Published on 06/07/12

Tomatoes can be picked at breaker stage or later

By Frank M. Watson

Gardeners often argue about when tomatoes should be picked — when they’re ripe, almost ripe or green as the stalk that supports them.

Tomatoes are considered to be vine ripe if they are at the "breaker stage" of maturity when they are picked. The breaker stage is when pink color first becomes noticeable. These tomatoes are physiologically mature and will develop their tomato-red color naturally. These breaker stage tomatoes can be handled and shipped with less damage than those that are more mature when picked.

However, most home gardeners don’t plan on transporting their tomatoes any farther than to their own kitchen table or maybe their neighbor’s front porch, so they don't have to worry about shipping damage. In that case, it doesn't hurt to wait to pick the tomato past the breaker stage. Waiting a few extra days also ensures that you can eat the tomato right off the vine.

You can harvest at the breaker stage if you need to take or ship tomatoes to an out-of-town friend. Just remember to tell your friends to spread the tomatoes apart, so they can continue ripening once they reach their destination.

For shipping many tomatoes are picked at the mature green stage. At this stage there is jelly-like material in all the internal cavities of the tomato, and a sharp knife cannot cut the seeds when the fruit is sliced.

Growers use ethylene-based gas to finish ripening tomatoes (and other fruits) that are harvested at the mature green stage. This allows the fruit to be picked, packed and shipped with the least amount of damage, and it extends the shelf life at the supermarket.

Tomato connoisseurs love to argue over whether a tomato that was picked when it was green and ripened with ethylene gas can ever taste as good as vine-ripened tomato.

Some folks believe that the only real tomato is one picked red off the vine. Others think that tomatoes picked green and ripened during shipping taste just as good.

This controversy will likely continue as long as there are tomatoes to be picked. Probably the only point of agreement between these debaters is that the green version is quite good when fried.

Frank Watson is the University of Georgia Extension agent in Wilkes County, Ga.

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