Whether you’re picking tomatoes from the produce aisle or fresh from the vine, once you get home you’re faced with the complex question of how to store them.
Conventional wisdom has long held that tomatoes should not be refrigerated. Some die-hard tomato lovers still resist keeping tomatoes anywhere near the refrigerator. Others go out of their way to preserve the fruit until they’re ready to eat it—even if they notice a slight difference in flavor and texture. A recent study debunks the myth that tomatoes shouldn’t be refrigerated, but even that doesn’t put the issue to rest.
“The truth is, there is no one-size-fits-all answer,” said Dominique Kline, gardener and manager of Hope Farms. When making the important decision of whether to refrigerate tomatoes, “there are several factors to consider: the ripeness, source and variety of the tomatoes, and the ambient temperature in the kitchen,” says Klein.
Another factor is personal taste. Although gardener and author of Epic Tomatoes: How to Choose and Grow the Best Varieties, Craig LeHoulier is firmly in the no-refrigeration camp, saying “many people are refrigerating their tomatoes.” Those who grew up with the taste may like the taste.”
Klein emphasized that with so many factors at play, “there’s a lot of debate surrounding tomato storage.”
Maturity is the key to decision-making
According to Klein, “the most important factor in this debate is the ripeness of your tomatoes”. If the tomatoes are at “optimal ripeness,” they can be refrigerated for three days “to stop the ripening process,” she said. However, the tomatoes should then be brought “to room temperature before serving,” Klein explained.
If the tomatoes are not yet ripe, Klein says they should be stored at room temperature, preferably between 68-73 degrees Fahrenheit. Klein recommends keeping tomatoes that are not fully ripe “out of direct sunlight or temperatures well above this range, as this may hasten rotting.”
The type of tomato matters
The variety of tomato is another important factor in determining whether it can be refrigerated. “Not all tomatoes are created equal,” Klein said, and their storage methods reflect that.
Small but mighty cherry tomatoes are “least sensitive to refrigeration, resist degradation over extended periods of time, and have little adverse effect on taste,” Klein explained.
Roma or steak tomatoes, however, “will benefit more from room temperature storage,” Klein said, because these varieties “have a higher ratio of flesh to seeds[,] and tend to be more susceptible to refrigeration.” LeHoullier explained, These types of tomatoes are hybrids bred specifically to last a long time on supermarket shelves, and their sensitivity to refrigeration reflects this.
There are some varieties of tomatoes that should never be refrigerated. “Signature heirloom varieties that you might find at the farmers market or that grow in your backyard” should always be stored at room temperature, with the vines removed, Klein says.
Effects of Refrigeration on Tomatoes
“Tomatoes contain “more than 400 volatile compounds” that contribute to aroma, taste and texture,” Klein said. These compounds, she says, include enzymes that contribute to a tomato’s “fresh and fruity aroma,” in addition to “helping Fructose and glucose add sweetness, and citric and malic acids provide a sour element”. A tomato’s texture depends on its “moisture retention and cell wall integrity,” Klein added.
Frozen tomatoes “disrupt cell membranes, inhibit enzyme activity, create the unpleasant, powdery texture that refrigerated tomatoes are known for,” and make them less flavorful, Kline explained. Klein says degradation begins around 50-55 degrees Fahrenheit, so even a cold kitchen can affect the texture and flavor of tomatoes.
What if you can’t eat your tomatoes right away?
Refrigeration does improve the shelf life of tomatoes, but since “it comes at a price”, to LeHoullier and many others, “it’s not worth trading it for it starting to smell weird”.
Instead, if you know you’ll need to store your tomatoes for a few days, LeHoullier recommends picking “parboiled tomatoes — colored on the bottom but still noticeably green halfway toward the stem.” LeHoullier explains that parboiled tomatoes “It will ripen slowly indoors, and once ripe, has the exact same superior flavor as a fully grape-ripe tomato.” He added that “tomatoes ripened indoors in this way seem to last a few days longer than those fully ripened on the vine”.
How Home Cooks Can Handle Dilemmas
Food blogger Vered DeLeeuw said she knew she “shouldn’t be putting tomatoes in the fridge,” but she did it anyway. “When you put them on the counter, they go bad very quickly, and before they even go bad, they get wrinkled and limp,” she said.
DeLeeuw has a solution. She takes the tomatoes out of the refrigerator hours before she intends to eat them. She said that although “some experts say that tomatoes permanently lose some of their flavor when they’re refrigerated,” she doesn’t think that’s the case. In her experience, once the tomatoes reach room temperature, they “re-develop full flavor—or almost whole.” While there may still be nuances in taste and texture, DeLeeuw says “the tradeoff is worth it” to her.
Others take a balanced approach and only refrigerate as a last resort. Shurti Baskaran, a home cook, food blogger and urban gardener, usually keeps her tomatoes at room temperature to preserve their flavor and texture. However, Bhaskaran says that if she has “an excess of tomatoes, or they’re starting to look a bit stale,” she “throws them in the freezer and lets them come to room temperature before using.”
“It’s better to be slightly mushy than spoiled,” she said.
General Tomato Storage Tips
No matter where you store your tomatoes, how you store them also matters. There are some simple steps you can take to help extend the life of your tomatoes. According to Klein, it’s important to spread the tomatoes out to make sure they’re not touching. Tomatoes naturally produce ethylene gas, which facilitates the ripening process, Klein said. If this gas builds up, “it will lead to overripe and premature rot,” she explained.
To slow the process, Klein said it’s important to make sure the tomatoes have “adequate air circulation…to delay the natural decay process.” This buildup of gas is why tomatoes that touch each other may develop soft spots where they meet. Klein recommends always placing tomatoes “on a sheet tray, basket or plate, being careful not to overcrowd them.”
Klein recommends storing tomatoes “stem side down to help prevent moisture loss,” explaining that “over time, tomatoes stored stem up will lose water from the top and dry up in just a few days.” can lose 10% of its mass, causing the fruit to soften and wrinkle.”
Where you stand on this debate may depend on how sensitive your taste buds are. While some people have strong feelings about the right way to store tomatoes, food blogger Maggie Turansky doesn’t think it matters. “I’ve never made a fuss about where I store my tomatoes, and from experience I’ve never noticed a difference in taste or texture when I store them in the fridge versus at room temperature,” she says.