Beyond the Silo: If grocery store tomatoes had their own soap opera, it would be called “The Bland and the Beautiful.”
Grown for looks and not taste, these tomatoes are often the opposite of home-grown and organically grown tomatoes – sometimes “ugly,” available in every shade of the rainbow, and with a taste that can only be authentically produced in the summer.
Sherry Hurley, owner of Farm to Fork Catering, said the reason for that is that store-bought tomatoes may have been harvested as long as three weeks before actually making it to someone’s plate.
“A lot of tomatoes, because they need to be ripe when they arrive at the grocery store, are actually harvested when they’re green and then they’re refrigerated, which can also affect the texture, the smell, and the flavor of the tomato,” she said. “When people say it has that mealy texture or it tastes like cardboard, that’s how that happens.”
Alaina Tobbe, produce manager for Ashbourne Farms, said when tomatoes are picked before they are ripe, it means their sugars have not had time to develop, robbing them of much of their cherished flavors.
“They’re really pretty and they’re flawless, but their taste isn’t the same,” she said. “The ones you grow yourself, even if you pick them when they’re starting to turn red, they have more sugars, they’ve had more time to develop and ripen, and that helps their flavor so much. And even if they have flaws, like their skin starts to split, they may not look as pretty, but they taste so much better.”
Tomatoes, like many fruits and vegetables, are 70-90 percent water, and once they are removed from the vine begin to lose moisture and nutrients.“So the goal, in terms of flavor, food safety, and nutritional value, is to eat a tomato that is harvested as closely to the time you are going to eat it as possible,” Hurley said. “Obviously, if you have a garden at home, you can harvest it and eat it immediately, which is by far the best when it’s still warm and at the peak of ripeness.”
She said in her experience, tomatoes brought to markets like Fresh Stop Markets and farmers’ markets are generally picked the previous day, making them the freshest option next to growing your own.
“And ideally, you want local, organic tomatoes,” Hurley said. “Again, because tomatoes are made up of so much water, the pesticides can be more prevalent in vegetables that are thin skinned.”
And being able to get beyond the 4-6 types of tomatoes typically offered in stores is an even bigger incentive to grow your own or look for them outside of grocery stores.
“There are hundreds of varieties available and to limit yourself to 4-6 red kinds that don’t have much flavor in the grocery stores, really, is to not experience tomatoes in my opinion,” Hurley said.
Tobbe said Ashbourne specializes mostly in heirloom tomatoes, of which there are endless varieties, from slicers to cherry tomatoes to Romas – and the demand is growing.“Looking at the orders we’ve gotten this week, I’m definitely going to try to up production next year if I can manage to find the greenhouse space,” she said.
And when it comes to the best way to eat tomatoes, that question has as many answers as there are varieties. Tobbe said she prefers hers either diced up on a taco or sliced on a turkey sandwich. For Hurley, it’s hard to beat a good BLT – unless, as she said, you fry an egg to put on top of it and make it a breakfast sandwich!