Fresh tomatoes are in season from mid-July to late August, and there is nothing quite like a warm tomato picked off the vine. If you're not growing tomatoes, try to get some at a local farm stand. Supermarkets often carry good quality tomatoes in the summer, so look around the produce section and, at all costs, avoid any square, cold, pink specimens. Although you can get tomatoes year-round, they taste best in the summer. If you absolutely must have a fresh tomato in the dead of winter, try Roma, cherry or grape tomatoes as they generally have better off-season flavor.
- Beefsteaks are the big, juicy late-summer beauties that can weigh up to a pound each. With their mild flavor and thick flesh, they are perfect in a BLT, or even just for eating out-of-hand. Beefsteaks have a high water content, and are better eaten raw in salads or sandwiches than they are cooked.
- Romas, also known as plum tomatoes, are great for sauce as they are relatively dry. They're tangy and thin-skinned with few seeds.
- Minis (Cherry, Grape, sweet 100, etc.) are extra-sweet, with full flavor and thin skins. These tomatoes are delicious cooked and raw. Pack them with lunches for an easy accompaniment or mid-afternoon snack. Try them sautéed as a side dish, cooked with herbs and olive oil for a quick tomato sauce, or tossed in a salad. Combine different sizes and colors (yellow, red or orange) for enticing presentations.
- Heirlooms range widely in terms of size, color and flavor, but generally taste the most "tomato-like" of all varieties. The use of the term "heirloom" is often debated; some say a variety must be 100 years old to be considered an heirloom, others say 50 years is old enough, while others say a variety that's been around since the end of World War II or at least three human generations is an heirloom. All agree heirlooms must be bred with open-air pollination and cannot contain any genetically modified organisms. They also agree old-time varieties of tomatoes are special. A tomato salad or Panzanella made with heirlooms is a truly beautiful dish, and will be the star of any potluck.
- Hothouse (on-the-vine) are available year-round and are mild in flavor. Some are flavorful, some not.
- Choose tomatoes that are heavy for their size and intensely colored. They should be firm, but not rock-hard. Heirloom tomatoes might have blemishes, which don't necessarily affect quality. Smell the blossom end — it should have an earthy, fresh tomato smell.
- Never refrigerate tomatoes — it makes them mealy. They last at room temperature for about 2 to 3 days. If you need to ripen a tomato, put it in a perforated paper bag for a day or two. To help you remember this very important tip about tomatoes, read one of our editor's vivid tomato memories.
- Use a serrated or razor-sharp knife to slice tomatoes.
- If you're making salsa, you can use the wide holes of a box grater to both peel and finely chop. Grate quartered tomatoes up to the skin; discard the skin.
- Although you don't have to peel tomatoes, it's a nice touch for long-cooked dishes. Otherwise, the peel comes off during cooking and it can catch in your throat when you're eating the finished dish. The easiest way to peel three or more tomatoes is to make a small, shallow X on the bottom of the tomato, and then cut out the top core. Immerse the tomato in boiling water for about 10 seconds — just long enough to loosen the skin — and then transfer to ice water. Take care to not leave the tomato in the boiling water too long; you don't want the tomato to cook. When the tomato has cooled, the skin will easily slip off. If you only need one or two tomatoes and you're serving them raw, an extremely sharp vegetable peeler will also get the job done.
- To seed a tomato, cut it in half across the middle, then squeeze out the seeds and juice into a strainer placed over a bowl. Discard the seeds. Add the juice to salad dressings or stews.
- You can make your own sun-dried tomatoes in the oven. Smaller varieties like cherry, pear and plum tomatoes work best — just make sure you use tomatoes all of a similar size. Preheat the oven to 200 degrees F and put a rack on a baking sheet. Halve the tomatoes lengthwise and lay on the rack, skin side down. Generously sprinkle with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper and strew some fresh herb sprigs like thyme or rosemary over the top. Roast until the tomatoes are barely moist and shriveled, anywhere from two to six hours, depending on their size.
Fresh Tomato Sauce Techniques:
- Tomato sauce should either be cooked for 15 minutes, to lose the raw tomato flavor, or for an hour until it develops a mellow and complex flavor.
- Make 15-minute sauces in a skillet instead of a saucepan so they reduce quicker, and let the sauce sit, covered, while you make the pasta. This allows the flavors in the sauce to meld.
- The fewer the seeds, the better-suited the tomato for a long-cooked sauce. Cherry tomatoes make an excellent raw or short-cooked sauce, but the seeds develop an unpleasant taste with long-cooking. Roma tomatoes are ideal for a longer-cooked sauce.
- A food mill is useful for creating an ideally textured tomato sauce; it strains out seeds and skins as it purees.
- Use the concentrated flavor of oven- or sun-dried tomatoes, tomato paste, roasted or charred tomatoes to enhance a sauce.
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Heading to the supermarket with a shopping list is one thing, but leaving with what you need is another entirely. Yes, they stock charcoal; but should you buy briquettes or hardwood? Your buddy loves shrimp; do you get large or jumbo? For every summer essential, there seems to be a confusing variation — cilantro or parsley, whipping cream or heavy cream. Here, a cheat sheet to a half dozen shopping conundrums. Remember it the next time you hit the store and you'll come out a winner.