Kitchen Semantics: Green Tomato vs. Tomatillo

Kitchen Semantics: Green Tomato vs. TomatilloWith tomato season rolling in, I was excited to find a few early-picked green tomatoes in my most recent Farmhouse Delivery basket. I’d never worked with them before, but had heard enough about fried green tomatoes to get a little giddy.

Against my salivating desire to throw them in a frying pan, though, I ended up making fresh-pack pickles out of them. No regrets here—ooo-wee are they crisp and tasty! (Check out the recipe here.)

It just so happened that in the same week, I’d picked up a pound of tomatillos, whose similarly tart, slightly floral flavor has been responsible for my very favorite enchilada sauces and salsas since forever. As I added them to my produce drawer, I noticed how similar they are to green tomatoes. Beneath their husks, tomatillos are essentially little green tomatoes. I’ve even heard some people refer to them that way.

So are they related? Versions of the same? Totally different?

As the eye would lead you to believe, they are certainly related. The tomatillo (also called husk tomato or ground cherry) is a member of the nightshade family, along with tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and potatoes. It is native to Mexico but has been naturalized across North America and can be found in most Latin markets and fruterías.

Whereas a green tomato has been picked before fully ripening, tomatillos are considered fully ripe just before they begin to change color. Eventually turning a yellow, red, or purple color, they are considered over-ripe at this stage and preferred green.

The plants look similar, and they have many of the same growing characteristics. The main difference between a tomato and a tomatillo is the thin, papery husk that covers the tomatillo. When buying tomatillos, pay attention to the husk—it should be a little crispy (rather than very soft) and contain no mold. If the tomatillo you’re looking at has been separated from its husk, look for a bright green color and tightly firm skin.

Tomatillos tend to be firmer and shinier than your average tomato, and get a little sticky around the stem. Be sure to wash them well before cooking with them.

Flavor-wise, a tomatillo is naturally tarter and less savory than a tomato. Biting into a fresh tomatillo probably wouldn’t be as fantastic an experience as biting into a ripe garden tomato. You can do it, sure, but the robust, mouth-filling flavor you get from a raw tomato is much more pleasant than the slightly flat, sour taste of a raw tomatillo. Tomatillos are best appreciated pureed or cooked down into flavorful green sauces and salsas.

Stop by later this week to try tomatillos outside of their natural habitat, in our recipe for Tomatillo Madras Curry.