Picking the right tomato

CHOICE discovers some delicious varieties of tomatoes to look out for - and how to pick them.
 
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01 .Introduction

Tomato-lead copy

In brief

  • 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.

Tomato facts

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.

Picked green

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.

 
 

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Some types and varieties of tomato are tastier than others, but even the cheapest “field” tomatoes can have some flavour. In general, look for an even, rich red colour – and check that they’re soft, without being overripe.

The smaller cherry and grape tomatoes are often tastier because they’re likely to have ripened longer on the vine. Furthermore, they’re often sold in plastic trays with a brand name, so if you like them it’s easy to buy them again. It’s worth looking for branded varieties, such as Perfection Fresh, that offer a range of tomato varieties specially developed for good flavour.

And do what you’ll see consumers do so often in markets in France and Italy – pick a tomato up and give it a good sniff. If it doesn’t have a rich aroma it won’t have much flavour.

Varieties

 

Field

These are the basic round tomatoes you see in most supermarkets and fruit shops. The trade description is “gourmet tomatoes”, yet they’re usually the cheapest tomatoes, and ironically are also likely to have the least flavour. Their thick skins make it easy for growers to mechanise harvesting and packing, and they’re likely to be picked green. Don’t be put off by small blemishes, but an uneven colour indicates the tomatoes were picked too green to ripen properly and will have little flavour.

 

Vine-ripened

Vine-ripened tomatoes should have been ripened to full maturity on the plant, rather than picked green, implying they have better flavour. Unfortunately, tomatoes lose flavour from the moment they’re picked – vine-ripened or not. The only way you can tell is from their aroma, but these tomatoes should have more flavour than tomatoes artificially ripened.

 

Truss

These are tomatoes still attached to a section of vine, and again the implication is that they taste better because they look like they’ve been ripened on the vine. But they can also be picked green or only half-ripe and ripened with ethylene before sale, so the flavour is not necessarily that good. Don’t buy them unless the truss is really green; not brown or withered. This can be a problem when truss tomatoes are displayed in the open. They keep better in a plastic bag, which prevents the truss from drying out.

 

Roma

These are egg-shaped tomatoes, not a specific variety. They’re usually redder and softer than field tomatoes, and sometimes taste better. But they’re often picked before they’re fully ripe and artificially ripened with ethylene gas before sale, so they’re not always as tasty as they could be.

 

Cherry

These small round tomatoes are expensive because they’re labour-intensive to produce and harvest. They can be tasty when produced by small local growers who let them ripen longer before picking and sell them fresh.

 

Grape

Grape are like cherry tomatoes, but, as the name suggests, shaped more like a grape. Again, there are several varieties and they can taste delicious if fresh and picked close to maturity. They’re often tastier than cherry tomatoes.

 

Kumato

These black-skinned tomatoes are more expensive but worth buying for their flavour. Tomatoes appear in a range of colours in the wild, and Kumato are part of a trend towards different coloured tomatoes that started in California in the 1990s. There’s also a heritage variety called Russian Black that has been in Australia for about 100 years, but has only recently been grown commercially.

Organic tomatoes

A recent study released by the UK Food Standards Agency found no real difference between the nutritional value of organically and conventionally grown fruit and vegetables. Another recent study specifically of tomatoes found no differences in the levels of antioxidants such as lycopene and vitamin C. That said, however, organic tomatoes should be free from pesticides (tomatoes are subject to insect pests and attack from fungal infections so they’re among the products more likely to contain pesticide residues).

And, while there’s no guarantee, organic tomatoes are more likely to taste better than conventionally grown ones — but not just because they’re organic.
Organic tomatoes are more likely to be produced closer to where you buy them, so there’s less flavour lost during distribution. Organic producers are not allowed to use ethylene to artificially ripen their tomatoes. They’re also more likely to grow the older and tastier varieties.

Health benefits of tomatoes

Tomatoes are rich in vitamin C and the standard red varieties give us an excellent dose of the antioxidant lycopene. People whose diet is rich in tomatoes appear to have a lower risk of certain types of cancer, especially of the prostate, lung and stomach. Most studies have focused on prostate cancer, the third most common cause of death in Australian men.

Tomatoes are the most concentrated food source of lycopene, which provides the red colour (other sources are apricots, guavas, watermelon, pawpaw and pink grapefruit). But tomatoes also contain other antioxidants, and studies have shown that eating tomatoes offers better protection against prostate cancer than taking lycopene supplements.

Tomato tips

  • Raw tomatoes may not be the best source of healthy antioxidants. We absorb a much higher proportion of the tomato’s lycopene when it’s cooked, especially with a little fat or oil.
  • Tomatoes originally came from a warm climate, so they can be damaged by temperatures below about 13°C. They lose flavour if stored in the fridge, so it’s better to store them in a fruit bowl, at least until they’re fully ripe. In very warm weather, ripe tomatoes last longer in the fridge, but keep them in the warmest part (usually the crisper).
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