The biggest reason to garden is for tomatoes, isn’t it? Those tasty, tangy-sweet fruits are the highlight of summer. No grocery store variety comes even close to what comes out of a garden. But the delight of summer tomatoes is too quickly gone.
Fall frosts always come too early, robbing us of our most precious garden produce. So before the frosts take everything, it’s time to gather in all the tomatoes from the garden. Ripe, partially ripe or green, you’ll want to save every bit of this garden goodness.
If you wait, it will ripen
You’ve probably heard that if you just wait, your under-ripe tomatoes will ripen. That’s mostly true. Most tomatoes will continue to ripen after they’ve been picked, but only if the fruit is fully grown. Fully grown tomatoes start to produce ethylene, which triggers the tomato to start degrading the chlorophyll (the green pigment) and start synthesizing carotenoids and lycopene pigments (the red colors.) This production of ethylene makes the tomato change color as it softens and develops the aroma and good taste we love in tomatoes.
It takes a few days for this change to be visible, so you may have a tomato that looks green but at the cellular level has started to ripen. But if the tomato is truly green, meaning that it has not started producing the ethylene needed to start the color change, it will never ripen.
Gathering and sorting
When daily temperatures are 50° or less, the plants start to shut down and the tomatoes will not ripen. If daytime temperatures are well above 50°, you might want to cover tomato and pepper plants at night with a light-weight blanket or sheet. This protects the plant from some of the shock of cold night time temperatures.
But when a killing frost is in the forecast, it’s time to bring everything in. Be careful when you pick your tomatoes and handle them gently. Tomatoes do better if they still have some of the stem attached. If a tomato is bruised or damaged during the picking or sorting process, it will likely rot before it finishes ripening. With care, you can have garden tomatoes on your table for several weeks to come.
Once you’ve picked all your tomatoes, it’s time to sort them. You will have three piles: Mostly Ripe, Truly Green and Something In Between.
In the Mostly Ripe pile you will have all the tomatoes that are pinkish or mostly red. Gently put these tomatoes in a single layer in box or basket and put them aside to ripen undisturbed. Keep them warm (60°-75°) and these will easily ripen in the next several days.
Now start sorting the Truly Green pile. These are the smaller, hard tomatoes that haven’t developed enough to finish the ripening process. If your tomato is the least bit immature no amount of time or patience will be enough to give you a ripe tomato. You have yourself a Truly Green tomato.
There are also green tomatoes that look fully grown but show no signs of having started to ripen. Maybe they’ll ripen, maybe they won’t, it’s hard to tell. If in doubt, sort them into the Truly Green tomato pile.
And then there are the mostly-green tomatoes that got a battered a bit during picking and sorting. Maybe they have started to blush and turn whitish/pink. But because they are bruised or marred, they’ll probably spoil before they ripen. Use them now as Truly Green tomatoes.
And now the last pile: Nice, smooth, unblemished fruits that are not at all ripe but have started to ripen. These will have a hint of softness or some white, yellow or even pale green blush on the shoulders. These will ripen in two to four weeks, depending on the variety and size of the fruit. Lay them in a single layer in a shallow cardboard box. Cover with a light cloth to prevent them from drying out before ripening. Check them every two to three days and pick out the ripe ones.
Is it really a green tomato? Any tomato variety—red, yellow, orange or green—is a green tomato when it is under ripe. But there are varieties of tomatoes like Green Zebras and Green Giant, that stay green, even when they are ripe. When they’re ripe, these tomato varieties are softy, juicy and meaty and taste tomato-y.
More than fried green tomatoes
Now that you have all your tomatoes sorted, it’s time to make the most of the green tomatoes. Of course, everyone knows about Fried Green Tomatoes. They’re delicious! But that’s just the beginning.
Try a tangy-sweet Green Tomato Pie. Green tomato bread with its fall spices is perfect this time of year. Piccalilli and Chow Chow are two very tasty relishes that use green tomatoes. There are so many, many ways to use green tomatoes that I actually look forward to the fall harvest of green, immature tomatoes.
I encourage you to download my collection of green tomato recipes. This eBook has 50 of my favorite green tomato recipes and is free this month. With these recipes, you may just find that you like green tomatoes almost as much as the ripe red tomatoes.