Have you ever gone to the grocery store or farmer’s market and wondered why there are so many different types of tomatoes? There are some still attached to vines, while others are loose. Some tomatoes are quite large, but others can be as small as your thumb. You might even see some green varieties that have yet to ripen – alongside others that are oddly shaped or purple in color.
How are all these tomatoes different from one another? For what purpose is each kind best suited? Let this guide to the most common uses for tomatoes help you make sense of your options.
Paste & Sauce
Everyone has a sweet spot for Mom’s spaghetti. Perhaps it’s because Mom makes her sauce entirely from scratch in your family. Besides, from Italy to India and beyond, countless world cuisines have some sort of tomato-based sauce in their repertoire.
When you’re looking to make a thick, hearty paste or sauce, you’ll want to choose tomatoes with a rich flavor, small seeds, and thick skins. Contrary to what you might assume, your paste tomatoes should also have low moisture content. You can always add water to make your sauces thinner. However, the key to a rich paste is to let the water boil off and the tomatoes cook down into a dense texture.
The best tomatoes to use for making pastes and sauces are Romas (also known as plum tomatoes), San Marzanos, heirlooms, and vine tomatoes. Many paste tomatoes are also good candidates for canning, drying, or eating fresh – more on those later.
Do you enjoy gardening during the summertime? Tomatoes are a popular choice of home gardening plant, and it’s no wonder when homegrown tomatoes taste so superior. That said, every home gardener has at some point experienced veggies coming out of their ears, come harvest season. Before that becomes your fate, too, invest in some high-quality canning supplies.
Canning is a traditional way of preserving vegetables well into the winter months. Tomatoes are an excellent candidate for the process, given their high amount of acid. Like sauce tomatoes, the varieties used for canning should have low moisture content. Whether you’re starting your home garden or just picking up your ‘maters from the store, choose Romas, heirlooms, vine tomatoes, or green tomatoes for your canning endeavors.
Once you get the bug for sundried tomatoes, you won’t want to go back. Delicious in pastas, salads, pizza, and sandwiches, dried tomatoes can add a punchy zing to any of your go-to recipes. Did you know you can make your own dried tomatoes? The process isn’t too tricky if you have a food dehydrator or even a conventional oven. Plus, drying is another excellent way to preserve your surplus tomato harvest so that you can enjoy the fruits of your labor well into the cold months.
Once again, the ideal tomato for drying should have low water content. You can use more watery tomatoes, but it may make the dehydrating process take longer, and your result may have less flavor. Meaty paste tomatoes like Romas and globes will work just fine. However, if you can get your hands on some bold-flavored heirlooms like Principe Borghese, Golden Queen, or Blue Beauty, don’t pass them up!
Only those who grew up in the South know that there is one way to eat tomatoes that trumps all the others: fried. In a region that loves frying just about everything from oreos to chicken, tomatoes are no exception. The crispy breaded outside perfectly complements the tangy fruit on the inside. Eat them for breakfast alongside your chicken and waffles or sausage and biscuits, and you’re starting the day right. Or, serve them as an appetizer during the next game night with some remoulade sauce for dipping.
Green tomatoes are the only type you’ll want to use for frying. You can technically fry red tomatoes, too, but they are more likely to fall apart in the oil. Unripe tomatoes are meatier, firmer, and drier than fully ripe tomatoes, which allows them to hold up well in the oil. As for the best types for frying, anything except small varieties like cherry and grape tomatoes will work. Some heirloom tomatoes are naturally green when they ripen. However, most fried green tomatoes are actually red tomato varieties that haven’t yet ripened.
Sometimes, tomatoes are best enjoyed completely unprocessed and uncooked – especially if you’ve got those big, tasty ones freshly plucked from the garden. Perhaps the most common way to use tomatoes in your home cooking is simply to slice and serve.
Fresh tomatoes are juicy, full of flavor and electrolytes, and add a colorful pop to many dishes. Chop up your tomatoes into wedges to toss them in a garden salad, or slice them nice and thick to add onto a sandwich or burger. Or, slice a large tomato and layer it with mozzarella and basil for a delicious caprese. Fresh sliced tomato with a pinch of salt and pepper is also a healthy and refreshing snack on a hot summer day.
Grape and cherry tomatoes are ideal for snacking and salads because they are already bite-sized. You can chop them in half for aesthetic reasons if they are particularly large. When it comes to loading up a sandwich or burger, however, opt for the larger varieties. Beefsteak, heirloom, and vine tomatoes will all get the job done well. As for snacking on slices, nothing tastes better than a homegrown heirloom.
Last but not least, you may sometimes see tomatoes on a skewer. Not only is it fun to stab this bright, juicy fruit with a stick, but the light char on a grilled tomato will send your tastebuds to another planet. It’s easy to get creative with your skewer recipes using tomatoes, as well. Stack them with medium-sized mozzarella balls and fresh basil leaves for a caprese skewer. Or, load up the skewers with some steak between each tomato. You can also skewer tomatoes by themselves, toss them on the grill, and then smear them over toast or pop them straight in your mouth!
Cherry tomatoes are the best kind for skewers due to their small size and juice content. Plus, for the home gardeners out there, cherry tomatoes are one of the easiest types to grow in containers.
Tomatoes are a quintessential ingredient in so many popular dishes, from rich sauces to fresh slices for a sandwich. If you can grow them at home or find your favorite varieties at a farmer’s market near you, it’s worth the extra effort. Homegrown and heirloom tomatoes often offer the most robust flavors and are well-suited to various uses. No matter what type of tomato you have on hand, you’ve got plenty of culinary options to enjoy – now and in the months to come!