Summer is a time when you don’t have to settle for dull, mealy placeholder tomatoes. You know the ones: whitish and almost as tasteless as iceberg lettuce. The fruit is officially in season, which means you can snag some sweet and juicy tomatoes next time you’re at the grocery store or farmers market.
But do not—we repeat, do not—refrigerate your tomatoes.
In his book On Food and Cooking, writer Harold McGee explains that tomatoes originate from the west coast deserts of South America, which have a much warmer climate than the U.S. Quartz adds that tomatoes produce certain enzymes that make just-picked tomatoes smell and taste a certain way. When we refrigerate tomatoes, we kill those enzymes, and all the flavor they might produce.
io9 has a more in-depth explanation of the science: French researchers published a study in 2013 that showed tomatoes stored at 68 degrees Fahrenheit not only maintained the volatile chemicals responsible for aroma and flavor, they actually continued to produce more.
In other words, storing them at room temperature in most homes is perfect. You’re not being lazy; you’re doing your taste buds a favor.
On the other end of the spectrum, storing tomatoes below 39 degrees Fahrenheit actually causes those same volatile compounds to start breaking down. That’s why refrigerated tomatoes taste like nothing.
If you grow tomatoes yourself, you already know that they’re a hot weather-loving plant, and that they don’t handle frost well. io9 adds that frost isn’t the only way to hurt tomatoes: anything below 50 degrees Fahrenheit actually damages them. That’s the cause of the mushy, mealy texture that refrigerated tomatoes have.
Now, some good news: it’s possible to get some of the flavor back into refrigerated tomatoes. io9 goes on to note that leaving refrigerated tomatoes out on your counter for 24 hours can start some of those volatile compounds back up—but they’ll never be the same, and never realize their full potential.
Also, the rules above only apply to fresh tomatoes; cooked tomatoes are fine in the refrigerator. In fact, if you’re going to insist on sticking your tomatoes in the refrigerator, you’re better off cooking them into sauce and adding other ingredients to make them flavorful.
University of Florida Professor Harold Klee told io9:
“In processed tomatoes the first thing they do is boil the fruit to remove most of the water. That’s how you get 10 or more fruit into one of those tiny cans of paste. The volatiles are long gone from any cooked tomato product in a can. I asked a processor once why they don’t capture the volatiles and add them back after cooking – a process widely used in the orange juice industry. He said they don’t rely on real tomato flavor. They add taste back in the form of basil, oregano, garlic, etc. You aren’t tasting the natural taste of a tomato in those things [sauces and soups] you asked about. Just once, try a recipe for tomato soup where you add fresh pureed tomatoes at the very end. See how different it tastes.”