Why You Should Refrigerate Tomatoes and Ignore Anyone Who Says Otherwise

Once fully ripened, these tomatoes are better off in the fridge than left on the counter. [Photographs: Daniel Gritzer]

Note: This article is an update of a previous article on storing tomatoes. I have since written more on the topic with even more data and tests here.

Earlier this summer, I wrote about a tomato-storage test I ran that seemed to disprove the oft-repeated commandment to never refrigerate tomatoes. That test was based on just a few varieties of lesser-quality supermarket tomatoes, which left some questions unanswered. Specifically: How does this wisdom apply to really good, farm-fresh tomatoes that are perfectly ripe and ready to eat, and are there any more useful guidelines for storing tomatoes?

To find out, I've spent the past several weeks loading up on all kinds of fantastic tomatoes. Every time I went to the farmers market, I'd buy as many tomatoes as I could carry, then leave half on the counter and half in the fridge for at least a day before tasting them. Well, today, I'm here to gloat share my results, and they're pretty clear: The refrigerator is frequently your best bet for storing tomatoes.

Here are my results, along with a quick-and-dirty guide to help you decide when to refrigerate tomatoes and when not to.

First, a Quick Recap

"Don't ever, not for even one nano-fraction of an instant, consider putting your tomatoes in the fridge!" That's the going wisdom, espoused by many, many publications, and smart, science-minded folks like Alton Brown. Their reasoning is based on the fact that refrigeration-level temperatures are known to degrade some of a tomato's aroma molecules and also its texture.*

* You can read more about the science of cold-induced tomato damage in my original piece, including links to scientific studies.

But my initial test challenged things. At first, my results lined up with expectations: In my first round of tests, my sub-par tomatoes tasted better after 1 day when left on the counter as compared to the fridge. But after 2 days, the refrigerated tomatoes began to taste better than the countertop ones—a surprising result that contradicted the never-refrigerate rule.

To try to explain my results, I theorized that the rule was based on an unrealistic definition of "room temperature." In all the scientific studies that I found, "room temperature" was defined as somewhere around a cool 70°F, well below the 75-plus degrees typical in many homes during the summer months when tomatoes are in season. This article from Business Insider illustrates my point well: The scientist quoted in the piece, who is recommending that we not refrigerate our tomatoes, casually defines normal kitchen temperature as between 68 and 73°F. That is a damned chilly kitchen! Unless you're blasting your AC 24/7 from July through September (and shame on you if you are!), that's below most real-world summer kitchen conditions.

So while at a cool 70°F a tomato may well stay in optimal condition for several days on the counter, in my real-world kitchen, the tomatoes peaked in ripeness after their first day of room temperature storage, then began to get too ripe, losing flavor and texture in the process. The refrigerated ones, meanwhile, were protected from those damaging heat effects.

The exact details of these results will vary, of course, from kitchen to kitchen.

So What About Really Good Tomatoes?

You'd think that there'd be many studies out there that study the effects of storage on really great, ripe-picked tomatoes that have come straight from the farm, but as it turns out, most of the research money out there goes towards studying the effects of storage on the average, picked-when-still-green supermarket tomato. So I decided to expand the testing on my own. I've been happily eating tomatoes all summer to find out.

In all, I ran eleven different rounds of tests, each of which included several types of tomato, from hybrids like beefsteaks to many different heirloom varieties in all shapes and sizes. In all cases, the tomatoes were bought fully ripe from the farmer's market. I kept half the tomatoes on the counter and half in the fridge. I conducted eight of the tastings after a roughly 24-hour storage period, and the remaining four tastings after two or more days of storage (with no tastings longer than 4 days of storage). Like-tomatoes were always compared with like (so, no pitting a beefsteak against a cherry tomato), and all refrigerated tomatoes were allowed to come to room temperature before serving, to eliminate temperature bias. When other tasters were present, which was the majority of the time, everyone but the server tasted blind.

Here are the basic results:

  • In 1 out of 11 tests, tasters unanimously chose the countertop tomatoes over the refrigerated ones. This was one of the batches stored for 24 hours.
  • In 5 out of 11 tests, tasters unanimously preferred the refrigerated tomatoes—the countertop tomatoes tasted flat and dull in comparison.
  • The remaining 5 tests yielded either split votes, or an inability to differentiate between the two samples. In all instances where the votes were split, no tasters had strong convictions about which tomato was better, so I'm considering all 5 of these as cases where the refrigerator and countertop were essentially indistinguishable from each other.
  • The texture of the ripe tomatoes was not significantly affected by the refrigerator.

These results jibe with my original theory: Because peak-season market tomatoes are already perfectly ripe, they benefit very little from extra time in the heat, and in many cases they are harmed by it, while the refrigerator does minimal harm once tomatoes are ripe.

Let me leave you with one lasting image that, all on its own, should prove my point. Below, you can see the relative merits of counter versus refrigerator storage at the 4-day mark on a pair of tomatoes that started out just about equally ripe. If this doesn't prove the benefits of a refrigerator, I don't know what will.

20140908-tomato-fridge-daniel-gritzer-1.jpg

This is your tomato on the counter. Any questions?

Great, you might be thinking. You just showed that tomatoes rot faster at room temperature than in the refrigerator. Big whoop... But the point is this: if you're buying your tomatoes ripe (which you should be!) and not eating them immediately, you're better off storing them in the fridge than on the countertop.

Conclusion and Storage Tips

The question of whether to refrigerate tomatoes or not is really a question of which is the lesser of two evils. I have little doubt that food scientists are right, and that the ideal storage temperature for tomatoes is somewhere between 55 and 70°F—at least for supermarket tomatoes. But I also know that few of us maintain such consistently cool temperatures at home. If you have a chilly cellar or a wine fridge, then count yourself lucky. If your thermostat is always set that low, then I don't want to see your electric bill. The rest of us have a choice: warm (or even sweltering) counter, or too-cold fridge. Once your tomatoes are ripe, you really should be choosing the fridge.

Based on my tests, here are my tomato-storage guidelines:

  • If at all possible, buy only as many perfectly ripe tomatoes as you can eat within a day or two, keep them stored stem-side-down on a flat surface at room temperature, and make sure to eat them all within the first day or two.
  • If you buy under-ripe tomatoes, leave them out at room temperature until fully ripened, then move them to a cooler spot for longer storage.
  • If you have a wine fridge or cool cellar, store all ripe tomatoes that you can't eat within the first day there.
  • If you don't have a wine fridge or cool cellar, store all ripe tomatoes that you can't eat within the first day in the refrigerator.
  • If storing tomatoes in the refrigerator, it may be better to locate them on a top shelf near the door, which is often warmer than the bottom and back of the fridge.
  • If you're the kind of person who can't stand eating fridge-cold tomatoes and doesn't have the time or patience to let them warm back up on the counter, then you've got some tough decisions ahead of you, I'm afraid.

And the next time someone insists that tomatoes should never, ever go in the fridge, tell them to chill out, then show them this article.