Don’t peel your tomatoes, plus more tips for getting the best flavor

There was a time when I would scoop out the seeds and gel from the inside of a tomato, because I didn’t like the texture. I know now that I was throwing away both flavor and nutrition — and I’ve learned my lesson.

But how to get the most flavor out of tomatoes? It’s not always straightforward.

Unfortunately, a tomato’s flavor often falls victim to modern refrigeration, year-round supply and even state-of-the-art farming practices, yielding tasteless, rock-hard fruit hardly fit to top off a burger or blend into salsa. But don’t despair. Here are a few rules for getting the tastiest tomatoes onto your plate.

Use the entire tomato

Tomato lore is filled with myths and truths. Your family’s treasured tomato sauce recipe, handed down through the generations, probably includes strict instructions for skinning and seeding the tomatoes to get a smoother texture, but Harry Klee, emeritus professor at the University of Florida’s Horticultural Sciences Department, has been studying tomatoes for nearly 40 years and notes that today’s high-speed blenders negate such time-consuming efforts. “I just cut off the stem scar and throw the whole tomato in the blender,” he says. “It comes out velvety smooth and you don’t lose any flavor or nutrition.”

It turns out that a tomato really is the sum of its parts: While the flesh can have that juicy texture that instantly transports us to a classic tomato sandwich on a summer day, the gel is packed with umami flavor, offering more than triple the glutamate proteins — flavor compounds — found in the flesh. As to the seeds, which some find slightly bitter, they are actually very nutritious, while the skin is loaded with antioxidants not found in the rest of the fruit. And, in a practical sense, the skin is a structural element that keeps the tomato from disintegrating — which is pretty important when making a Caprese salad or stuffed tomatoes.

Give the tomato a sniff

“Perception is so important to flavor,” says Klee, “because flavor is a combination of taste and smell. The signals from your olfactory nerves go to your brain and light up some neurons, and the signals from your mouth light up some neurons. Then your brain magically puts these two things together.” If a tomato doesn’t smell great, it won’t taste great, either — but don’t confuse the scent of the fruit with the scent of its stem or leaves; in fact, Klee notes that consumers love to purchase tomatoes on the vine at the supermarket, but “all you’re really smelling is the stem, which triggers a psychological reaction.” Be sure to smell the skin, perhaps near the stem scar at the top of the fruit — the scent can be subtle, but you should get a nice tomatoey aroma.

Give the tomato a squeeze

Flavor and ripeness go hand in hand, so a tomato should be able to pass the Goldilocks test — not too hard and not too mushy, but somewhere in between. You should just very lightly press the tomato between your fingers to avoid bruising: It should be firm but have a slight give.

Peeling tomatoes for many dishes might not be necessary. Rey Lopez for The Washington Post; food styling by Lisa Cherkasky

Go for ‘stressed out’ tomatoes

A tomato that has been grown outside — as opposed to hydroponically in a controlled environment — and subjected to different weather endures a certain amount of stress, and this turns out to be a benefit for flavor. “Just like the best wines come from old vines that have been very stressed out, the same thing is true of tomatoes,” says Klee. Such tomatoes are exposed to a variety of pathogens, soil types, bright sunlight and ultraviolet radiation, and Klee’s studies have shown that this resilience actually builds flavor.

Store your tomatoes on the counter — and eat promptly

If you shop, like many Americans, just once a week, then it’s best to eat any ripe tomatoes within a day or two. Avoid refrigerating them to extend their shelf life, especially those purchased from the supermarket. “A tomato that has been refrigerated for four days or longer is going to lose its flavor,” Klee says, “and you have no way of knowing if that supermarket tomato has been there for 24 hours or a week.” If you have a sudden influx of ripe tomatoes — say, from the garden — that you can’t use before they go off, refrigerate them for no longer than 3 days, and bring back to room temperature before eating. (Don’t chill unripe tomatoes, as they’ll never ripen.) The University of California recommends placing tomatoes in the crisper drawer in their original clamshell package, a paper bag or a plastic bag with a few slits. These strategies prevent moisture loss and the buildup of ethylene, a ripening hormone that can eventually cause rotting.

Eat tomatoes when they are in season

It seems obvious, but in a world where we can get tomatoes on demand any day of the year, we end up sacrificing flavor for convenience. One way to preserve the true umami flavor of your favorite tomatoes? Try oven-drying those summer beauties — seeds, skin, and all — then freeze them to enjoy in recipes all winter long, a little taste of July sunshine.

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