Until the 19th century, tomatoes were served on pottery that was made with lead. Acid from the tomatoes often leached lead from the dishes, resulting in the diner’s death. The tomato was blamed, which is why Europeans viewed them as “poisonous apples.” But that was then: Today, tomatoes are a big part of the famously healthful Mediterranean Diet.
Botanically, tomatoes are fruit, even though they often are referred to as vegetables thanks to an 1893 government classification for trade purposes. The tomato’s nutrient content is more similar to a vegetable than a fruit, as it contains significantly fewer calories and less sugars than other fruits. Tomatoes are an excellent source of vitamins A and C and a good source of potassium. They contain carotenoids alpha- and beta-carotene, lutein and lycopene. Because lycopene is fat-soluble, it is best to eat tomatoes with a fat source, such as olive oil or avocado, to increase its absorption. Cooking tomatoes before eating them also helps the body absorb lycopene.
Whether raw in salads, sliced on sandwiches or simmered in sauces, tomatoes complement most cuisines and can be prepared with a variety of methods: roasting, grilling, stewing, drying or reducing (such as with soups, chutneys and jams).
In season from June until September, tomatoes are best during summertime when ripe off the vine. Off-season, trucked-in varieties that are bred to withstand the rigors of transportation often are less flavorful. However, with a taste that approaches local, in-season produce, greenhouse-grown tomatoes are becoming popular.
Store tomatoes at room temperature or between 55 degrees and 65 degrees Fahrenheit. Place them in a single layer to avoid bruising. To store ripe tomatoes for more than a few days, especially in a hot climate, place them in the warmest part of the refrigerator.
This large beefsteak tomato is commonly found at farmers markets. Pinkish-red with a meaty interior and sweet flavor, Brandywine tomatoes are slow to grow. Splits, spots and deep grooves in the skin are normal.
One of the oldest varieties grown in the U.S. (dating back to the 1800s), Yellow Pear tomatoes are bite-sized heirlooms with a mild flavor and a pear shape. The plant produces all summer, making it a good option for home gardens.
Named for the volcanic region south of Milan where they are grown, San Marzano tomatoes have a long shape and meaty texture. They can be peeled easily, making them ideal for tomato sauce. Imported canned San Marzano tomatoes are available at supermarkets. Campari Bright red and globe-shaped, Campari tomatoes are larger than cherry tomatoes but smaller than tomatoes on-the-vine or cluster tomatoes. Greenhouse-grown Campari are sweet and pair well with Italian cheeses and meats.
Very flavorful and unique-looking heirloom tomatoes are cultivated with open-pollination seeds (no human intervention) that were preserved and passed on throughout the past couple of decades. Find them at specialty supermarkets and some local farmers markets.
Round and bite-sized cherry tomatoes are available in many colors including red, yellow, orange and black. This thin-skinned variety often is used for crudité platters, salads and pasta.
Commonly referred to as plum or plum Italian tomatoes, Roma tomatoes typically are used for canning and making sauce and paste due to their low water content and firm texture.
Juicy with a candy-like taste, Sungold tomatoes are a round, golden yellow/cherry-tomato hybrid. Plant them in a garden or pot to enjoy high yields all summer, or find them at farmers markets in late summer. Eat them roasted or tossed into pasta sauces, salads and omelets.
Hybrid tomatoes are not genetically modified, but rather are produced by crossing two different types of tomatoes. They are bred to be uniform in appearance, resist disease and be available during the off-season.
This broad category is characterized by a large shape and includes the heirloom varieties Brandywine and Cherokee Purple. The most famous type, New Jersey beefsteak, is commonly used at delis because it holds its shape when pre-sliced.
Brownish-red and medium-sized with a sweet yet tart flavor, Kumato tomatoes are a favorite for slicing. Kumato is a trade name given to this greenhouse-grown hybrid known in Spain as Olmeca.
Oblong and smaller than cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes have thick skins and low water content. Eat them raw as a snack or roasted in a recipe.