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Ingredient Spotlight: Tomatoes

To-may-to, to-mah-to. Here's all that you need to know about this summer staple.
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Now that we are officially into summer, the time is now for the best, most flavorful tomatoes to be found everywhere from grocery stores to farmers' markets. Here's a handy guide with the info you need to know in terms of the different types and their uses, how to pick the best ones and, once and for all, whether or not you should refrigerate tomatoes.

Tomato Varieties

Grape and Cherry: These tiny gems are named to reflect the size and shape of the fruits they resemble. Generally speaking, the smaller the fruit—yes, tomatoes are a fruit, too—the more concentrated the flavor and sugar, making these varieties ideal for snaking and salads. You can also roast them or make quick pan sauces.

Plum: Following the trend of naming tomatoes after other fruits, plum tomatoes are actually oblong in shape. Roma is one of the more popular varieties that you are likely to have heard of. Perhaps most prized, however, are San Marzano tomatoes from Italy, which are known for their sweetness, low acidity and dearth of seeds. If you're looking to make a great pasta sauce, this is the variety you'll want to reach for.

Beefsteak: As implied by the name, beefsteak tomatoes tend to be large and have a meaty texture. There are more than 350 varieties known to exist, are wonderfully juicy and taste great with little else beside a sprinkle of salt. Beefsteaks are also known as slicers, making them ideal for B.L.T.'s and all of your other sandwich needs.

Heirloom: The term refers to any variety of tomato that hasn't been genetically modified, and can fit into any of the more general categories above. They are sought after for both flavor and color. Given that they aren't built for the same durability as required for grocery store varieties, they are best consumed sooner rather than later once they have ripened.

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How to Choose Tomatoes

Those that have ripened on the vine are more likely to taste better than those that were plucked too early. As such, it's best to find out where they come from when purchasing from grocery stores, as locally grown tomatoes will have traveled less distance have a better chance of having been ripened on the vine.

Other key characteristics to consider are weight, color and smell. Depending on its size, a tomato should have a decent amount of heft to it. (Larger tomatoes can easily reach two pounds.) They should be nice and plump, without any wrinkles, which can be an indicator of less than optimal growing conditions. You want to choose tomatoes that are free of blemishes and with deep, consistent coloring. Last but not least is to give it a good whiff. You're looking for the sweet, tomatoeyness that we all know and love, and the stronger the scent, the better it will be.

RELATED: How to Make Tomato Concasse

How to Store Tomatoes

There has been much back and forth over the years about how to best store your tomatoes, but it seems that Serious Eats and Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking have finally given us the definitive answer.

The optimal temperature for storing tomatoes is 55°F, which is between your refrigerator and room temperature. At temperatures below this point, there can be some degradation to the flesh and flavor loss suffered by the fruit. However, if returned to room temperature for a day or two, there is the possibility that any lost flavor can return as the enzyme activity responsible can return in a warmer environment. And tomatoes stored at room temperature will continue to mature, of course.

As such, it all comes down to ripeness as to whether tomatoes should be refrigerated or not. Prematurely picked tomatoes should be left at room temperature to continue to ripen. Those that are already prime to eat can be kept at room temperature if consumed within a day or two, but should be moved to cooler climates if you want to prolong their life. Anything that is a little past its peak should head to the refrigerator to stave off mold development.

Other things to note for optimal tomato storage are to keep them out of direct sunlight, arrange them in a single layer and keep them separate from other ethanol producing fruits and vegetables, such as apples, as they will speed up the ripening process.

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