Last Updated on May 9, 2023 by Practical Cooks
Yes, you can eat green tomatoes raw. They can be used in salads, sauces, and soups. Even eating a handful of very unripe tomatoes won’t hurt you, though it may result in mild stomach discomfort (and they may taste acidic). If you have a sensitive stomach, experiment carefully. Or try one of the recipe suggestions below to lessen the acidity and mellow the flavor.
What is a green tomato?
First off, it’s important to distinguish between green tomatoes that are bred to be green and those that are green because they are unripe.
Some tomatoes are “born that way,” like the heirloom variety known as Green Zebra. But most will turn from green to another color (red, orange, yellow, and even purple) as they ripen.
Both types are safe to eat. Green varieties taste much like other tomatoes. Better even, because they have not been bred for mass production, which can reduce the flavor.
Green tomatoes that are unripe taste more sour and acidic. But those flavors can be used to enhance a dish or can be mitigated through cooking.
Are green tomatoes poisonous?
Green (unripe) tomatoes are not dangerous to humans. But they do contain some tomatine and solanine, both of which are glycoalkaloid poisons. The same toxins occur in the leaves and stems of the plant and give it that pungent tomato smell.
In fact, these chemicals are part of the tomato plant’s natural defenses. They help to make it more resistant to pests.
Solanine also appears in other vegetables, like potatoes and eggplants, that belong to the same family. Which family is that? Oh, right: the Solanum family, named for Solanum nigrum…or black nightshade.
With that said, you’d have to eat A LOT of green tomatoes for those toxins to reach dangerous levels (though even a little might give some folks a stomach ache).
Moreover, those chemicals make the fruit taste awful (to humans as well as other pests). so it would be difficult to eat enough to cause real danger.
How can I use green tomatoes?
So they’re safe to eat, but how can one cook with green tomatoes? Most recipes use the sour, acidic quality of these unripe tomatoes as a note of contrast.
The classic US Southern recipe, fried green tomatoes, combines green tomato slices with breading (cornmeal, flour, spices) and fat (butter, oil, buttermilk) before frying. The result is a balance of sour and salty, crisp and juicy, vibrant and richly satisfying flavors.
Green tomatoes also work well in salads, sauces, and soups. In salads, they can be used much like regular tomatoes. Their higher levels of acidity might work best when paired with sweet compliments like red peppers, carrots, or dried fruit.
Green tomatoes are often chopped or boiled into salsas, chutneys, pickles, and other sauces. They make a lip-smacking topping for other fried, sweet, or spicy foods.
In soups, stews, and chilis, green tomatoes can provide an extra burst of that citrusy-sweet taste of regular tomatoes to enhance the flavors of meat and spices.
Who came up with the idea of eating green tomatoes?
Contrary to popular belief, using green tomatoes didn’t begin in the American South. In his book, The Fried Green Tomato Swindle, and Other Southern Culinary Adventures, historian Robert F.
Moss reveals that fried green tomatoes probably first appeared in cookbooks collecting European Jewish recipes. Some attribute the popularity of fried green tomatoes to the novel by Fannie Flag (and subsequent film adaptation).
History aside, anyone who has tomatoes in their garden will understand. There are always green tomatoes hanging around. Some fruit fall off too early and others are left on the vine at the end of the season.
Out of curiosity or frugal necessity, home cooks have discovered that, rather than waste this bounty, green tomatoes can be cooked, saved, and eaten, rather than relegated to the compost heap.
Should I try to ripen them instead?
We all know that tomatoes can be ripened by leaving them out on the counter. For those in a hurry, unripe green tomatoes can even be reddened by wrapping in a brown paper bag with apples or bananas—fruits that produce a chemical to speed the decay of their competitors.
But some unripe tomatoes won’t even turn red, even if you leave them out for a week. So instead of leaving your unripe tomatoes to sit, why not try one of the preparations above?
Whether you use them in sauces and soups or keep them whole, green tomatoes can also be frozen for later use. When you’re ready, you can even process them while they’re still hard to make chopping easier.
Does this work with all types of tomatoes?
It’s best to experiment slowly with the type of tomatoes you tend to use: what do green tomatoes taste like? How might they work with a recipe you already enjoy?
If you have some leftover in your garden, collect them all and try out a few. The rest will keep on the counter or in the back of your fridge till you can decide what you like.
Perhaps one of the most common (but less well-known) subjects for green tomato recipes are the unripe cherry and grape tomatoes. These little ones can get knocked off the vine or fail to ripen before the end of the season.
Instead of ending the summer in disappointment, a bag full of green cherry tomatoes can be a reminder of garden delights long into the next season.