Knowing exactly when to harvest tomatoes is essential for getting the ripest, tastiest fruit. After months of watering, weeding, and staking your tomato plants, your long-anticipated fruit finally starts turning red, yellow, orange, or even purple, depending on the variety. That’s also when a tomato’s full flavor is developing. Harvesting tomatoes at just the right time ensures you’ll capture all the homegrown tomato goodness that you worked so hard to make possible. Time it right with these 6 tips from a vegetable grower who picks hundreds of pounds of tomatoes on her farm each season.
Nicole Jonas, along with her husband Steve and three kids, grows fruits and vegetables for sale at their local farmer’s market in central Iowa. Their business, Red Granite Farm, began as a shared passion for all things plants. Jonas and her family begin harvesting from their 400 tomato plants in early July and continue picking until frost. She knows how to harvest tomatoes at their peak flavor and these are her top 6 tips to help you do the same.
1. Know the Right Color for the Variety
Color is an indicator of ripeness and flavor, but the shade is important. “Some yellow heirlooms, for example, look ripe when they are yellow, but their best flavor is usually found when they turn bright gold,” Jonas says. Know the mature color of the tomato you are growing. A quick internet search for the variety can point you in the right direction when it comes to color.
2. Do a Taste Test
If you question the ripeness of a tomato and are hesitant to harvest several potentially ripe fruits, Jonas recommends a taste test. “Sometimes tomato harvest comes down to trial and error,” she says. “Harvest a single tomato and try it. If it doesn’t have the best flavor, wait a couple of days, and harvest another tomato from that plant.” As long as damaging winds and significant rain are not in the forecast, tomatoes will wait on the plant for a day or two without any problems.
3. Do a Feel Test
“Ripe tomatoes should have a little bit of give to them,” Jonas says. “They shouldn’t be hard.” With that said, Jonas is quick to point out that the firmness of tomato flesh varies by variety. Some heirlooms are quite soft when fully ripe while modern hybrids are firmer.
4. Size Matters
Smaller tomatoes generally ripen several days to as much as three weeks before large slicing tomatoes. “Generally, if you plant all your tomatoes at the same time, your cherry and grape tomatoes are going to ripen before your beefsteaks.” The bigger the tomato, the longer it will take to ripen. For this reason, closely monitor all your plants for ripeness. It’s easy to focus on the slicer tomatoes for your first BLT of the season and miss the cherry tomatoes that are ripe on a nearby plant.
5. Amount of Color
Tomatoes color from the bottom of the fruit towards the stem. This coloring is an indicator of ripeness, as mentioned above. Unlike many fruits and vegetables, tomatoes can finish ripening after they are harvested. “I wait to harvest until at least two-thirds of the tomato is fully colored with the remaining one-third showing signs of color but not fully colored. When harvested at this point the tomato will ripen on a kitchen counter perfectly and with plenty of flavor,” Jonas says. The key to achieving that rich flavor is “waiting to eat it until it is fully colored,” she says. The tomato might have to sit on the counter for a few days. Hold your knife; the wait is worth it.
6. Watch the Forecast
A soaking rain, particularly after a dry spell, in the days leading up to tomato harvest can damage the fruit. “Nearly ripe tomatoes on the vine are susceptible to cracking right after a big rain,” Jonas says. If a soaker is in the forecast, go ahead and harvest all nearly ripe tomatoes—the fruit that is two-thirds of the way fully colored.
How to Store Tomatoes for the Best Flavor
The very best storage place for ripe tomatoes is a countertop at room temperature. Expect them to hold their flavor for 4-7 days, depending on how ripe they were at harvest. Resist putting them in the refrigerator. Cold temperatures kill flavor and cause tomatoes to develop a mealy texture.