compounds and antioxidants such as lycopene, a carotenoid that gives tomatoes their red color. In the 2000s, claims of lycopene’s antioxidant and cancer-fighting properties began swirling around (especially in advertising for dietary supplements) but the FDA concluded that there’s not enough credible evidence yet in human studies to support claims that it reduced cancer.

Newer research shows promising results for lycopene in protecting against prostate cancer. But more research is needed to prove its potential anti-cancerous properties. However, eating more lycopene is beneficial for our health because it helps reduce oxidative stress and inflammation.

Cooking tomatoes or eating sun-dried tomatoes helps activate their lycopene bioavailability more than raw.

What do tomatoes taste like?

Tomatoes are juicy, with a mucilaginous jelly surrounding the seeds that some people find off-putting (it can be scooped out if it bothers you). Grocery-store tomatoes are pretty insipid and flavorless, but the flavor of a ripe tomato is sweet, slightly acidic, and savory at the same time. (Tomatoes are high in glutamic acid — nature’s MSG.) The distinctive aroma and flavor of a tomato boils down to fructose, citric acid, and six different organic compounds.

How do I prepare tomatoes?

You can eat a tomato raw, either whole (if they’re small), sliced, or chopped. You can stuff and roast them, confit them in oil, pickle them, purée and turn them to sauce, or dry them. They release a lot of water when they’re cooked. In the American South, they dredge unripe (green) tomatoes in cornmeal and fry them. If you make your own sauce for canning, you can reserve the skins and dehydrate them for tomato powder, which is great for thickening soups and stews.

What do tomatoes pair well with?

Tomatoes are part of pretty much every cuisine in the world. Raw tomatoes are wonderful with just a sprinkle of salt and pepper or a smear of mayonnaise. They love dairy: sour cream, creamy dressings, and cheeses like burrata, buffalo mozzarella, Parmesan, and ricotta are classic. Tomatoes are brilliant with herbs like basil, parsley, oregano, and cilantro. They’re nearly always paired with alliums, and go well with their cousins eggplant and peppers. In East Asia, a simple scrambled egg and tomato stir-fry with rice is a classic comfort food, and tomatoes add a nice acidity to tom yum. Tomato sauce is also a pantry staple, used in everything from curries to soup.

Where do tomatoes grow?

Tomatoes are native to the Americas, and tomato’s wild progenitor still grows in western South America. They grow best in climates with a long growing season (California and Florida grow the majority of the American crop) and can’t survive frost. China produces the most tomatoes globally, followed by India and Turkey. (The U.S. is in fourth place.)

How to buy tomatoes

Preferably, you’ll wait until they’re in season and buy them from the farmers market (or grow your own). But if you have to buy fresh tomatoes at the grocery store, they should be heavy for their size, yield to gentle pressure, and smell good.

You’ll probably find that heirloom tomatoes will have more flavor than the beefsteaks and Romas, which are not grown for flavor, but for endurance and uniformity in color and size. But some of the newer varieties like Kumato are sometimes more flavorful.

Store fresh tomatoes on the countertop, not the fridge, stem side down to prolong shelf life. Sun-dried tomatoes should be stored in an airtight container in a cool, dry place, and canned tomatoes can be stored on the pantry shelf.

Fun tomato fact:

We have pizza to thank for the tomato’s widespread use in Europe and North America. Because they’re a nightshade (a plant family with many deadly members), most Europeans didn’t trust tomatoes to be safe to eat for around 200 years after they’d been brought to the continent. People just grew them as a botanical curiosity for the garden. In around 1880, when pizza was invented in Naples, the popularity of the food swept through Europe, taking the tomato with it.