- Even tomatoes that look good can be hard and tasteless, but there are now more varieties with good flavour in the shops.
- For the best tomatoes, look for an even, rich red colour, and if possible give them a sniff – a strong aroma means a tasty tomato.
If you grow your own tomatoes, you’ll know how delicious they can taste, especially if they’re one of the older heritage varieties. But all too often tomatoes you find at the supermarket are as hard and as tasty as cricket balls. What’s gone wrong?
Most tomatoes come from varieties that were bred to suit the growers and supermarkets, with little consideration given to eating quality. And to reduce losses in distribution, they are often picked green, then artificially ripened, so flavour fails to develop. But consumers can strike back. Provided you know what to look for, there are still some tasty tomatoes to be found, even in the major supermarkets.
Please note: this information was current as of October 2009 but is still a useful guide today.
More science, less flavour
Tomatoes changed dramatically in the 1950s when scientists at the University developed a hardy, tough-skinned tomato that could be harvested by machines and stand up to travelling over long distances. Other factors considered in developing commercial varieties have been consistent shape and size, disease and pest resistance, and the ability to be picked before they are fully ripe. Flavour has been left out of the equation, so most commercial varieties lack critical genes that influence sweetness and aroma. However, some plant breeders are now working on restoring flavour to tomatoes.
Tomatoes are a fruit, but we treat them as a vegetable. Ripe tomatoes have an unusually large amount of savoury glutamate (a natural form of the flavour enhancer MSG), so they complement the flavour of meat and add richness and complexity to other food flavours. They’re grown either on the ground as bush tomatoes or on trellises, in the open or in greenhouses. Greenhouse tomatoes are usually hydroponic, where the tomatoes grow in a controlled nutrient solution. (Studies show that hydroponic tomatoes are no less tasty than tomatoes grown in soil.)
About 75% of Australian tomatoes are produced in Queensland, where they grow year round. In the Bowen region they’re harvested from May to early November while in Bundaberg they can be harvested for most of the year. In summer they’re also produced in NSW and Victoria. Western Australia is self-sufficient, relying on winter tomatoes from Geraldton and Carnarvon and summer ones from the Perth area.
So, depending on where you live, tomatoes can be well-travelled by the time you eat them. Not surprisingly, it can take 10 days or longer from when tomatoes are picked to when they arrive at your supermarket — and they can be there a few days more before you actually buy and eat them. All this time they’re losing flavour.
Another reason for poor flavour is that tomatoes are often picked green to make them easier to transport. Then, before sale, they’re placed in ripening rooms where they are exposed to ethylene gas. This imitates some of the changes that occur during ripening but, because the sugars and flavour compounds that make tomatoes taste good come only from the vine, they don’t develop their full flavour.
Farmers’ markets are a good source of tasty tomatoes, as chances are you’re buying directly from the grower and the tomatoes are fresh and have ripened on the vine. But it pays to ask the person you’re buying from because, as CHOICE previously found, not all markets are true farmers’ markets.