Should you refrigerate tomatoes? In some cases, maybe

For many years I’ve been lecturing anyone who would listen that we shouldn’t put tomatoes in the refrigerator. Was I wrong?

A very good post on the Serious Eats website recently seems to suggest so. In it, Daniel Gritzer writes persuasively about an experiment he ran comparing the flavor of very ripe tomatoes stored in the refrigerator and at room temperature. His finding is that they are better off chilled.

In fact, he (or his headline writer) posits the argument in much more confrontational terms: "Why You Should Refrigerate Tomatoes and Ignore Anyone Who Says Otherwise"). I'm not going to take that personally, it's just the Internet.

Gritzer’s point is well-argued, the model of how this should be done — based on actual experiments rather than simply quoting something he read someplace and throwing together a lot of blather.

My anti-chilling argument is also based on years of personal experience (though not as well-organized as Gritzer’s), as well as academic research and reflects the longtime urgings of tomato farmers.

Who was right? In fact, I’m not even sure we’re in complete disagreement.

First, a little background. It’s important to realize that ripeness is not a fixed point, but rather a process that begins with rock-hard fruit and ends with a puddle of juice staining your new butcher block counter (sorry, Kathy!).

What we usually consider perfectly ripe is when fruit is balanced on a razor’s edge — already softening but not yet spoiling.

At the same time, we have to remember that ripeness and maturity are separate but overlapping processes. To put it simply: Maturity is acquiring the building blocks of flavor; ripeness is putting them together in a more delicious way.

Many fruits, including tomatoes, stone fruit and some melons, will continue to ripen after they’ve been harvested and will have very good flavor even if they weren’t picked fully ripe, provided they were picked at full maturity.

Actually, I think in most cases you’re better off buying these fruits when they’re still firm, not soft-and-squishy ripe. That way they won’t have been bruised and bashed by hundreds of heavy-handed shoppers before you. Just leave them on the counter at room temperature for a day or two and they’ll be perfect.

This is not the same as the standard industry practice. Even so-called vine-ripe tomatoes are picked at a point where they are just beginning to blush pink — certainly nothing the layperson would recognize as ripe, much less soft.

Gritzer started, apparently, with fruit that was already soft (I say “apparently” because it’s a little hard to tell exactly how soft the tomatoes were — if he was working at UC Davis, he could have measured the exact squishiness with a Warner-Bratzler shear device … every kitchen geek’s dream tool!).

So he was starting with fruit that was already as good as it was going to get and already starting that downhill slide to rot.

Given that, perhaps a more accurate way to phrase his argument would be that you do less damage to dead-ripe fruit by refrigerating it than by leaving it at room temperature to spoil.

Just how that 4-day-old fruit would have stacked up against freshly harvested dead-ripe fruit was not tested.

And, of course, contrary to the provocative headline, this says nothing about what you should do with tomatoes that are less than dead-ripe when you buy them — something I’d argue is by far the more common case for most shoppers.

So what’s the takeaway? I’ll continue to buy my tomatoes slightly underripe and leave them at room temperature. When I do buy really ripe tomatoes, I’ll try to use them the same day.

But if I can’t, I’m going to give Gritzer’s advice a try and refrigerate them. I’ll let you know how it works out. But at least that way I won’t be cleaning stains off the new butcher block.