Typically considered and used as a vegetable, the tomato is a seed bearing fruit that belongs to the nightshade plant family. The tomato is a staple in nearly every kitchen on Earth. From the Americas to China, the whole world is familiar with tomatoes. Native to South and Central America, tomatoes have been cultivated since prehistory. When Spanish conquistadors learned of the fruit, they called it tomate, a Spanish approximation of the Aztec’s name for the plant, tomatotl. The Spanish returned to Europe with the fruit in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, and by the eighteenth century, tomatoes were used widely in Spain. Other Europeans were more hesitant to incorporate tomatoes in their diet. The Italians, for example, used tomatoes only as garden and tabletop decoration at first. It was not adopted as a food item due to suspicion that tomatoes were poisonous. Tomatoes are in the same family as the infamous, and aptly named Deadly Nightshade, and the tomato plant’s leaves are indeed toxic to humans. Some varieties of tomato are actually inedible or even poisonous, which contributed to the Italians’ aversion to the fruit. The tomato’s capacity for quickly mutating between generations made it especially popular as a decoration item, because many different colored and shaped varieties can be produced. Additionally, the tomato was less filling than other fruits and vegetables that were readily and cheaply available. Similarly in Britain, tomatoes were seen as unfit for human consumption. This belief was passed on to the British colonists in North America. Thomas Jefferson is sometimes credited for the popularity of tomatoes in the United States. After he ate tomatoes in Paris, he sent seeds back to America. Jefferson also declared that tomatoes were perfectly harmless, quelling the doubts of many skeptical Americans. Slowly but surely, people around the world grew to appreciate the tomato. It grows exceptionally well in hot areas, wet or dry. They grow well in the Mediterranean, which contributed to their eventual popularity in Italy, Greece, Spain and the Middle East. Ever since the tomato was first cultivated, new varieties of the fruit emerged. In terms of flavor, tomatoes can range from sweet to bitter, and the texture can range from coarse and grainy, to silky and smooth.
Many varieties of tomato are now available. Tomatoes are classified by their shape, size, and level of maturity. Rounds, plums, cherries and grapes are the commercial classes of tomato. Rounds are the most widely bought and sold, and they are categorized by their size and ripeness stage. They are typically graded as medium, large, extra-large and jumbo. Plum tomatoes are oblong shaped, usually smaller than rounds. Roma tomatoes are the most common type of plum tomato, but specialty varieties like San Marzano are available, although typically only canned. Until the 1990s, Romas were used almost exclusively as a canning tomato. They are now commonly sold fresh and are used in a wide variety of applications beyond canning. Grape tomatoes are a relatively new variety of tomato. This class of tomato was first cultivated in Southeast Asia, and the Santa Sweet F1 variety was first introduced to American markets in 1997. They are small, about the size of an actual grape, and they are typically red or yellow. They have a very sweet taste, and are used almost exclusively raw, or very lightly cooked. Cherry tomatoes are likely the most similar variety to the very first domesticated tomato. They are small, about the size of their namesake, typically red and spherical in shape. They are not quite as sweet as grape tomatoes, but much sweeter than rounds, and they have soft flesh. Tomatoes can also be classified by their genetic type—either hybrid or heirloom. Heirloom tomatoes are grown from seed varieties that are over fifty years old. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of heirloom varieties, developed through generations of natural breeding techniques. Hybrid tomatoes are more modern tomato breeds, created for specific purposes, such as longer shelf life. For example, the Early Girl breed of round tomatoes is a hybrid, bred to grow well in dry climates.
Please check out the profiles for each type of tomato for more specific information concerning the various breeds of tomato.
Because tomatoes have been used around the world for centuries, people have found a great many applications for them. Tomatoes can be found in nearly all the world’s cuisines, from Peruvian to Persian, traditional and modern. Although it was fairly recent that most Mediterranean countries began including tomatoes in their diet, the fruit is regarded as a quintessential part of Mediterranean cooking. Early in the 1700s, tomatoes in the Mediterranean were simply cooked in oil and seasoned with salt and pepper, but much more exciting recipes have developed for the fruit since then. In Italy, many varieties of tomato were bred for the purpose of making sauces, pastes and for canning. These varieties are usually sweeter than other tomatoes, and generally fall under the plum tomato category, Roma and San Marzano for example. The Roma variety of plum tomatoes is one of the most popular for sauces and canning due to their very low seed content. Tomatoes can be used raw as well. Raw grape or cherry tomatoes are commonplace in tossed salads, and slices of round tomatoes often top sandwiches and burgers. Like bell peppers, tomatoes can be hollowed out, stuffed and roasted. Stuffed tomatoes are typically made with cheese, along with rice or grains like quinoa. Cherry tomatoes can be stuffed with goat cheese, and topped with fresh chives or basil for a delicious hors d’oeuvre. Indian cooking often calls for tomatoes as well. Many curry recipes are tomato based. Much like tomato based pasta sauces, curry sauces can be made by cooking tomatoes, and pureeing them into a creamy, smooth sauce. The sauce is typically flavored with onions, spicy peppers and blends of curry spice such as coriander, turmeric, cumin, cloves, and cardamom. Lean meat, vegetables, or the soft Indian cheese, paneer are commonly prepared in this sauce, and it is often served on a bed of basmati rice along with naan, an Indian flatbread.
When selecting fresh tomatoes, there are a few general rules to follow. For most varieties of tomato, the greener it is the less ripe it is. Additionally, when tomatoes are unripe, they are hard, and become softer as they ripen. Look for tomatoes that are firm, but not hard, and that have very little green color on their skin. Some varieties of tomato do remain green when fully ripe, and some remain a mix of various colors, so be aware of this when selecting heirloom tomatoes. The way the tomato feels is a better indicator of ripeness for these oddly colored tomatoes. It is recommended to keep tomatoes at room temperature, and not in the refrigerator. Temperatures below fifty degrees can cause the texture and flavor of the tomato to degrade. They will stay fresh at room temperature for nearly a week, depending on how ripe they are. Always thoroughly wash tomatoes before using them.