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Why Don’t Tomatoes Taste Like They Used To?

This is the number-one question I get asked, whether speaking to an audience or just with a friend outside the post office.

First, let’s talk a little about that “used to” bit. If you’re “used to” is as far back as mine, then you most likely got the tomatoes you still covet from a local market, who in turn got their tomatoes from a family farm not far away. (Close enough, anyway, that the tomato was picked ripe, or at the most a day or two away from being ready for use). Or you got the tomatoes directly from a farmer’s roadside stand, or even better still, from your family’s garden, picked ripe off the vine.

But things have changed. For many years, distribution has heavily influenced the kind and quality of foods that end up on your table. There’s the good and the not-so-good about that. Back when you were only getting great-tasting tomatoes, you were not able to get kiwifruit in Vermont. In other words, we are no longer restricted to the seasonal foods grown in our own region of the country. Fruits and vegetables can now be shipped from wherever they are in season. Every year that goes by, there seems to be less and less regional identity to our foods. As people in all parts of the country (and the world) have demonstrated their willingness to pay for foods from faraway places, the demand has increased for foods that can make the trip and still look good enough for the customer to buy.

What has happened to the tomato’s taste is a perfect example of accommodating the customer. Most of the commercial tomatoes have been hybridized to meet the demands of mechanical harvesting, disease prevention, distribution, and shelf life. Where taste was once the priority, durability, longevity, and a cosmetically attractive appearance now reign. Commercial tomatoes are typically packed for the market and labeled as either “mature green” or “vine-ripened.”

Although no legal standard is in place, among growers there is an understanding of the criteria that enable tomatoes to be classified as “vine-ripened”: These tomatoes are picked when pink color appears in the fruit, and ethylene gas is not used to ripen fruit. However, it’s fairly common for growers to label their tomatoes “vine-ripened,” knowing full well they have not met the understood guidelines. After all, with tremendous competition among growers, no interstate or intrastate regulations, and the consumer crying for only “vine-ripened” tomatoes, there’s a lot of incentive to sell you what was picked green, gassed, and chilled, with the label “vine-ripened.”

Where taste was once the priority, durability, longevity, and a cosmetically attractive appearance now reign.

So what happens in that last week or so of a green tomato’s life, prior to ripening? The chlorophyll in the dark green fruit begins to break down, turning it to light green, and then to almost white. This is the stage called “mature green,” when most commercial tomatoes are picked. If picked at this stage, they will continue ripening. In the next few days, the color will appear, the acid content decreases, the sugar level increases, and the complex flavor components will begin to develop. Unless you have enough sunshine and heat during this stage, you won’t get the greatest flavor possible for the variety, regardless of how great the soil and other environmental conditions have been.

It’s as simple as this: A tomato that is allowed to ripen on the vine before picking will have that old-fashioned tomatoey taste. In fact, the USDA found that a flavor component in a vine-ripe tomato was up to 10 times greater than tomatoes that were picked while they were still green. But you didn’t need the USDA to tell you that.

What about the different flavors associated with different colors? Contrary to what many people believe, yellow, orange, and white tomatoes do not necessarily have less acid than red tomatoes. Often, they have a higher sugar content, and this can mask their acidity. It has been determined, however, that acidity level does vary among varieties. In general, I’ve found certain flavor characteristics most often associated with different colors: Black tomatoes have richer, more complex flavors; the greens are surprisingly citrony/lemony; yellows, oranges, and bi-coloreds have a mild fruitiness, sometimes tropical; the reds are all over the taste map, from very mild to bursts of classic “old-fashioned” tartness, balanced with a full sweetness.

When you store your freshly picked or vine-ripe tomatoes, avoid putting them in the refrigerator unless they have broken skins, because this will effectively rob the tomato of all desirable flavor. The best place for them is in a well-ventilated basket.

This was originally published in The Great Tomato Book by Gary Ibsen and Joan Nielson.

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