You may have heard of fried green tomatoes, the Southern dish that involves deep-frying our favorite fruit of the vine. And you may have assumed these little guys are meant to be green, just as red tomatoes are meant to be red. However, this isn’t quite true. A little secret:
Some green tomatoes are meant to stay green forever. Others are unripe versions of red tomatoes that will eventually turn red. And they taste VERY different from one another.
Yup, red tomato varieties all go through a green phase before they’ve fully ripened. In this phase, the tomatoes are hard and firm, and chlorophyll levels give them a green color, according to Michael Washburn, garden manager at the magical Blackberry Farm in Walland, Tennessee. You can pick an unripe red tomato and eat it while it’s still green for a zingy, tart taste.
Then there are types of tomatoes that are bred to stay green even when ripe, just as yellow or purple tomatoes keep their colors into maturity. Green zebra and Aunt Ruby’s German green are some famous kinds of green-when-ripe tomatoes. Some of them may be considered heirloom tomatoes, which is really just a fancy term for tomatoes whose seeds have a long, storied past.
Wait, why would a farmer pick and sell an unripe tomato?
Some people prefer the tart taste and firm texture of unripe red tomatoes (which are green). But there are also scientific factors at play: Tomatoes generally won’t ripen in temperatures below 50 or over 85 degrees Fahrenheit, Washburn told HuffPost. If a summer is too hot or an early fall too cold, tomatoes will simply refuse to ripen, and farmers will have to pick them green.
But most commercially-grown tomatoes are actually picked before they’re ripe on purpose, Washburn added. Farmers pluck them off the vine early so the plant can get to work churning out another batch. Then, producers artificially ripen these green tomatoes with ethylene gas so the tomatoes will turn red by the time you see them in the store. Sneaky.
There’s an easy way to tell the difference.
If you’re unsure if a green tomato is ripe or not, then simply ask your farmer or salesperson, Washburn says. If that’s not possible, then feel the tomato: Ripe green tomatoes will be soft, and unripe red ones will be hard.
You can ripen a tomato at home by leaving it on a sunny countertop or putting it in a bag with a banana, which emits lots of ethylene gas. Or leave it green, and whip up a tasty new dish with your newfound ingredient.