When a tomato is good, it’s good—so it’s no wonder that passionate cooks wax poetic about these vibrant late-summer beauties. But when you pick up a dud that turns out mealy, mushy, and bland, it can put you off tomatoes for a while. Until someone invents a Good Tomato/Bad Tomato app (please, no), you’ll have to rely on your old-fashioned senses to select the juiciest, most flavorful specimens. These tips will keep you on the right track toward tomato bliss, whether you’re at the supermarket or farmers market.
If you’re fortunate enough to live in or close to a tomato-growing region in the country, your best bet is to seek out locally grown tomatoes in the height of summer, when they’re at their peak. The most excellent tomatoes are almost always going to be the ones that have traveled the shortest distance, and are more likely to be ripened on the vine rather than in the back of a refrigerated truck.
Hold but do not squeeze
You’ve got to pick ’em up! Smaller tomatoes should be firm but not hard; larger tomatoes should feel heavy for their size and neither too solid nor too soft or swollen. (Remember: They’ll continue to ripen on your counter at home.)
Seek out tomatoes that are uniformly ripe
Avoid tomatoes that have hard or pale spots near the stem as well as ones with large bruises or cracks that are too long or deep to trim away. They should be shiny, with a smooth, uniform skin.
Take a whiff
If you’re not getting much of an aroma, it’s likely the tomato is underripe. A great tomato should smell floral and almost basil-y—you’ll know it when you smell it.
Embrace the rainbow
During peak season (mid- to late-summer is when tomatoes are at their best) is when you’re most likely to come across a variety of multicolored tomato varieties at the farmers market or in the produce aisles. They all have their own, distinct flavors worth trying out: Orange and yellow tomatoes are often less acidic (read: milder and sweeter) than their darker, redder counterparts.
If it’s not summer, choose cherries
When you need an off-season tomato, the smaller ones are your best bet. Because they’re less likely to bruise in transport, smaller varieties like cherry tomatoes can ripen on the vine longer before being harvested, which means they’re usually more flavorful than their larger counterparts. When given the choice between cherry and grape, go with cherry. They’re juicier and tastier, with a thinner skin that makes them superior for bursting into pasta sauce or eating raw.
It’s not cheating to use canned
Even at peak season, tomatoes in a can may be more convenient if your goal is to cook ’em until they break down completely—say, for a sauce or braise. No need to skin or seed! They also have consistency on their side. Once you find a brand you like (the BA Test Kitchen swears by Bianco DiNapoli Whole Peeled Organic Tomatoes), they won’t vary in acidity or sweetness like fresh tomatoes will.
After all that, you deserve a salad...
An extra-thick Caesar dressing gives this tomato salad its oomph—and keeps it from sogging out at the picnic. View recipe.