Although it might be tempting to wait until your tomatoes are bright red before harvesting, did you know it is actually better to ripen tomatoes off the vine?
Just picture it: It’s a late summer night and you’re just about ready to prepare a feast of BLT sandwiches. You stroll out to the garden to your beautiful tomato plants. They are full of bright, red juicy tomatoes. You choose the biggest and fullest one and take it straight to the cutting board.
While that may sound good on paper, it’s actually not the best practice for home gardeners. In fact, letting tomatoes fully ripen on the vine can actually have a big impact. Not only will it affect the nutritional value of your tomatoes but also the flavor profile as well.
So when is the best time to harvest them? Do you pick them as soon as they reach a desirable size? Do you wait until the fruit is mostly red with only a little green left?
It can be a bit challenging to know just when to harvest your tomatoes. Thankfully, this article will break it down for you so you can get the most out of your tomato plants this growing season.
How Tomatoes Ripen
In order to know when the best time to harvest tomatoes is, you first need to know a little information about how tomatoes ripen.
To start the ripening process, a tomato will naturally put off ethylene gas. Other fruits and vegetables such as avocados and bananas do the same. That is why you can also ripen these items on your kitchen counter.
As soon as a tomato starts to turn slightly pink or red in color, that indicates the gas is being released. The fruit is no longer absorbing nutrients from the plant. At this point, it is safe to take the tomato off of the plant since the ripening process has begun. The tomato will continue to ripen no matter where the fruit is located – vine or not.
Advantages To Ripening Tomatoes Off The Vine
There are many different reasons why it is better to ripen tomatoes off of the vine as opposed to on the plant itself.
To start with, the longer that you wait for the fruit to grow on the plant, the more at risk the fruit is of being nibbled on by hungry animals or insects. Just like you want to enjoy a bright red fruit, so too do slugs, beetles, moths, and other pests!
Another reason why you should ripen tomatoes off the vine is that the fruit is likely to be healthier the younger it is. Damage can occur from poor weather conditions, overcrowded fruit, or even under or overwatering. Blemishes, spots, splitting, and so forth can all be issues the longer the fruit stays on the plant.
As with a lot of fruit, vegetables, and flowers the more often you harvest, the more blooms and fruit the plant will produce. This is especially true with indeterminates varieties more than it is with determinate varieties.
Also, don’t forget that tomatoes are heavy once they are fully grown. A plant that is packed with fruit can often end up with broken or split branches.
With those reasons in mind, here are a few tips to keep in mind so you can have the best results with ripening your tomato fruit off of the plant.
How To Easily Ripen Tomatoes Off The Vine
The Right Timing – Ripen Tomatoes Off The Vine
A simple rule of thumb is to harvest your tomatoes as soon as about one-third to a half of the fruit has started to turn to their ripe color.
For some varieties like Cherokee Purple, that means more of a purple shade. For varieties like Pink Brandywines, that will be more of a pinkish-red color. There are even brown, black, and yellow tomato varieties, so be sure to know what your specific variety’s ripened color is.
Using the above rule of thumb allows the tomatoes to start the ripening process while staying on the vine as long as possible without upping the chances of damage to the fruit or plant.
Where NOT To Put Ripening Tomatoes – Ripen Tomatoes Off The Vine
Contrary to what you might think, the best location to ripen tomatoes off the vine is actually not on a sunny windowsill.
Too much sunlight and heat can cause the skin to blister and split. It’s the same issue that would occur if the fruit was still on the plant. In addition, the sunlight coming through the window can cause the fruit to ripen unevenly and too quickly.
You also don’t want to ripen your tomatoes in a refrigerator either. When you put tomatoes in a refrigerator, two things happen.
First, the ripening process actually stops altogether. Second, the tomatoes will quickly start to lose not only their nutrient values but their flavor as well. That is something you definitely don’t want to happen! No one wants a flavorless BLT sandwich!
That doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy a cold sliced tomato on your BLT. Just wait to put the already ripened tomato in the fridge a few hours prior to eating or slicing. (The keys you need to remember are “already ripened” and only a “few hours.”)
Where To Store Them – Ripen Tomatoes Off The Vine
Now that you know where not to store your ripening tomatoes, let’s talk about where you DO want to store them.
The best location should have plenty of air circulation and be cool and shady. Remember, the ripening process already started when you harvested the tomatoes. Therefore, the tomatoes no longer need the sun to fully ripen. Aim for keeping them in a room that is around 65 to 75º Fahrenheit (18 to 24º Celsius) for best results.
Place them in a single layer on a shelf made from mesh hardware cloth. This will provide the fruit with excellent airflow on all sides. Check out “How To Ripen Or Dry Fresh-Picked Garden Vegetables With A DIY 2×4 Harvest Rack” for a simple yet space-saving harvest rack that fits the bill perfectly.
You can also use a baking rack or another type of mesh wire rack as long as the fruit can get air circulation on all sides.
Additional Tips – Ripen Tomatoes Off The Vine
If you harvest a tomato that has not started to change colors on the vine, it will not be able to ripen once off the vine. It has to have started ripening prior to picking in order for the process to continue off the vine.
Tomatoes will ripen a bit better if you harvest them with a bit of stem left attached to the fruit. Simply use a pair of sharp pruning shears to snip off the fruit an inch above where the stem attaches.
Also, you do not need to wash the tomatoes after harvesting. In fact, it is best to leave them as is and only wash them before consuming or processing them.
With these simple tips in mind, you will be able to enjoy a great crop of off-the-vine ripened tomatoes. And, while you might not be walking right out to the garden to pick that big, juicy tomato off the plant to enjoy the same day, you will be able to enjoy a much larger harvest for a longer time instead!
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