How to Tell if a Tomato Is Ripe Without Wrecking It

CC BY 2.0. See-ming Lee/flickr

Don't paw the produce! Over fondling of delicate items like tomatoes and avocados at the market hurts them and adds to food waste.

There are two kinds of tomatoes in this world. Ones that are bred for handling and transportation – and taste like mealy cardboard – and ones that are bred for flavor and texture. And getting all of those features in a single type of tomato seems to be a task beyond our current knowledge.

Of course there are other types of tomatoes in this world, but the point is that supermarket tomatoes excel in durability and heirloom tomatoes are delicate. And when we go to the market and squeeze the delicious ones, they suffer.

The Washington Post calls those of us who press and paw the heirlooms the “tomato touchers” ... the people who “go to the farmers market and handle every plump orb, squeezing and groping, feeling them carefully for firmness and flaws before deciding which one will make it into their next Caprese salad.”

If these were cabbages or carrots or potatoes, no problem. But manhandling these delicate beauties can cause a farmer, according to one interviewed by The Post, to lose 25 percent of his or her tomatoes to damage by customers.

“The grass is greener on the other side of the fence,” says Eli Cook of Spring Valley Farm & Orchard in Romney, West Virginia. “They think if they pick through the whole pile, the one on the bottom is best.”

OK, OK, we get it. But a buyer wants to make sure that the underside of the tomato they’re about to splurge on doesn’t look like a slasher movie. Heirloom tomatoes are notoriously “ugly” (which is truly all in the eye of the beholder), but it’s simple instinct to want to inspect what you’re going to eat. So maybe a gentle examination is warranted, but it’s the squeezing that’s the problem. And the irony is that squeezing is not the best way to determine a tomato’s ripeness.

• Instead of molesting the poor thing, take a whiff; smell is a much better indication.

• And check the color on the bottom of the tomato (which will require lifting it up, yes, gently) – the darker it is, the riper it is, says Paul Mock of Mock’s Greenhouse and Farm in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia.

• And while we’re at it, these are supposed to be ugly. Cracks, which are often ubiquitous in heirlooms, are due to rainy spring weather not over- or under-ripeness.

Meanwhile ... tomatoes aren’t the only victims of our need to squeeze. When people squeeze avocados at the supermarket to check for ripeness, it can result in invisible (from the outside) bruises, a frustrating little gift for the person who ends up buying the fruit. And bad bruising on an avocado affects the flavor and texture and can lead to waste. One doesn’t need to sink their pointy fingers into an avocado, a very (very) light and even pressure from the hand is enough to gauge the softness without damaging the poor things.

Do you have other tricks for assessing ripeness without hurting the produce? Share in the comments.