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Should tomatoes be stored in the refrigerator or at room temperature? Experts weigh in.

From cherry to heirloom, experts share how different tomato varieties should be kept fresh.

What's the best way to store tomatoes? Experts weigh in on whether the refrigerator or countertop is best. (Photo: Getty)
What's the best way to store tomatoes? Experts weigh in on whether the refrigerator or countertop is best. (Photo: Getty)

Whether you pick a tomato from a produce aisle or fresh from the vine, once you arrive home you're faced with the complex question of how to store it.

Conventional wisdom has long held that tomatoes should never be refrigerated. Some die-hard tomato aficionados still refuse to place a tomato anywhere near a refrigerator. Others do what it takes to preserve the fruit until they're ready to eat it — even if they notice a slight difference in taste and texture. A recent study debunked the myth that tomatoes should never be refrigerated, but even this didn't put the issue to rest once and for all.

"The truth is that there is no one-size-fits-all answer," says Dominique Kline, a gardener and manager at The Hope Farm. When making the all-important decision about whether to refrigerate your tomatoes or not, "there are a few factors to take into consideration: the ripeness, source and variety of your tomatoes, and the ambient temperature of your kitchen," Kline says.

Another factor is personal taste. Even though Craig LeHoullier, a gardener and author of Epic Tomatoes: How to Select and Grow the Best Varieties of All Time falls firmly in the no-refrigeration camp, he says "many folks grew up with that refrigerated tomato taste and may enjoy it."

Kline emphasizes that with so many factors at play, "plenty of debate surrounds tomato storage."

Ripeness is key to decision-making

According to Kline, "the most important factor in this debate is the ripeness of your tomatoes." If tomatoes are at "peak ripeness," she says, they can be refrigerated for up to three days "to halt the ripening process." However, Kline explains tomatoes should then be "brought back to room temperature before consumption."

If tomatoes are not yet ripe, Kline says they should be stored at room temperature, ideally between 68-73 degrees Fahrenheit. Kline recommends keeping tomatoes that have not yet fully ripened "out of direct sunlight or temperatures much higher than this range, as this may accelerate decay."

The type of tomato matters

Tomato variety is another important factor in determining whether chilling them is acceptable or not. "Not all tomatoes are created equally," says Klein, "and their storage methods reflect that."

The small but mighty cherry tomato is "least sensitive to refrigeration, resisting degradation for longer periods of time with little adverse effect on flavor," Klein explains.

Roma or beefsteak tomatoes, however, "will benefit more from room temperature storage," says Kline, because these varieties have "a higher flesh-to-seed ratio [that] tends to suffer more from refrigeration." LeHoullier explains these types of tomatoes are hybrids specifically bred to last a long time on supermarket shelves, and their sensitivity to refrigeration reflects that.

There are some varieties of tomatoes that should never be refrigerated. Kline says "the iconic heirloom varieties you may find at a farmer's market or growing in your backyard" should always be stored at room temperature, with the vine removed.

What refrigeration does to tomatoes

Tomatoes contain "over 400 volatile compounds" that impact aroma, taste and texture, Kline tells Yahoo Life. These include enzymes that contribute to a tomato's "fresh and fruity aroma" in addition to "fructose and glucose that contribute to sweetness, and citric and malic acid that provide elements of sourness," she says. The texture of a tomato depends on its "moisture retention and cell wall integrity," Kline adds.

Chilling tomatoes "damages cell membranes and inhibits enzyme activity, creating the unpleasant mealy texture for which refrigerated tomatoes are known," and degrading their taste, Kline explains. Degradation begins around 50-55 degrees Fahrenheit, shares Kline, so even a cold kitchen can impact a tomato's texture and taste.

What if you can't eat your tomatoes right away?

Refrigeration does improve a tomato's shelf life, but since "it comes at a cost," for LeHoullier and many others the "trade off with having it start to taste weird is just not worth it."

Instead, if you know you will need to store tomatoes for a few days, LeHoullier recommends picking tomatoes that are "half ripe — the bottom part is colored, but at halfway up toward the stem, significant green remains." LeHoullier explains that half-ripe tomatoes "will ripen slowly indoors, and once ripe, possess the exact same flavor excellence compared with a fully vine-ripened tomato." He adds that "the tomatoes ripened indoors this way seem to last a few days longer than if allowed to ripen fully on the vine."

How home cooks deal with the dilemma

Food blogger Vered DeLeeuw says she knows she's "not supposed to store tomatoes in the fridge," but she does anyway. "When you leave them on the counter, they spoil so quickly, and even before they spoil, they become wrinkly, soft and mushy," she says.

DeLeeuw has a work-around: She takes her tomatoes out of the refrigerator a few hours before she plans to eat them. She says even though "some experts say that some flavor is lost forever when tomatoes are refrigerated," she does not find this to be the case. In her experience, once tomatoes reach room temperature, they "redevelop their full flavor — or nearly full." Even though there may still be a still be a slight difference in taste and texture, DeLeeuw says to her "the tradeoff is worth it."

Others take a balanced approach and refrigerate only as a last resort. Shurti Baskaran, a home cook, food blogger and urban gardener usually keeps her tomatoes at room temperature to retain their flavor and texture. However, Baskaran says if she has "an excess of tomatoes or they're starting to look a bit past their prime," she'll "toss them in the fridge and then let them come to room temperature before using them."

"Slightly mushy is way better than spoiled," she says.

Universal tomato storage tips

No matter where you store your tomatoes, how you store them also matters. There are some simple steps that can help prolong a tomato's life. According to Kline, it's important to spread tomatoes out and make sure they don't touch. Klein says tomatoes naturally produce ethylene gas, which promotes the ripening process. If this gas builds up it "will cause over-ripening and premature rot," she explains.

To slow down this process, Kline says it's important to ensure tomatoes have "ample air circulation ... to delay the natural process of decay." This gas build-up is why tomatoes that are touching each other may develop soft spots where they meet. Kline recommends always storing tomatoes "on a sheet tray, basket, or plate, taking care that they are not over-crowded."

Kline recommends storing tomatoes "stem-side-down to help prevent moisture loss," explaining that "over time, tomatoes stored stem-side-up will lose moisture from their tops, up to 10% of their mass in just a few days, resulting in a soft and wrinkly fruit."

Where you come down on this debate may depend on how sensitive your taste buds are. While some have strong feelings on the right way to store a tomato, food blogger Maggie Turansky doesn't think it matters. "I'm never too fussed about where I store tomatoes and, anecdotally, I've never noticed a difference in their flavor or texture when storing them in the fridge versus at room temperature," she says.

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