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 ready to pick when they are fully ripe, reaching their final color. You can also pick tomatoes slightly underripe and let them finish ripening inside. The main benefit of this is to reduce the risk of losing ripe fruit to pests, but the downside is that you will sacrifice a bit of flavor in the final tomato.
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 picked ripe off the vine. This is why homegrown tomatoes taste so much better than grocery store tomatoes. The tomatoes you buy at the store are picked unripe, then artificially ripened before they are put on the shelves. Tomatoes left to ripen on the vine will be able to fully develop their flavor and aroma.
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. 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 Slightly Earlier
The best time to pick tomatoes for flavor is when they’re fully ripe, but if you’re like me, you might be afraid of losing your ripe tomatoes to squirrels and other wildlife. Sometimes you have to compromise, which is why I often pick tomatoes when they’re about 90-95% ripe. They are less likely to be eaten by animals, and they still keep 95% of the flavor of a vine-ripened tomato. They should fully ripen in 1-3 days on the counter or windowsill.
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 always pick these 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 slightly underripe 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.