Hungry for a good tomato? The best bet is to buy local.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009
This photo shows a selection of multi-colored heirloom tomatoes at the Oxbow Produce and Grocery in Napa, Calif. (Eric Risberg ~ Associated Press)

A good tomato seems to hold the summer sun inside. The problem is finding a good one.

The best strategy is to scope out supermarkets that offer local produce or head to the nearest farmers market, where the selection of tomatoes is likely to be fresher and more flavorful than the year-round grocer variety.

That's because most supermarket tomatoes have traveled cross-country or from overseas and have been bred to withstand the journey, not to taste good when they arrive.

"Everybody has their own feeling about what a tomato should be, and it's usually about their own garden variety," said Mark Toigo, a grower and chief tomato evangelist for Toigo Orchards in Shippensburg, Pa. "We really like to put our memory bank into that world."

Americans consume roughly 20 pounds of tomatoes each per year, most of that during the summer. And if you care about flavor, hope for a hot, mostly dry summer, which produces the sweetest tomatoes.

When selecting tomatoes, opt for those that are slightly soft, but not mushy. They should be free of cracks or hard, green spots.

"They should have a nice delicate feel, kind of like a baby's skin," said Lawrence Davis-Hollander, author of "Tomato: A Fresh-from-the-Vine Cookbook" to be released in February.

A perfectly ripe tomato will last for up to six days without spoiling, Davis-Hollander said. Others suggest buying underripe tomatoes for later in the week. Place them in a paper bag, where the tomatoes' natural emission of ethylene, a ripening hormone, will turn them red.

And don't forget the cardinal rule of all tomatoes: Never, never, ever, ever store them in the refrigerator. The cold will dull the flavor, destroy the sugars and give the fruit a mealy texture.

The great beauty of a great tomato is that it can straddle both sweet and savory dishes. It is as tasty in salsas, salads, pizzas and pastas as it is in sorbet, chilly summer soups or even frozen pops (in Korea, tomato pops are a summer treat).

There are thousands of tomato varieties, each with a different flavor profile and different set of culinary talents. Decide how you're going to use your tomato -- on a burger or for a sauce -- then pick the variety that best suits it.

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