By: Diane Wright Hirsch, UConn Extension Educator/Food Safety
It has been a great year for growing tomatoes in Connecticut, but the season is rapidly coming to an end with the change to cooler temperatures. As much as we love our delicious vine ripened summer-red tomatoes, it is time for a reality check—summer is over.
If you are a home canner, end of summer tomatoes can be a bit more risky to water bath can. Research has shown the some of the growing conditions and characteristics of late season tomatoes may contribute to a lower acidity or higher pH product. This is one reason it is recommended that when canning tomatoes, you add one tablespoon of commercial lemon juice to pints and two tablespoons to quart jars.
Tomatoes grown in the shade, ripened in shorter hours of daylight, or ripened off the vine tend to be lower in acidity than those ripened in direct sunlight on the vine. Also, tomatoes attached to dead vines at harvest are considerably less acidic than tomatoes harvested from healthy vines. Decayed and damaged tomatoes and those harvested from frost-killed or dead vines should not be home canned—it would be better to freeze them.
What to do with green tomatoes
Still have a bunch of the green ones hanging on the vine? Tomatoes are actually a fruit that can finish the ripening process even when picked green. So if the temperature falls below 50°F for a day or two, start picking the green tomatoes. Be sure to harvest them before the first frost.
Pick ripe, nearly ripe and mature green fruits. Mature green tomatoes are those with a glossy, whitish green fruit color and mature size. It is best to pick fruits only from strong healthy vines and only those fruits free of disease or insect damage. Remove stems before storage to prevent them from puncturing each other. If dirty, gently wash and allow the fruit to air dry (if they do not dry completely, mold and rot are more likely to occur.) Now you are ready to store the tomatoes.
First, sort the tomatoes by degree of ripeness. Greenish-whitish tomatoes have more ripening to do than a tomato tinged with orange or red. Wrap the tomatoes in newspaper or brown sandwich bags. Place in a box or on a tray no more than two layers deep. Store the tomatoes in a cool, dark room.
As tomatoes ripen, they naturally release ethylene gas, which stimulates ripening. To slow ripening, sort out ripened fruits from green tomatoes each week. To speed up ripening, place green or partially ripe fruits in a bag or box with a ripe tomato.
Green, mature tomatoes stored at 65-70°F, will ripen in about 2 weeks. Cooler temperatures slow the ripening process. At 55°F, they will ripen in 3-4 weeks. Never expose tomatoes to temperatures below 50°F for more than a few days—the quality will suffer. An airy cellar or outbuilding with moderate humidity is ideal for storage. Too much humidity will cause decay and too little will cause shriveling.
Every week, check to see how the tomatoes are doing. Separate the red and green tomatoes and to dispose of any rotted fruit. Enjoy the red tomatoes for a snack or your next meal.
Some folks may determine that the results of even the best efforts at ripening these late fall tomatoes are disappointing. They just don’t taste like those August fruits, bursting with tomato-y flavor. I have found that roasting them in the oven can help to intensify the flavor of less than perfectly ripe tomatoes. Toss them with some olive oil in a 350-degree oven and roast until melty. Spread them on toast or toss with some pasta—a simple and delicious meal from the late fall garden.
Try cooking with green tomatoes
Of course you also have the option of enjoying green tomatoes just as they are. Green tomatoes can be tasty, but some may find them astringent. The Southern dish made popular by the movie, Fried Green Tomatoes, is one way to bring out the flavor and sweetness of the tomatoes. Tomatoes are sliced, dipped in flour, beaten egg, and seasoned cornmeal or breadcrumbs, then fried in oil or bacon fat. Yummy, but probably something that we shouldn’t eat on a daily basis!
If you are more adventurous, try substituting them for apples in pies or breads or maybe a savory green tomato crisp with bread crumbs.
Traditionally, home cooks made good use of green tomatoes by making relishes, pickles, or chutneys. Search your cookbook shelf, your local library, or the internet for green tomato recipes. One good source is the National Center for Home Food Preservation at www.uga.edu/nchfp. Or, contact the Home and Garden Education Center at firstname.lastname@example.org or 1-877-486-6271 for more information. Additional information on Food Safety can be found at: http://www.foodsafety.uconn.edu