A question I am frequently asked is “Should I leave tomatoes on the vine until they’re ripe for best flavor?”
Every once in a while, I will find a fully ripe tomato on the vine that I missed. This is rare, as usually the squirrels or mockingbirds eat them. What surprises me is that they don’t really taste any better than tomatoes I pick and ripen indoors on a countertop. An informal poll on tomato forums confirm this, with most gardners reporting no noticeable improvement in flavor over tomatoes that were picked after first blush and finished indoors.
At this point, I consider vine ripening to be a marketing myth.
The biggest causes of poor flavor in grocery store tomatoes are actually:
- Varieties selected for productivity, early harvest, uniform size and shape, and disease resistance/tolerance.
- Market tomatoes grown in nearly sterile soil and fed on a diet of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
- Tomatoes are picked completely green (1st breaker stage), and shipped off to an ethylene gas chamber to artificially ripen. Remember: “Vine ripened” has no legal definition.
- Produce shipped thousands of miles in refrigerated trucks.
- Most tomatoes are then refrigerated again at the grocery store until they are put out for sale.
All of these steps conspire to produce this:
In most places, stink bugs, leaf-footed bugs, squirrels, mockingbirds, and unexpected afternoon rainstorms make leaving tomatoes on the vine until fully ripe a dicey proposition. I harvest my tomatoes at approximately 1/2 ripe and then store them scar-side-down on a counter top in a cool location. This is the degree of ripening at which point I harvest my tomatoes:
Tomatoes harvested at about 1/2 blush which will finish ripening indoors. No need for a paper bag or banana!
Don’t Refrigerate Your Tomatoes!
Out of curiosity, I took one of my best homegrown heirloom tomatoes and refrigerated it for 24 hours. I then removed it, allowed it to return to room temperature and sliced it up. The loss of flavor was shocking. It was almost as bland as a grocery store tomato.