Tomatoes are the poster child for the pick-fresh movement and are the epitome of summer. Growing your own opens the door to hundreds of varieties and unrivaled flavor.
Credit: Photo: Jennifer Causey

SEASON: May through September in the most temperate regions; June through August is peak season nationwide.

CHOOSING: Look for tomatoes with a bright, shiny skin and firm flesh that yields slightly to gentle pressure. The best flavor comes from vine-ripened fruits that were recently picked, so opt for those marked “locally grown.”

STORING: Store them at room temperature but not in direct sunlight—the kitchen windowsill may not be the best spot. Never store tomatoes in the refrigerator. The cold destroys flavor and leaves tomatoes with a mealy texture. It’s best to use tomatoes within four or five days of picking or purchasing.

GROWING: There are hundreds of varieties, with one to suit every gardener’s space and taste. For containers, consider a variety that keeps a compact shape, such as Husky Cherry Red or Better Boy Bush. Cherry tomatoes are usually indeterminate, meaning they continually vine and grow on a trellis or balcony railing. Consider growing one of each of these three types: a “slicer,” such as Cherokee Purple, for big, meaty fruits; a “paste” tomato, such as Roma, San Marzano, or Black Plum, for making sauces; and a cherry, such as Sun Gold, for eat-as-you-pick bites of sunshine.

Tomatoes need full sun and flourish with several gallons of water a week. When growing in containers, ensure the pots are at least 24 inches in diameter. Deep roots are the secret to keeping plants well watered and healthy. Contrary to how you normally plant, bury a tomato transplant up to its “neck,” with only three or four leaves above the soil—roots will form along the stem beneath the ground to produce a stronger, sturdier plant.[pagebreak]

Tomato Secrets Unveiled

Oh, how America loves the tomato. The aroma of the vine, sweetness of the flesh, and juicy acidity spur between 25 and 40 million of us to grow tomatoes in gardens, containers, and window boxes each year. There are few greater pleasures than a just-picked ripe, red tomato still warm from the summer sun, or a basket of juicy heirloom tomatoes from your farmers' market.

More than any other fruit or vegetable, the tomato has changed the face of modern cuisine. Whether you toss chopped tomatoes into a beef stew, slide a few slices into a BLT, or layer them with their soul mate, basil, tomatoes have become ubiquitous.

But even the reddest, plumpest specimens can disappoint when it comes to flavor and juiciness. Finding the best choice, knowing its flavor secrets, and understanding the best way to preserve that flavor will deepen your enthusiasm for one of summer's great tastes.

How do you make a lackluster tomato taste better?
Even the best tomatoes taste a little better with a sprinkle of salt, which accentuates the balance of sweetness and acidity. If you have a tomato that's flavorless beyond a restorative touch of salt, drizzle a few drops of balsamic vinegar or honey over it to bring out both the sweetness and acidity. Grilling, roasting, and stewing can also give a bland tomato life: When you apply heat, the tomato's moisture evaporates, concentrating its flavor.

What makes a tomato mealy? How can you tell if a tomato is mealy before slicing into it?
Tomatoes are greatly affected by temperature, even during the growing process. They originally came from the warm western coast of South America and don't respond well to temperatures below 50 degrees. Cool temperatures can change a tomato's composition, converting its natural sugar to starch and resulting in a tasteless, mealy tomato. For this reason, never refrigerate a tomato. The cold environment causes the water in the tomato to expand, ruining the texture. If a tomato feels soft, there's a chance it will be mealy, but, unfortunately, it isn't always possible to tell before slicing.

My grocer sells little net bags of tomatoes still attached to a vine. Are these really worth their high price?
Those tomatoes were not necessarily ripe when picked, so they often lack flavor. They're generally not worth the extra expense.

When should you use canned tomatoes?
Opt for canned tomatoes when you want their convenience. Otherwise, let the season be your guide and use fresh tomatoes whenever possible.

What are the flavor differences among red, yellow, orange, green, and purple tomatoes?
Generally speaking, yellow and orange tomatoes tend to be less acidic than red and are therefore sweeter. These tomatoes have a fruity, almost tropical flavor as a result of their low acidity. Because their sugars aren't fully developed, green tomatoes have a tart, citrusy tang. Purple and blackish varieties have a complex flavor similar to red wine.

In general, when is it necessary to peel tomatoes?
Since peeling tomatoes is time-consuming, I avoid the process whenever possible. For most salsas, salads, and sandwiches, or when eating out of hand, the skin holds the tomato together, so peeling is unnecessary. For more delicate soups and sauces, like our Tomato Garlic Soup with Parmesan Croutons, the peel can be a nuisance.

To peel, use a small paring knife to score the bottom of each tomato with an "X," cutting just through the skin but not into the flesh. Place the tomatoes in a pot of boiling water for 30 seconds. Remove them with a slotted spoon; quickly plunge the tomatoes into a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking. Once they've cooled, you can easily peel away the skins from the tomatoes.

What's the best way to slice and seed tomatoes?
Anyone who's tried to cut a tomato with a dull knife knows the challenge; the skins are tougher than they look. A sharp serrated knife is the best tool for the job.

To seed a tomato, remove the core. Holding the tomato with the core side up, cut the tomato crosswise. Using the tip of a knife, remove and discard the seeds from each tomato half. –Joanne Weir

Joanne Weir is the host of the PBS show Weir Cooking in the Wine Country and the author of You Say Tomato (Broadway, 1998).