I know, you’ve been looking at your tomato plants and wondering when you can finally pick your own tomatoes from your garden. Or maybe you’re not even there yet and you’ve just planted it and are already getting impatient. I feel the same way at the beginning of every growing season, but I’ve learned that patience is absolutely a virtue when gardening.
Tomatoes are fully ripe when they reach their final color, but they can be picked when they are partially ripe and finish ripening indoors on the kitchen counter without sacrificing flavor or quality. The main benefit of this is to reduce the risk of losing ripe fruit to pests.
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How Long Will It Take for Me to Get Ripe Tomatoes?
The time it takes for tomatoes to mature varies a lot. It can take anywhere from 50 days to over 80 days from transplanting, depending on the variety. Smaller cherry and grape tomatoes will take closer to 50 days while larger beefsteak-type tomatoes can take 80-85 days or more. I go into more detail in my other article on picking homegrown tomatoes.
“There are a few tomato varieties that actually ripen green[, such as] the Emerald Evergreen tomato, the Green Giant tomato, and Aunt Ruby’s German Green tomato.”
Best Time to Pick Tomatoes for Flavor
Tomatoes always, always, always taste better when fully ripe. Tomatoes, however, can be picked partially ripe and left to finish ripening indoors on the kitchen counter. Tomatoes which reach the ‘breaker stage’ of fruit development, when the final color change is noticeable (i.e. 10-30% pink), are physiologically mature and will continue ripening off the vine. According to an article on Kansas State University, you can pick your tomatoes when they are about half ripe and let them finish ripening indoors without losing any flavor or quality in the final ripe fruit. The reason why homegrown tomatoes taste so much better than grocery store tomatoes is because tomatoes you buy at the store are picked before the breaker stage while still completely green, then artificially ripened before they are put on the shelves. [Editor’s note: We are grateful a keen reader tipped us off to the common myth that vine-ripened tomatoes have the best quality!]
Tomatoes are fully ripe when they have changed to their final color, most commonly red or pink. Note that some red tomatoes turn orange first, but red is their final color, or they start off a light shade of red, then vibrant red when fully ripe. But always check your variety because tomatoes can ripen to orange, yellow, purple, and even striped colors. You can also give the tomato a very gentle squeeze to see if it’s getting soft, a good sign that it’s getting ripe.
Some Tomatoes Ripen Green
There are a few tomato varieties that actually ripen green. They often just turn pale yellow, but the best way to tell is by squeezing the tomatoes gently to see if they’re getting soft. If they’re still super hard, they’re still unripe.
Some green tomato varieties include the Emerald Evergreen tomato, the Green Giant tomato, and Aunt Ruby’s German Green tomato.
Finally, there are some tomatoes which stay partially green when ripe, such as the Cherokee Purple and Black Krim tomatoes, which both have greenish shoulders while the rest of the fruit is dusky red.
To Maintain Flavor, Keep Tomatoes Outside the Fridge
I personally love a cold, refreshing tomato, but it looks like the science has been settled: chilling your tomatoes reduces the overall flavor. When you pick a tomato, the cells inside the tomato are still technically alive, and it turns out cold temperatures shut off the genes in those cells that produce those rich tomato flavors and aromas. So, when you harvest your tomatoes, keep them out of the fridge if you want to get the most flavor.
Avoid Losing Your Tomatoes – Pick Earlier
As mentioned earlier, once tomatoes start noticeably changing color, they can completely ripen off the vine. But why would you want to do this? Ripe tomatoes can be a target for pests like squirrels, so picking while partially ripe and letting them finish ripening indoors can save your tomatoes so you can enjoy them. Another common problem is with tomatoes splitting; if you notice your ripe tomatoes are splitting, pick them before they are fully ripe. Depending how early you pick them, it may take a few days on the kitchen counter or windowsill to reach peak ripeness.
Occasionally, you’ll find a tomato that has persistent “green shoulders” on top of the fruit even after the rest of the tomato has been red for several days. I consider these fully ripe the moment the flesh of the tomato starts to feel soft.
How to Get Unripe Tomatoes to Ripen Faster Indoors
If you’ve picked a partially ripe tomato, you don’t need to do anything; just keep the tomato on the counter and after a few days it will fully ripen on its own.
If it’s mostly green, such as the leftover tomatoes picked right before a killing frost, or when some of your green tomatoes fall off the vine, you can speed up the ripening process.
Ethylene gas (NOT acetylene) acts as a plant hormone to induce ripening. Supermarkets use it to ripen all the green, unripe tomatoes that have been shipped to their warehouses. You can simulate this process by putting your tomatoes in a paper bag or cardboard box (something breathable) with some bananas. Bananas naturally release a lot of ethylene as they ripen, so they will also help your tomatoes ripen faster.
Can You Eat Unripe Tomatoes?
Yes, and green unripe tomatoes are used in dishes like green tomato salsas and fried green tomatoes. That said, unripe tomatoes do have solanine, the same toxic substance found in tomato plants and green potatoes, but at much lower levels, so they are generally safe to eat in moderation.
- Pavlis, R., Ripening tomato myths – both on the vine and in the home. Garden Myths.
- Pick tomatoes at ‘Breaker Stage’. UGA Today. University of Georgia.
- Harvesting and Ripening Tomatoes. K-State Research and Extension.