It’s the time of year when frost threatens the tomatoes that hang green on our plants. If you’re like me, you hate to see these fruits go to waste. On the other hand, your past attempts to coax these last fruits to ripen indoors might have been less than satisfying. Perhaps some additional information from horticulturists will lead to improved results.
First of all comes the harvesting. Plants from which you take late fruit should be vigorous and not already spindly, and they should not have already been damaged by frost. When daytime temperatures are staying below 50 degrees or so, feel free to pick your full-sized green tomatoes even before a killing frost – tomatoes need warm temperatures to develop their red pigments. Besides that, extended exposure of green tomatoes to temperatures below 40 degrees will result in greatly increased losses to decay.
If you have a storage space with good ventilation where temperatures stay consistently around 55 to 60 degrees, you can pull up entire plants, brush the soil away from the roots, and suspend the plants to allow the tomatoes to ripen on the vine. Otherwise, since pulling stems off the tomatoes may cause damage that promotes rotting, it is best to cut tomatoes off the vine leaving a short stem attached.
Next, it’s important to know which green tomatoes are ready to ripen, since some are simply too immature. As you sort through the tomatoes, look for those that are full-sized, lighter green and have cream-colored streaks at the blossom end. The seeds of good candidates for ripening will be encased in a gel-like pulp and difficult to cut with a knife. Tomatoes with seeds that do not have this covering and are easily cut, or fruits that have empty cavities, are not what is called “mature green,” and they will rarely ripen.
Storing to Ripen
As you may know, there are a variety of methods to store tomatoes for ripening. One place not to put them is on a windowsill, because light tends to toughen the skins. Some people wrap their tomatoes individually in paper, while others store them unwrapped. They can be placed in a well-ventilated container, such as a cardboard box, and kept at 60 to 70 degrees. Light is not required, but higher humidity levels will decrease shriveling. To hasten ripening, you can put an apple or a ripe banana into the container, thus adding ethylene, the gas used to ripen the fruits you buy at the store. Throughout storage, you need to check the tomatoes every few days and remove any that are showing signs of spoilage.
As I read through these procedures for ripening green tomatoes, and from personal experience, it seems that, no matter how carefully they are picked, sorted, and stored, some will be lost. Besides that, the process is long: at 70 degrees, you can expect tomatoes to ripen in about 14 days, while at 55 degrees, it can take as long as a month. If you’ve cut into one or more to check for maturity, you’ve already lost those. And alas, when some finally ripen, their taste and texture pales in comparison to our vine-ripened summer tomatoes.
Using Green Tomatoes
Since green tomatoes are, in fact, loaded with the same nutrients as fully-ripe tomatoes, except that much of the vitamin A has not had a chance to develop with the red pigments, why not use them as they are? It’s likely you’re familiar with, and perhaps have eaten, fried green tomatoes. Other recipes abound, both in cookbooks and online. Options range from the savory to the sweet (green tomato salsa, anyone?), and home canners can busy themselves making a variety of pickles, relishes and spreads. You might, for example, have heard of piccalilli, also called green tomato relish. It’s an old stand-by that’s delicious on hamburgers, hot dogs and brats. I have also combined green tomatoes with red raspberries for a surprisingly fresh-tasting jam, and green tomatoes themselves can be used to make marmalade. Another favorite of mine is green tomato pie filling, a product similar to mincemeat. The “A Harvest of Green Tomatoes” article from the University of Alaska Fairbanks listed in the sources includes several enticing recipes. Their recipe for green tomato bread, which I expect to be just as good as zucchini bread, is waiting on my counter for trial. Incidentally, the skin of green tomatoes is firmly attached and can be left on when you use them, and green tomatoes can be cut up and frozen.
Whether you try to ripen your tomatoes or use them green, they need not go to waste. Before the next frost, if you haven’t done so already, go rescue them!
Written by Rita Lynn
“The Best Way to Ripen Green Tomatoes,” by Maria Woodie, www.hortmag.com/weekly-tips/the-best-way-to-ripen-green-tomatoes
“How to Ripen and Harvest Green Tomatoes This Fall,” www.rodalesorganiclife.com/garden/how-to-ripen-and-harvest-green-tomatoes-this-fall/slide/3
“Green Tomatoes,” by Caitlin Huff, https://Web.extension.illinois.edu/dmp/eb306/entry_10510/
“A Harvest of Green Tomatoes,” by Julie Cassio, www.uaf.edu/files/ces/publications-db/catalog/hec/FNH-00024.pdf