Why tomatoes lose their taste

This year November arrived, and the tomatoes refused to depart. Even after a few mild nips of frost, some of the vines soldiered on in protected locations. In a greenhouse, the vines would have remained vigorous long after it was time to pull them down and make way for winter spinach.

Why is this so hard to do? Even if late blights have not spotted the fruits, they’re not what they were earlier in the season. When night temperatures cool down and light levels fall, flavor suffers.

In the South American tropics, where tomatoes originated, they are perennial plants. Theoretically, if you kept the vines from freezing you could keep them going forever. But without the long days of summer in which to build up sugars in the fruits, they no longer develop the taste we expect from them.

The optimum temperature of tomato ripening is 75 degrees F, with an acceptable range from 65 to 85. At about 54 they deteriorate quickly. The cell walls begin to break down, which makes them mushy, and the sugars and flavor compounds are transformed. This is why we’re always told not to put tomatoes in the fridge.

Nevertheless, it’s impossible to say goodbye. We can them, we freeze them, we dry them. We gather them up in buckets, spread them on trays, wrap them in newspaper in the dark. They take over kitchen counters and tables until there’s no room to cook. No matter that there is still plenty to eat in the garden.

The kale, spinach, Brussels sprouts and sweet, frost-nipped carrots are in their glory days. There’s plenty of gorgeous, orange, fleshy squash and pumpkins to feast on. Yet there we go, scurrying out like crazed squirrels after all this inferior fruit.

We had a family taste test of all the late-harvested tomatoes. The results surprised us. The one that had tasted the best during the summer, the heirloom Brandywine, was now bland and unsatisfying. Even Amish Paste, the huge meaty plum tomato that had provided such wonderful pasta sauces, had lost its flavor. It was the little guys that had gone the distance. The small oval Juliet Grape tomato, though less flavorful than it was in August, had at least retained its sweetness, and the tiny round Sungold was positively luscious.

Meanwhile, the kitchen is still full of tomatoes.

I decided that maybe this was the year to try fried green tomatoes, Perhaps this odd, Southern aberration had something going for it after all. I tried them at two stages — bright green and just-starting-to-turn-pink. I sliced them and dipped them first in flour, then in egg, then in corn meal. I also tried using breadcrumbs. Then I fried them in a combination of butter and olive oil.

The hard green ones had a pleasant, uniform texture inside, but were bland. The pinkish ones were just ripe enough to have acidity, but without any sweetness. I concluded that the dish had little value except as a vehicle for buttery breadcrumbs. Probably less nutritious too.

Here’s the best thing to do with all those tomatoes you can’t bear to throw away — ripen them and then roast them. This concentrates the flavor and sweetness so intensely that you’ll never know you started with something subpar.

It works best with the paste types and it’s extremely easy to do. Just slice off a tiny bit of the stem end, then cut each tomato in half lengthwise. Spread some olive oil on a baking sheet and scatter the tomato halves on it, cut side up. Drizzle them with more olive oil and sprinkle them with salt, pepper and some fresh or dried herbs. Set the oven to 325 degrees F and roast them for 1 to 2 hours, depending on how large they are and whether you want them still-juicy or more firm and dry.

For sandwiches, go for dry; for pasta sauce, go for juicy. You can also roast them, and then puree them and turn them into soup. Top polenta with them, or crown a bed of greens with them for a wonderful salad. Keep some around at room temperature and snack on them, licking your oily fingers. Roast them every few days until the last of them are gone and their season is over. Finally.

Barbara Damrosch

Barbara Damrosch

Barbara Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Gardener’s Cookbook.”
Barbara Damrosch

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