The Washington Post

The hot produce of the season

It’s time to load up on tomatoes, corn and peaches. Let us help you make the most of them.

- BY BECKY KRYSTAL

Summer produce rolls in so prolifical­ly, seemingly all at once, that I am more than a little greedy for it. A wagon originally given to me to cart around my large toddler is now devoted to carting around an even larger farmers market haul. Every weekend, my red wagon bounces along the sidewalk back to my house full of promise and enticing aromas. ¶ Sometimes I know exactly what I’m going to do with the cornucopia of peaches, corn, tomatoes, zucchini, peppers and more. Sometimes I don’t. What I do know is I don’t want a single bit of it to go to waste. I want to enjoy every last bite because I know the pleasures of summer fruit and vegetables are available for only a limited time. ¶ To help you, too, with all of the season’s treasures, we’ve compiled a wagonload of tips and recipes to help you make the most of your haul of tomatoes, corn and peaches.

It’s easy to see that people prefer their rules cut-and-dry. 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 two to three 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 two to three 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 three 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 one or three 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 related: “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.

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 crossconta­mination.

Set yourself up for success

Mcdermott emphasizes focusing more on whether you should 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.

 ?? SCOTT SUCHMAN FOR THE WASHINGTON POST; Food STYLING by LISA CHERKASKY FOR THE WASHINGTON POST ??
SCOTT SUCHMAN FOR THE WASHINGTON POST; Food STYLING by LISA CHERKASKY FOR THE WASHINGTON POST
 ?? Gaia STELLA FOR THE Washington POST ??
Gaia STELLA FOR THE Washington POST

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