How to Tell if a Tomato is Perfectly Ripe

How to tell if a tomato is perfectly ripe is a skill that we should all know, especially those of us that love to cook and consume them. Sit back and read David’s tips for always picking the best of the best.

So you find yourself standing, motionless, in the produce department of your local grocery store or at the farmstand befuddled by the mounds of Big Boys, Early Girl mortgage lifters, bunches of Romas with their tangles of green vines. And you wonder, “How in the hell do I know which is a perfectly ripe tomato?”

You’ve come to the right guy because I have a long and checkered relationship with tomatoes. How can a person have a relationship with a tomato, checkered or otherwise, you ask? Easy.

When I was a maudlin 14-year-old, my dad, a plain-talking, straightforward kind of man, believed that a lot of hard farm work, sunshine, and a few cases of poison ivy would lift my mood in no time. Bless his heart. Of course, he was wrong. No amount of sunshine, sore muscles, or bouts of an itchy ass were a match for bipolar disorder.

Tomatoes in various stages of ripeness hanging from tomato vines.
: Jake Pettit

But during my three-summer stint at the farm, I learned a lot about vegetables, especially tomatoes. They were kind of a prized crop because they required a lot more work to pick, wash, package, and ship than, say, a crate of cabbage.

So I bequeath to you the sum of my knowledge about how to pick perfectly tomatoes.

1. Check for firmness-ish

A ripe tomato should feel firm, like a silken orb of loveliness. But at the same time, it should be soft enough to yield to a gentle press of your thumb. Grope it if you must but do not squeeze it!

A child squeezing a perfectly ripe tomato in a vise grip.
: 977_ReX_977

2. Feel the tomato’s weight

Speaking of weight, you want your tomatoes to be plump for their size. (Why can’t the same be said for people?!) Heavier love apples are juicier love apples. And juicy is good, especially if you’re making a sauce. (Try a raw tomato sauce made with perfectly ripe tomatoes. Summer on a plate.)

3. Make sure your tomato has no blemishes

A tomato worth its weight in greenbacks should have a Clearasil complexion. No blemishes or dark spots. Either of these indicates that the fruit (yup, tomatoes are, indeed, a fruit) may be rotten inside.

Now, I’m not talking about the nicks and scars that are the normal part of a tomato’s life. Nor am I referring to the beautifully irregular coloring of heirlooms tomatoes. I’m referring to black soft spots on a tomato or bullseye spots with white centers. If you see them, toss the tomatoes.

4. Sniff your tomato for a heady perfume

This one is a bit controversial. Grab your fresh tomato and give it a sniff right up near the stem. It should be fragrant. (Be careful not to confuse the smell of the vine or stem itself, as that’s wicked strong, and, to me, off-putting.) Some farmers describe it as “sweet.” Others call it “woodsy.” To me, a ripe, just-picked tomato has a slight ketchup-y aroma. Now, some say what’s not good is if there’s no smell at all; you’re holding a lifeless red lump. That being said, The One and I were bent over tonight’s tomatoes that had been sitting on the table for a few days, and we smelled nothing, yet they were delicious.

A cat sniffing a bowl of unripened tomatoes.
: Валерий Диденко

How to store tomatoes

Now that you know how to pick a ripe tomato, you won’t be able to resist bringing home a basket full. What to do?

There are piles of research on how to store tomatoes, and the last thing I want to do is bog you down with stats, temperatures, enzymatic reactions, and cell-wall structures. For me, it goes in one ear and out the other. So here are a few basic tips:

If your tomatoes are perfectly ripe, store them on the counter and eat them within a day or two for the best flavor and texture. After that, they can get mushy. A tip I got from Jerry James Stone, over at KQED, is to store the tomatoes stem-side down. The reason is the divot where the fruit attaches to the stem is really sensitive to bacteria and can end up with a lab’s worth of germs growing on it. He also says to use a bit of tape to cover the divot if the stem is missing. Smart.

If your tomatoes aren’t quite ripe, do the same as above, but let them sit on the counter for up to a week.

What to do with overripe tomatoes

A rimmed baking sheet spread with a thick layer of homemade tomato paste.
: Sara Remington

In the event you couldn’t help yourself to that basket of overripe ugly tomatoes for half price, you can hold them in the fridge for a few days. And you know what that means–BLTs for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Or try your hand at making homemade tomato paste (above). Or an easy freezer tomato sauce (below).

Three resealable plastic bags filled with freezer tomato sauce.
: Deirdre Rooney

What to Do with Green Tomatoes

And if you ended up with green ones, you’re in luck. Turn them into pickled green tomatoes.

Three jars filled with pickled green tomatoes and a cinnamon stick with two empty jars in the background.
: Alan Benson
The word "David" written in script.

About David Leite

I count myself lucky to have received three James Beard Awards for my writing as well as for Leite’s Culinaria. My work has also appeared in The New York Times, Martha Stewart Living, Saveur, Bon Appétit, Gourmet, Food & Wine, Yankee, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post, and more.

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  1. I never pickle my green tomatoes. I pluck them carefully from the vines (especially if there is a hard frost forecast) and line them up stem side down in brown grocery bags, fold the tops down and store in a warmish darkish place. AND, check them daily. I think every year this has resulted in many more jars of delicious sauce to savor during the long cold winter.

    Of course, if I actually liked picked tomatoes or fried green tomatoes, I likely would not do this!

    1. Glory, I love this!! The One is struggling with green tomatoes that have fallen off the vine due to high winds. I’m going to share this with him. Thanks!