Yes, you can refrigerate tomatoes, if you do it right
It’s easy to see that people prefer their rules cut-and-dried. Nuance is often lost or ignored. So it goes with the age-old question of whether you can — or should — refrigerate tomatoes.
I’ve seen more than my fair share of Twitter spats on the topic or well-intentioned but misinformed advice treated as conventional wisdom.
Think of the refrigerator as “a tool in your tomato toolbox,” says Timothy McDermott, an assistant professor and extension educator with Ohio State University Extension. That tool, however, is best used for a limited amount of time.
Here’s what you need to know about refrigerating tomatoes to ensure you’re eating them at their best.
WHEN TO USE THE REFRIGERATOR
Tomatoes are climacteric, meaning they will continue to ripen after they are picked. Once the tomatoes are at their peak, whether you’ve bought them ripe or you’ve let them ripen for a few days in your kitchen, the clock begins to tick. You have a relatively short time between perfectly ripe and rotten.
You can slow ripening by storing tomatoes at around 50 degrees, in somewhere like a root cellar or a small wine fridge devoted to produce, McDermott says. But for most of us, our only options are a much warmer room temperature or a much colder refrigerator.
Stored at room temperature, “most ripe tomatoes retain best eating quality for 2 to 3 days,” according to the University of California division of agriculture and natural resources. If you don’t think you’ll get to them that quickly, as soon as they’re ripe, you can move your tomatoes into the refrigerator to keep them from softening too much. (Don’t wait the 2 to 3 days after they’re ripe, in other words.)
Lester Schonberger, a senior research associate at Virginia Tech’s department of food science and technology, says that the consensus seems to be that tomatoes should be refrigerated for no more than 3 days. From personal experience, McDermott says the window for smaller cherry or grape varieties, as well as firmer paste tomatoes (such as Roma or plum), may be slightly larger.
If you have a tomato that you have cut into but don’t intend to finish, it needs to be refrigerated in a covered, sealed container, Schonberger says.
HOW THE FRIDGE AFFECTS TOMATOES
Here is where a lot of the confusion arises. Will refrigeration harm the flavor or texture of tomatoes?
The answer is not as quickly or significantly as many of us have been led to believe. First, a little background from Schonberger: “Our sense of a tomato’s flavor is predominantly due to a combination of the tastes sensed through our tongue and the aromas sensed in our nose.”
A few things happen when you refrigerate a tomato. One is that the volatile flavor compounds (meaning they readily escape into the air) that are essential to our perception of taste continue to escape through the stem scar. The other, which Schonberger cites from a 2016 study, is that refrigeration is associated with a decline in the production of these compounds. The study notes no significant decline in the volatile compounds after 1 or 3 days of cold storage, although after a week, there was. These longer-stored tomatoes also scored significantly lower with the study’s consumer tasting panel.
Some, but not all, of those volatile compounds can be restored by returning the tomato to room temperature for anywhere from an hour to a day (this is purely for flavor/aroma and not ripeness). Somewhat relatedly, “temperature changes how you can taste something,” says Alexis Hamilton, a postdoctoral associate at Virginia Tech’s department of food science and technology. Our taste buds register sweet flavors better at warmer temperatures (hence the need to flavor very cold foods such as ice cream more than you would think), so it may be that our perceptions of tomato taste improve once the chill is off those that have been refrigerated.
As to texture, Schonberger says that mealiness is more likely “a result of growing conditions and plant stress,” with some varieties more inclined to be mealy than others.
If you’d really like a nonacademic deep dive on refrigerated vs. nonrefrigerated tomatoes, I highly recommend Daniel Gritzer’s extremely thorough piece over on Serious Eats. It includes multiple tests and blind tastings, in which tasters often scored refrigerated tomatoes (or refrigerated tomatoes brought back up to room temperature) almost as high as or even higher than those that were never chilled.
WHEN NOT TO REFRIGERATE
Don’t store unripe tomatoes in the refrigerator. Once you do that, there’s no going back, McDermott says.
If you’re sure you are going to eat the ripe tomatoes relatively soon, just leave them on the counter. If you’re faced with a sudden influx of tomatoes, eat your “flavor bombs,” such as heirlooms, first, McDermott advises. Those tend to not hold up as well as smaller or paste varieties, as well as the sturdier red slicing tomatoes.
If you have so many tomatoes that you won’t even make a dent by the time the refrigeration window closes, consider other ways to preserve them, Hamilton says, whether that’s through canning, making a sauce or dehydrating them. The freezer can be your friend, too, especially if you roast or stew the tomatoes first.
HOW TO REFRIGERATE
The University of California recommends placing tomatoes in the crisper drawer in their original clamshell package, a paper bag or a plastic bag with a few slits. This helps prevent moisture
loss. McDermott says a reusable container with a vented lid is another option. Whatever you use, the partial venting is key, McDermott says, because it prevents the buildup of ethylene, a ripening hormone that can eventually cause rotting.
Schonberger recommends paying attention to other standard food safety advice, including keeping refrigerated tomatoes away from or above other ingredients you intend to cook, such as raw meat, to prevent cross-contamination.
SET YOURSELF UP FOR SUCCESS
McDermott emphasizes focusing more on whether you should or shouldn’t refrigerate tomatoes when it comes to high-quality fruit. If you want the best tomatoes that will last the longest, “your preparation starts in your garden,” he says. Homegrown tomatoes allow you the most control over variety, storage and ripening, all of which may render the refrigeration question moot, if you time things right.