Have you ever walked into a supermarket in the wintertime and there they were, beautiful red ripe tomatoes, you could almost taste them in your mouth. The smell was there, the perfect round shape, ruby red colour, firmness under the fingertips, a little bit pricy but, hey, good things don’t come cheap. After all, it’s winter, and transport from southern countries costs. You check the label, it says Spain. Well, what the heck. It’s winter, and I haven’t eaten a super tasty tomato in ages. In they go.
Then you arrive home, cut them, slice and dice, maybe even bite straight into the shiny skin and the disappointment hits hard. Bland. Tasteless. Damp cardboard. Like filling up an empty tomato can with water and expecting a refreshing summer gazpacho. So, who is to blame? Yourself for believing that you can have tomatoes in the winter? Well, maybe we should all blame ourselves, but not for the reasons we usually think about.
Is Customer Always Right?
According to this article, when it comes to tomatoes, corporations care about four things: size, weight, sameness and colour – never taste. The tomatoes need to look perfect and the consumers will buy them. But is it how tomatoes grow in nature?
Have you ever picked a tomato off the vine and tasted it afterwards? Then you must have noticed that, depending on the type, tomatoes usually vary in size, shape and, most importantly, in colour. Most of the time they’re greenish around the stem and you need to check on them daily to pick them at the right moment when they are fully ripe and not too soft. The reward is the explosion of tastes in your mouth.
Apparently, the tomatoes sold in supermarkets off season are a result of artificial selection in the last 70 years and have lower amount of chloroplasts – cellular parts that produce sugars by photosynthesis. Less chloroplast enables the supermarket tomatoes to ripen evenly and at the same time, but it also devoids them of taste.
Not only does fructose in the flesh give tomatoes their taste – there are equally important malic and citric acid in the mucous area around the seeds (the locular jelly). Then there are the seeds themselves, containing most of the MSG. MSG? Isn’t everybody talking that MSG is bad? Well, yes and no – but let’s deal with that some other time.
MSG – or monosodium glutamate is abundant in plants and animals we use for daily consumption such as meats (beef, chicken, pork, fish), carrots, mushrooms, parmesan, soy sauce, human breast milk (!)… and tomato. Like table salt, MSG is not delicious per se, but its presence combined with other aromas results in umami – the fifth taste.
Why Are Tomatoes Rich In Umami?
Tomato’s richness in umami is its evolutionary response to the problem of spreading seeds to new soils. This is why inner parts of tomato around the seeds are richest in glutamate and you should take it into consideration next time you are preparing a recipe that calls for deseeding.
So, why do winter tomatoes lack the umami we find in their summer siblings? One of the reasons is that it takes about a week for a tomato to reach the supermarket shelf. This is the reason why most of the producers pick them when they are hard and still not ripe. Compare this to the local greengrocers or farmers in the summer, when field-to-table time is measured in hours.
How Exactly Does the Ripening Affect the Taste?
Well, according to this article, which explores the difference in the composition of tomatoes ripened on the vine and off the vine, tomatoes that have ripened post-harvest have more than 30% reduction in the contents of fructose, glucose, aspartate, and glutamate. Meaning that tomatoes which ripen off the vine lose more than 30% of their taste.
Besides sugars and amino acids, there are further 15-20 ingredients in tomatoes which contribute to its unique taste. (Compared with banana and strawberry which owe their taste only to 2). These compounds are sensitive to outer conditions and deteriorate rapidly. For instance, if stored at temperatures lower than 10°C for 24 hours tomatoes loose half of their volatile compounds which give them the aroma. And how do you think tomatoes get stored and transported to supermarkets? You guessed it – refrigerator trucks.
Besides the lack of sugars and glutamate, unripe tomatoes contain toxin solanine which can be found in all other parts of the tomato plant. Solanine prevents animals for eating the vine and leaves – and unripe tomato fruits. As the tomatoes ripen, solanine disappears and when the seeds are ready to be distributed. At the same time the tomato sends bright red attractive signals to consumers that it is ready and delicious. (Btw, the same solanine is present in unripe potatoes and can even be fatal for babies.)
So How to Enjoy Tomatoes In the Winter?
As we have seen, main reasons why winter tomatoes taste bland are (a) preference of look over taste by supermarkets, (b) premature harvesting, (c) ripening off the vine and (d) improper storage. Does it mean we are doomed to tomatoeless winters? Not at all!
There are several solutions at hand, some healthier than others.
The story seems simple – ripe tomatoes are canned in the summer which keeps them fresh all year long. And it is true. Tomatoes are not the problem in this case, it is the can. The cans are coated with resins that contain BPA – bisphenol A – also present in soda cans and water bottles. It is added to plastic to make it softer and more pliable. But it leaks into the food and causes severe problems since it has a structure very similar to human hormone estrogen. Hormones control bodily functions in small amounts, thus even a small amount of BPA can cause great damage.
It is worth noting that due to increased pressure from the consumers, the producers have started advertising that their products are BPA free. Though this is true, they have substituted BPA with other bisphenols (such as BPS and BPF) which have the same detrimental effects on health.
Tomato pulp in carton
Even worse than cans. Besides the fact that you can forget all dishes with chopped and whole tomatoes, there is a serious issue with this packaging. The “cartons” are in fact a multilayer packaging, only the outer layer being paper based. The other layers are aluminium (protects from light) and different plastic foils, which again contain BPx. Plus, ecologically speaking, this is the worst form of packaging out there, since it is impossible to separate the fused layers and reuse/recycle them.
Tomato pulp in a glass jar/bottle
Whatever comes in glass is OK and safe to consume, just check whether there are some additives or is it pure pasteurised tomatoes. You cannot make a tomato salad, but it’s great for all those soups, stews and sauces. You can even make your own in the summer – it’s very easy and you can always look at the jars in your storage room with pride 🙂
Imported ripe tomatoes from “summer” countries
This would be the best option if you can make sure that they are freshly picked, transported at room temperature and ethically produced. Exploitations at tomato farms are a borderline case of slavery. However, be warned – these come at a high price, which can grow up to 10x the price you would pay during the tomato season in your own country.