Helpful Tips for Harvesting Tomatoes

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By Craig Lehoullier | Apr 6, 2015

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Roast or grill your freshly picked tomatoes in a cast iron skillet after harvesting.
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Assessing the ripe state of orange and yellow tomatoes is fairly easy once you know which color to expect.
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Grow and harvest the best tomatoes ever with this practical and beautiful guide, “Epic Tomatoes” by Craig LeHoullier.

Savor your best tomato harvest ever with Epic Tomatoes (Storey Publishing, 2015)by Craig LeHoullier, a tomato adviser for Seed Savers Exchange. Epic Tomatoes offers everything a tomato enthusiast needs to know about growing more than 200 varieties of tomatoes. This excerpt, which provides some tips and hints for harvesting tomatoes, is from Chapter5, “Harvest Celebration.”

Buy this book from the Capper’s Farmer store: Epic Tomatoes.

Helpful Tips to Harvesting Tomatoes

All of the hard work is now behind you (so you think, anyway!). The journey that began many months ago is beginning the lengthy (we hope) payoff period. Harvest time often begins utterly unexpectedly with a flash of color deep among the dense lower foliage of one of the tomato plants. One day, the tomatoes are hard and green, the dinner plates yet to be decorated with the anticipated harvest, the stomach rumbling with anticipation. And then, there it is: the first ripe tomato, just waiting for you to pick it, devour it, relish the flavor of summer, and become immersed in the nostalgia of so many tomatoes tasted throughout your gardening years.

Determining When to Pick Tomatoes

There are different schools of thought on when to pick a ripening, or ripe, tomato. The decision depends upon several factors: the variety, the weather (temperature as well as precipitation or irrigation), the presence of marauding critters, and the status of your edible ripe tomato supply and its intended uses. It also depends on your knowledge of the variety and expected color, whether the variety is true to type, and where you are in the season (early, mid, or late). Trial and error will certainly be involved, and experimenting with a tomato you are trying for the first time can be very informative.

Generally speaking, when tomatoes are ripe for eating, they’re also ripe for seed saving. Good, viable seeds can be saved from tomatoes that are a bit short of fully ripe (when they are blushing, but still showing some green), though germination could be a bit low. Seeds saved from overripe tomatoes will be fine.

When a Tomato Is at Its Peak Flavor

Of course, the flavor of a particular tomato will be at its peak when it’s perfectly ripe. Each variety, at peak ripeness, will also possess a characteristic texture. As a rule, less-ripe tomatoes have less sugar and could exhibit a more acidic, tart taste. The texture is likely to be firmer, perhaps even with a definite hardness or crunchiness. Tomatoes that ripen a bit beyond the peak state will become sweeter and less tart, which could result in unpleasant blandness. The texture in this case may become mushy or soft.

Sometimes, an overripe tomato will begin to show nearly rotting “off” flavors that make the tasting experience very unpleasant indeed. It is wise to stay away from preserving or processing tomatoes that are overripe to the point of near collapse, as the off-flavors will taint your efforts.

Texture of Tomatoes

Another aspect of ripeness is a softening of the flesh: give the tomato a gentle squeeze. Though a yielding of the flesh is a good general guideline, some varieties, particularly some of the more modern hybrids, are bred to be particularly firm, and even fully colored specimens will feel surprisingly firm.

Aroma of Tomatoes

I’ve watched many shoppers at farmers’ markets pick up tomatoes and smell them. Personally, I get little to no aroma from tomatoes (they are very different from slip melons, such as cantaloupes, in this regard); often, a strong smell associated with a ripe tomato is indicative of impending spoilage. Of course, each person “smells” differently, so others will have quite a different opinion or experience than mine.

Tomatoes’ Ripeness by Color

Tomato colors are determined by the genes of each variety. The relationship between a particular tomato variety’s color potential and ripeness level is something best learned through experience.

The particular mixture of carotenoids in the tomato flesh, including lycopene (yellow, orange, and red, as well as red and yellow bicolored types), and chlorophyll (green, which also contributes to the so-called “black” tomatoes), when overlaid with clear, yellow, or striped skin, determines the apparent ripe color of the tomato.

An important thing to remember is that the temperature tomatoes experience when ripening can significantly affect the color. Fruits that are exposed to midsummer sun may develop the pale and withered coloring indicative of sunscald. A red tomato that ripens at temperatures above 85 degrees F will not develop a rich, deep pigment and will appear a washed-out pink or even yellow.

Most gardeners are familiar with the color journey of red tomatoes on their way to ripeness. But when growing tomatoes of other colors for the first time, it can be confusing for the gardener to know the right time to pick. Many a customer has told me, “I didn’t know when to pick the tomatoes because they never turned red, and I think they just rotted on the vine.” That is a shame, because many of the unusually colored tomatoes are among the very best in flavor.

It is also worth noting that tomatoes are edible along a continuum of apparent ripeness, from just past blush (fully colored, though perhaps paler than the fully ripened specimen) to as deep a color as the tomato reaches prior to the onset of rotting. When you throw in the factor of the uniqueness of each variety in terms of optimum ripeness, as well as variations from season to season, it becomes a matter of tasting to decide what you like, and when you will like it best with regard to picking time.

Red Tomatoes

Red tomatoes — those that have yellow skins and deep pink or red flesh — go through degrees of color change on their way to full ripeness. The compound responsible for the red flesh is a carotenoid called lycopene. At the onset of color change, the tomato could be pale pink (indicative of the flesh color changing in advance of the skin color) or pale orange. As ripening continues, the fruit starts to take on the characteristic red-orange tone of the red tomato, with well known examples being Better Boy, Roma, and Celebrity.

Early in the season the change from a faint tint of color to full, rich scarlet can take a frustratingly long time. Later, in the middle of the summer heat, when gradual ripening would be a welcomed occurrence (because of the glut of tomatoes becoming overripe on the kitchen counter), a faintly tinted tomato one day seems to become perfectly ripe in the blink of an eye.

Some varieties of red tomatoes will retain green coloring at the shoulders around the stem end. This genetic characteristic is often retained even when the lower majority of the tomato is fully ripe. Again, this is a case when familiarity with a particular variety is very helpful. I am sure many a tomato grower has mistakenly let some varieties rot on the vine while waiting for all of the green coloring to vanish.

Pink Tomatoes

Figuring out when pink tomatoes are ready to pick can be a bit tricky. Because the only difference between a pink and a red tomato is skin color (pink tomatoes have clear skin when ripe), not only is there great confusion even among experienced gardeners in determining whether a tomato is red or pink, but it is often impossible to make a final determination of color until the tomato is fully ripe. Red varieties that ripen during a hot spell may appear to be pink. As pink tomatoes ripen, some varieties can, oddly, have a yellowish cast. Typically, they are pale, but occasionally dusky, shades of pink. Over time, they become a deep crimson pink.

One thing to keep in mind if you are saving seed or cooking with a combination of red and pink tomatoes is that, once sliced, the tomatoes look essentially identical. Since red and pink tomatoes are basically identical in flesh color, layering cut slices of each type in a Caprese-type salad is not visually effective. Using whole pink and red cherry tomatoes in salads is a good way to highlight the color differences.

Purple and Brown Tomatoes (“Black” Varieties)

The various “black” tomatoes (with purple or brown hues) can be quite tricky to assess for ripeness, especially by those who are unfamiliar with them. Black varieties that retain green shoulders even when very ripe are a bit easier to distinguish; otherwise, they may appear from the outside to be simply pink or red varieties.

Tomatoes of all colors take on a deeper hue as they ripen on the counter, but I’ve found that this is particularly striking with the black varieties. It is also important to remember the correlation between temperature and pigment formation. It is, therefore, likely that people growing black varieties in different climates experience different depths of hue, leading to all sorts of interesting “discussions” (sometimes arguments) on Internet forums. Since the appearance of and popularity boom for the black varieties is quite recent (beginning around 1990), we are all still learning about the optimum time to harvest and eat these uniquely colored varieties. If you’re growing black varieties for the first time, be sure to observe the color changes closely as the tomatoes ripen, and pick fruit at various stages of ripeness, sampling them to get a sense of how they develop color and ripeness in your particular garden.

Yellow and Orange Tomatoes

Assessing the ripe state of orange and yellow tomatoes is fairly easy once you know which color to expect. The continuum of hues is vast, from the palest canary yellow to deep gold, and it is more challenging — for me, anyway — to delineate yellow from orange with certain varieties. To further complicate things, some yellow tomatoes darken with age, and oranges and yellows possess different degrees of flavor at different colors. A perfect example of this is the popular, delicious hybrid cherry tomato Sun Gold. Since it is a tomato machine, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to experiment with picking Sun Gold at different stages of ripeness. At pale orange with perhaps a faint greenish tint, Sun Gold has a very full flavor with a sharp acidic tang, which is quite delicious. As it passes to medium orange, the sweetness and complexity (some call it a tropical fruit element) comingle with the still-present tang, creating what many consider the perfect tomato-eating experience. Finally, Sun Gold will turn into a rich, deep orange, and the sweetness is nearly overwhelming.

We’ve found uses for Sun Gold at each of these stages. However, care is needed, since this thin-skinned cherry tomato loves to crack just as it is turning from pale to medium orange, especially if the plant is heavily watered or enjoys a heavy rainstorm.

In general, the best guidance to offer is to experiment. Pick some orange or yellow tomatoes at various stages of ripening; taste some, and allow some to sit on the counter for further ripening and color development. From my experience, the evolution of flavor with increasing ripeness is present in all tomatoes, though at a lesser extent than with Sun Gold. There is so much to learn about how tomato flavors evolve with ripeness.

Let’s look at a representative selection of larger-fruited (non-cherry) tomatoes along the yellow-to-orange range. The most pale-colored examples, such as Hugh’s or Lillian’s Yellow Heirloom, ripen to a very pale yellow and when extremely ripe often develop a pale pink blush at the blossom end. Still yellow, but of a richer, more buttery color, are Lemon Boy and Golden Queen. Once we move from yellow into orange, the presence of the pink blossom-end blush isn’t typically seen, and the pale orange Persimmon and Yellow Brandywine are the color of a traditional pumpkin, whereas Kellogg’s Breakfast reaches the deep hue of a navel orange. It isn’t difficult to judge when any of these are ripe and ready to eat — the key is knowing what is to come, and not waiting for them to turn red!

Bi-colored Tomatoes

Quite a few of the yellow tomatoes have a tendency to develop a very pale pink blush at the bottom, and rarely, this will extend into the flesh as a bright crimson ring in the tomato core. Lillian’s Yellow Heirloom is a perfect example of this. And taking things just a bit further finds us at the large, yellow tomatoes that are swirled and streaked with shades of pink and red. These tomatoes, the so-called bicolored beefsteaks, are, to me, the “peaches” of the tomato garden. Often the coloring evolves and grows as they sit on the counter. These bicolored beefsteaks are not at all uniform, and each tomato on the plant will develop different color patterns.

More from Epic Tomatoes:

The History of Tomatoes in America
Roasted Tomato Sauce Recipe with Sweet Peppers

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Epic Tomatoes, by Craig LeHoullier and published by Storey Publishing, 2015.