Green tomatoes are familiar to southerners, but to others, they might just sound like tomatoes that aren't ripe. So what are green tomatoes, what do they taste like, and how do you use them?
What are Green Tomatoes?
As a matter of fact, that's exactly what they are: tomatoes that aren't ripe.
Actually, there's another kind, which are heirloom tomatoes that are green when ripe. Those have their place as well, and they're quite delicious. But for the most part, when you hear the term green tomatoes, it refers to the unripe versions of ordinary tomatoes.
Sometimes green tomatoes are intentionally picked before they ripen, but more often, they're simply tomatoes that didn’t ripen by the end of the growing season. Which is why they're commonly seen in late summer and early autumn. As soon as the temperatures drop to where the tomatoes on the vine no longer ripen, it's green tomato season.
How to Use Green Tomatoes
First of all, it is possible to ripen green tomatoes, but it doesn't always work. You'll need to keep them somewhere fairly warm, or at least not cold, and it helps to keep them in a paper bag along with some other fruit, like apples or ripening bananas, which give off ethylene gas, which helps accelerate the ripening process.
Still, all this gets you is an ordinary ripe red tomato, and it's not like those are hard to come by. Green tomatoes are a whole different thing, and you use them completely differently.
Because they're firmer and more dense than ripe tomatoes, green tomatoes can be cooked in ways that ripe tomatoes can't. Slicing, coating them in a corn meal breading and pan-frying, which is one of the most common methods of cooking green tomatoes, wouldn't work with a ripe tomato—its soft texture and all that juice would just make it a soggy, clumpy mess.
In addition to frying, though, green tomatoes are wonderful in baked dishes, like casseroles, where their firmness allows them to hold up without turning mushy; as well as soups, chutneys, salsas, relishes, and pickles. They can even go in a pie—after all, the firm texture and tart flavor of the green tomatoes is not totally dissimilar to a green apple.
Another popular dish is green tomato pasta sauce or pomodori verdi in Italian. It's easy enough to substitute green tomatoes for red in your favorite from-scratch sauce recipe. Some variations that play on the "green" flavor add mint, dill, or arugula.
And you should absolutely consider using them in a sandwich, such as instead of ripe tomatoes in a BLT.
Regardless of how you're using them, for the most part, all you have to do is slice them, although for some preparations, like the green tomato pie linked below, you'll have to peel them as well.
What Do They Taste Like?
Green tomatoes are tart, acidic, sometimes downright astringent. They have a firm, almost crunchy texture and they're much less juicy than ripe tomatoes. Cooking them definitely mellows out the astringency, however.
Green Tomato Recipes
Where to Buy Green Tomatoes
Green tomatoes are available at supermarkets and farmers' markets towards the end of summer and early autumn. But make sure you don't accidentally buy heirloom green tomatoes, which go by names such as green giant tomatoes, green tiger and emerald evergreen tomatoes. The green tomatoes we're talking about should feel firm and solid, with a uniform pale green color—with no stripes or streaks like some of their heirloom cousins have.
Tomatoes are a fruit, and fruit will tend to ripen if given the opportunity. So if possible, use your green tomatoes right away, unless you don't mind if some of them try to turn red. It might happen and it might not. Cold temperatures will interfere with the ripening process, so you can store them in the fridge for a few days before using them.