Tomatoes 101 – The Basics

The following is a comprehensive article all about tomatoes. From what they are to how to select, store, freeze them, and suggested recipes…anything you’re looking for regarding tomatoes should be included in this article. If not, please let me know!


Tomatoes 101 – The Basics

About Tomatoes
Tomatoes are the fourth most popular vegetable in the United States, following potatoes, lettuce, and onions. We treat tomatoes as vegetables, but botanically they are fruits since they contain seeds of the plant. But in terms of nutrient content, tomatoes have more in common with vegetables than fruits, so treating them as a vegetable is not far off from the truth.

Tomatoes come in a variety of shapes from round to oval and pear-shaped, with sizes ranging from tiny grape tomatoes to very large beefsteaks. Their colors vary also with the most common being orange-red. Other colors of tomatoes include yellow, orange, green, pink, purple, brown, and black. All tomatoes belong to the Solenoid family of plants called the Solanaceae. This is also called the nightshade family of plants.

Tomatoes are native to the western side of South America. It appears they were first cultivated in Mexico. The word “tomato” may have originated from the Aztecan word “tomati” which meant “the swelling fruit.” In much later years, tomatoes made their way to Europe on ships from Mexico returning to Europe. From there, tomatoes became a staple in Mediterranean cuisine.

Today, most commercially grown tomatoes are destined for processing into food products like tomato sauce, tomato paste, canned tomatoes, and tomato juice. In the United States, most tomatoes are grown in California and Florida, followed by a number of other states from the Midwest to the East coast. About a third of the fresh tomatoes sold in the United States are imported from other countries, most notably Mexico, where they are grown mostly in greenhouses.

Nutrition Tidbits and Health Benefits
Tomatoes are an excellent source of Vitamin C, biotin, molybdenum, and Vitamin K. They are also a very good source of many other nutrients including copper, potassium, manganese, fiber and beta-carotene (a Vitamin A precursor), Vitamin B6, folate, niacin, Vitamin E, and phosphorus. They are a good source of chromium, pantothenic acid, protein, choline, zinc and iron.  The World’s Healthiest Foods ( ranks tomatoes along with kale regarding nutrient content. One cup of fresh tomato slices has 2 grams of fiber with a mere 32 calories.

Lycopene: Lycopene is a type of carotenoid found in some foods that gives them a red color. It is found in tomatoes, watermelon, red oranges, pink grapefruit, apricots, guavas, papayas, and more. Sun-dried tomatoes are a very concentrated source of lycopene. Like other carotenoids, lycopene is fat-soluble, so it is easier to digest and absorb when there is some fat in the same meal as lycopene-containing foods. Because of its fat-soluble properties, lycopene tends to concentrate in blood lipoproteins and fatty tissues such as skin, liver, lungs, and the prostate gland.

Lycopene is not only a color pigment, but also a powerful antioxidant that may help protect cells from free radical damage. If not controlled, free radicals cause cellular damage that leads to oxidative stress, setting the stage for cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease. Observational studies have found that diets rich in lycopene may be protective against breast, prostate, and lung cancers. The antioxidant properties of lycopene help to balance the free radical activity in the body, which helps to protect us from these conditions. The antioxidant activity of lycopene seems to be enhanced when tomatoes are cooked, especially when cooked with fat. So, feel free to add tomatoes to soups, stews, casseroles, stir-fries, and any other dishes you want, especially if there is a little fat in there too!

Cancer: Tomatoes are an excellent source of Vitamin C and other antioxidants including beta-carotene. These factors help to fight free radicals in the body that are known to cause cancer. Studies have shown that a high intake of beta-carotene aids in the prevention of tumor development in prostate cancer. A study in Japan also demonstrated that beta-carotene may reduce the risk of colon cancer.

Heart health: Tomatoes are rich in the antioxidant nutrients Vitamins C and E, and lycopene. Antioxidants are critical for cardiovascular health since the system carries oxygen throughout the body. Antioxidants are used to protect the oxygen from damage as it travels in the blood. Lycopene is well known for its benefit of protecting fats lining cell membranes. Without this protection, damaged cell membranes can lead to chronic inflammation which in turn leads to damaged blood vessels and atherosclerosis.

Also, regular tomato intake has been shown to improve lipid profiles, reducing total cholesterol, LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol, and specific markers in the immune system that indicate oxidative stress, a prerequisite for atherosclerosis.

Compounds in tomatoes have also been shown to have anti-clotting effects by helping to prevent excessive clumping of blood platelets. Although platelet clotting is a critical function within our cardiovascular system, excessive clotting is dangerous to our health. This function along with others by compounds in tomatoes makes them an excellent food to consume for cardiovascular health.

Eye Health: Some studies have shown that lycopene may prevent or delay the formation of cataracts, and reduce the risk of macular degeneration in older adults.

All of that combined is plenty of good reason to include tomatoes in your meals whenever you can!

Nightshade Family of Vegetables
Tomatoes are members of the nightshade family of plants, Solanaceae. This family includes over 2,000 species of flowering plants, most of which are not edible. However, some of them, like tomatoes, potatoes (not sweet potatoes), peppers, tomatillos, and eggplants are all edible. Cayenne and chili peppers are also included in this same family. These foods are rich in nutrients and serve as staples in many cultures. Yet, despite their nutritional components and health benefits, some people find that they do better without these foods. They find that they contribute to inflammatory bowel disease and other autoimmune conditions.

The complaints about tomatoes and other nightshade foods often focus on the alkaloids found in them. Alkaloids are nitrogen-containing compounds found in the leaves, stems, and vines of nightshade foods. Alkaloids are also found in cocoa, coffee, tea, black pepper, and some honey (depending upon the type of flowers the bees used). They are bitter and function as a natural insect repellent.  But those parts of the plants are usually inedible.

The edible portions of nightshade plants also contain alkaloids, but not as much as the inedible parts. Research has found that excessive intake of alkaloids may cause some health issues. “Excessive” is key here, as it may be challenging to ingest a large amount of alkaloids unless you eat inedible parts of the plant. For instance, the amount of alkaloid in a tomato decreases as the tomato ripens. Also, the Food and Drug Administration has set a maximum level of alkaloids in potatoes at 200 mcg per gram. When tested, most potatoes were found to have less than that. Cooking nightshade foods has been shown to reduce their alkaloid content. This is one reason why it is advisable to cook potatoes, rather than eat them raw. Also, removing any sprouting spots, and green areas of potato skin is also advisable since they contain more alkaloids than other areas of potatoes. While the fact that the health conditions of some people (usually arthritis and joint pain associated with rheumatoid arthritis) improve with the elimination of nightshade foods is indisputable, there is currently little scientific research in this area. Therefore, it’s best to avoid nightshade vegetables IF you are sensitive to them. Otherwise, enjoy!

How to Select Tomatoes
Choose tomatoes with a vibrant color. They should be well shaped with smooth skins. Avoid those with wrinkles, cracks, bruises and soft spots. Ripe tomatoes will yield when lightly squeezed, and they have a sweet aroma.

How to Store Tomatoes
This is a hotly debated topic. Obviously, if a tomato is not fully ripe when you bring it home, it is best to store it at room temperature, away from direct sunlight, until it fully ripens. If you want to speed up ripening of tomatoes, place them in a paper bag with a banana or apple. The ethylene gas released by the banana or apple with encourage the tomato to ripen faster.

If your tomatoes are already very ripe when you bring them home, you can slow down further ripening of the fruit by placing it in the refrigerator. That will help to prolong the life of the tomatoes. Remove them from the refrigerator about 30 minutes before eating them will help to regain their full flavor and juiciness.

Sun-dried tomatoes should be stored in an airtight container, with or without olive oil, in a cool dry place (and not in the refrigerator, unless recommended to do so on the label).

How to Freeze Tomatoes
Whole tomatoes (with or without their skin), chopped tomatoes, and tomato sauce all freeze well for later use. The simplest way to freeze tomatoes is simply to wash them well, then dry them. Remove the core where the stem was attached. Place the whole tomato in a freezer container and store it in the freezer. They will keep well like this for six months.

When you’re ready to use your tomatoes, allow them to sit at room temperature for about 30 to 45 minutes. When they start to soften up, the skin should be easily removed by pinching it with your fingers and pulling it off the tomato flesh. While still frozen, tomatoes can easily be grated for sauce. When thawed, they can be chopped and added to soups, stews or sauces. Once frozen, tomatoes will need to be cooked. Their texture will not be suitable for use in a fresh salad.

A faster way to remove the skin from your frozen whole tomatoes is to run them under warm water right after removing them from the freezer. As they warm up, the skin will loosen and can easily be removed with your fingers.

Removing tomato skin before freezing: Another way to freeze tomatoes would be to remove their skin before freezing. Simply wash your tomatoes and remove the core from each one. Cut a shallow “X” in the bottom of the tomato. Bring a large pot of water to boil. Drop a few of the whole, cored tomatoes in the boiling water for about 30 seconds. When you see the skin start to split, transfer the tomato with a slotted spoon to a bowl of ice water. Allow it to cool until you can handle it, then gently pinch the skin to remove it with your fingers. The tomatoes can then be frozen whole, chopped, or juiced before being placed in the freezer. Here’s a video on how to remove skin from tomatoes …

How to Prepare Tomatoes
Simply rinse your tomatoes then pat them dry and they’re ready to be used. It is advisable not to cook tomatoes in aluminum cookware because the acid in the tomatoes can cause the aluminum to leach out into the food.

How to remove seeds from tomatoes: To deseed your tomatoes, remove the stem end. Then simply cut them in half around the middle. Hold one half of the tomato in your hand over a bowl. Gently squeeze and the seeds should fall out. Another way would be to remove the seeds from your tomato halves with a spoon. Proceed with your recipe from there.

Quick Tips and Ideas for Using Tomatoes
Tomatoes can add a lot of flavor to many different foods and dishes. Keeping some canned tomatoes in the pantry ensures you always have some available whenever the need arises. Here are some quick tips and ideas for using tomatoes in your foods.

* Add tomatoes to bean and vegetable soups for a classic, well-rounded flavor.

* For a classic tomato salad, top sliced fresh tomatoes with some sliced red onion, a sprinkle of basil, some mozzarella cheese and a little drizzle of olive oil.

* Make an easy salsa with chopped tomatoes, onions, and chili peppers. Add some cilantro for a citrusy flavor.

* Make a cold gazpacho soup by blending tomatoes with cucumbers, bell peppers, scallions, garlic, vinegar, and salt and pepper.

* Add tomato slices to salads and sandwiches for a juicy, sweet and flavorful addition.

* The next time you fire up the grill, cut some tomatoes in half and grill them for a nice addition to your other foods.

* Enjoy stuffed roasted tomatoes by cutting large tomatoes in half and removing the seeds. Stuff them with a mixture of cooked rice and veggies of choice. Roast them in the oven until heated through and enjoy!

* Top a toasted baguette with a mixture of chopped tomatoes, fresh basil, balsamic vinegar, olive oil, and red onion.

* If your tomato dish, sauce or soup seems a little too acidic, add a little sugar (up to a teaspoon, depending on how large your recipe is). That will cut the acidity and bring out the natural sweetness of the tomatoes.

* Are you wondering what to do with extra tomato paste from the opened can? Portion it into ice cube trays in one tablespoon increments. Once frozen, transfer them to a freezer bag or container and return them to the freezer. Use them within 9 months.

* Never cook tomatoes in an aluminum pot because the acid in the tomatoes will react with the aluminum. The tomatoes will cause the aluminum to pit and discolor, and will even absorb some of the aluminum. Also, the tomatoes may become bitter and fade in color a bit.

* Do you need “stewed tomatoes” and don’t have any? Make your own by combining 2 cups of diced tomatoes (that had the skin removed first) OR one (14.5 ounce can of diced tomatoes) with 3 tablespoons of finely chopped celery, 2 tablespoons of finely chopped onion, 1 tablespoon of finely chopped green pepper, ½ teaspoon of sugar, and 1/8 teaspoon of salt. Use in any dish calling for stewed tomatoes.

* Are you having trouble slicing tomatoes without smashing them? Use a serrated knife rather than a straight-edge knife. Your slices will hold their shape better and will be less runny.

Herbs/Spices That Go Well With Tomatoes
Basil, bay leaf, caraway seeds, capers, cayenne, celery seeds, chervil, cilantro, cinnamon, coriander, cumin, dill, garlic, ginger, lemon thyme, lovage, marjoram, mint, nutmeg, oregano, paprika, parsley, pepper, rosemary, saffron, sage, savory, tarragon, thyme, turmeric

Other Foods That Go Well with Tomatoes
Proteins, Legumes, Nuts, Seeds:
Almonds, bacon, beans (in general), beef, chicken, chickpeas, eggs, legumes (in general), lentils, snap peas, tofu

Vegetables: Artichokes, arugula, asparagus, beets, bell peppers, cauliflower, celery, chard, chiles, chives, cucumbers, eggplant, fennel, greens, leeks, lettuce, mushrooms, onions, parsnips, potatoes, scallions, shallots, spinach, squash (summer), zucchini

Fruits: Avocados, lemon, lime, olives, oranges, orange juice, pumpkin, strawberries, tamarind, watermelon

Grains and Grain Products: Barley, breads and bread crumbs, corn, couscous, grains (in general), bulgur, farro, pasta, polenta, quinoa, rice, seitan, wheat berries

Dairy and Non-Dairy: Butter, cheese (esp. feta, goat, mozzarella, Parmesan, ricotta), cream, sour cream, yogurt

Other: Balsamic vinegar, oil (esp. olive), salt, soy sauce, tamari, vinegar (in general), Worcestershire sauce

Dishes and Cuisines That Often Include Tomatoes
Breads, bruschetta, casseroles, chili, chutneys, enchiladas, French cuisine, gazpacho, gratins, gumbos, Italian cuisine, Mexican cuisine, pesto, pizza, ratatouille, relishes, risottos, salad dressings, salads, salsas, sandwiches, sauces, soups, Spanish cuisine, tabbouleh, tarts, tomatoes (stuffed)

Suggested Food and Flavor Combos Using Tomatoes
Combine tomatoes with any of the following combinations…

Avocados + chiles + cilantro + garlic + scallions + vinegar
Balsamic vinegar + basil + garlic + olive oil
Balsamic vinegar + basil + mozzarella cheese
Basil + Parmesan cheese
Bell peppers + cucumbers + olive oil + onions + vinegar
Chiles + cilantro + garlic + lime + onions
Cucumbers + garlic + bell peppers
Feta cheese + marjoram
Garlic + oregano
Lemon + mint
Pesto + pine nuts + ricotta


Recipe Links

Chickpea Tomato Herb Crackers (Judi in the Kitchen video)

Zucchini with Italian Herbs and Tomatoes (Judi in the Kitchen video)

Lima Beans with Mushrooms and Tomatoes (Judi in the Kitchen video)

Green Beans with Tomatoes (Judi in the Kitchen video)

Easy Cucumber Tomato Salad with Dill (Judi in the Kitchen video)

Rice with Vegetables in Tomato Cups (Judi in the Kitchen video)

Quinoa with Vegetables over Tomatoes (Jud in the Kitchen video)

Mushroom, Tomato, Basil Frittata

Fresh Tomato Salsa

Pureed Lima Beans with Rosemary Tomato Broth

Zucchini with Italian Herbs and Tomatoes (Judi in the Kitchen video)

Lima Beans with Mushrooms and Tomatoes (Judi in the Kitchen video)

Pasta with Zucchini, Mushrooms and Tomato Sauce (Judi in the Kitchen video)

Easy Cucumber Tomato Salad with Dill (Judi in the Kitchen video)

Homemade Tomato Marinara Sauce (Judi in the Kitchen video)

Delicious Eggplant Tomato Sauce (Judi in the Kitchen video)

15-Minute Salmon with Tomato Salsa

79 Tomato Recipes for the Height of the Season

47 Ways with Fresh Tomatoes

Gourmet Grilled Cheese with Tomatoes and Microgreens

Fresh Ontario Greenhouse Tomato-Basil Soup

Oven Dried Tomatoes

28 Things to do with Too Many Tomatoes

Cream of Tomato Soup


Page, Karen. (2014) The Vegetarian Flavor Bible. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.

About Judi

Julia W. Klee (Judi) began her journey enjoying “all things food” in elementary school when she started preparing meals for her family. That love of food blossomed into a quest to learn more and more about health and wellness as related to nutrition. She went on to earn a BS Degree in Food and Nutrition, then an MS Degree in Nutrition. She has taught nutrition and related courses at the college level to pre-nursing and exercise science students. Her hunger to learn didn’t stop upon graduation from college. She continues to research on a regular basis about nutrition as it relates to health. Her hope is to help as many people as possible to enjoy foods that promote health and wellness.

3 thoughts on “Tomatoes 101 – The Basics

  1. nightshadefamily

    This is a very nice article. I am very glad to read your article. You are a really brilliant person. I have read your full article and I have got much important news that was very helpful to me. Thanks a lot for sharing a nice article. The Nightshade Family Foods are easily found naturally. Nightshade vegetables are much in nutrients. Some of the plants are poisonous.Nightshade vegetables

    1. Judi Post author

      Thank you, Habib, for checking out this article! I does complement your website very well! Blessings to you and yours 🙂

  2. Pingback: Tomatoes 101-Herbs and Spices That Go Well With Tomatoes –

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