Real Food Encyclopedia | Tomatillo

Tomatillos are native to Mexico, where the fruit has been grown for millennia: evidence of tomatillo eating has been documented as early as 900 BCE in the Tehuacán Valley of Mexico. The Aztecs, no strangers to good eating (they are responsible for introducing chocolate, chilies, turkey and lots of other delicious things to the rest of the world), were likely the first to domesticate the little papery husked fruits, even before tomatoes were first cultivated.

Although tomatillos have never achieved the global culinary reach of other famous Aztec cultivars — tomatoes, chilies and corn spread like wildfire across the globe almost immediately — tomatillos are still ubiquitous in many modern Mexican dishes. In fact, Mexican cuisine authority Diana Kennedy says that tomatillos are “an indispensable ingredient in Mexican food.” In the U.S., tomatillos were primarily available canned — not fresh — up until about a decade ago, but fortunately, these days, fresh tomatillos are easy to find.

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Fun facts about tomatillos:

  • Tomatillos go by many names, including Mexican green tomatoes (or tomate verde in Spanish), husk tomatoes and jamberries. (The word tomatillo means “little tomato.”) Miltomatl is the original Nahuatl (Aztec) word for tomatillo — and according to Kennedy, is still used in Oaxaca to describe the fruit.
  • “The Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink”notes that the word “tomatillo” has only been in print in English since around 1910.

What to look for when buying tomatillos

Herbal, tangy, citrus-y, and a little bit sweet, tomatillos are like no other fruit. The vast majority of tomatillos available in North America are one to two inches in diameter, with plump, bright green fruit surrounded by a papery husk. (There are, however, many varieties of tomatillos showing up more regularly at markets, like beautiful purple and yellow cultivars.) Once the husk has been peeled away, the fruit is covered in a lightly sticky substance that is easily washed off. Tomatillos have thin skins that do not need to be peeled, and dense flesh that contains lots of little seeds.

In general, look for tomatillos that have grown to fill their husks. If purchasing green tomatillos, check to make sure that the fruit hasn’t turned yellow — this is a sign of over-ripeness. The husk should be fairly pliant and not completely dried out. Feel the fruit inside the husk with your fingers to make sure they are plump. If the husks have split, exposing the fruit, this is okay; just make sure the skins are glossy, without black or brown spots.

Sustainability of tomatillos

Pesticides and tomatillos

Fortunately, tomatillos don’t appear on the Environmental Working Group’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, a list that singles out produce with the highest loads of pesticide residues. Their environmental impact is lessened because tomatillo plants are less susceptible to pests than some of their other nightshade cousins. However, pesticides are used on the fruit, so if you are concerned, choose organic tomatillos or talk to your local tomatillo farmer about their growing practices.

Tomatillos seasonality

Tomatillos are now available nearly year-round, frequently imported from Mexico (their ability to store for long periods of time helps). However, tomatillos are a warm-weather plant, so their peak local availability in most parts of North America is in the summer, usually from July through September.

Eating tomatillos

Storing tomatillos

Tomatillos keep for a long time in the fridge. They can be stored in a paper bag in your produce drawer (leave them in their papery husks) for 2-3 weeks.

Cooking with tomatillos

Pro tips: Rick Bayless offers this tip for roasting tomatillos in his “Mexican Kitchen” cookbook: Line a shallow, rimmed baking sheet with foil. Add the tomatillos to the baking sheet and place it under a preheated broiler. Roast until the tomatillos’ skins blacken and they become soft, about 4-5 minutes, then gently flip over and roast for another 3-4 minutes.

Tomatillos can be eaten raw, but more commonly they are roasted or simmered in water to bring out their natural sweetness. Mexican cooks commonly roast the fruit on a comal, a flat griddle used on the stovetop. Tomatillos are most closely associated with Mexican and Central American cuisine (including Guatemalan), but the fruit has also made its way to India, where it shows up in chutneys, curries and dals.

Tomatillos are classically paired with green chiles in Mexican cuisine, serving as a sweet-tart counterbalance to the heat of the peppers. The most famous of this combo is Mexican salsa verde, which usually contains tomatillos, green chiles and onion (sometimes garlic and cilantro, too) and is commonly served with meat and shellfish dishes (especially pork, chicken and shrimp) and as a sauce for enchiladas, tacos and other Mexican fare. Tomatillos’ sweet-tart flavor can be an interesting addition to classic dishes — like this tomatillo, tomato and avocado gazpacho. (And fried tomatillos sound even better than their fried green tomato cousins!)

Getting even more creative, tomatillos can be used in sweet dishes, too. Frequently paired with cinnamon, the fruit is made into jams, tarts and pies.

Preserving tomatillos

Making chutney is a good way to preserve tomatillos; most chutneys should keep for weeks in the fridge. You can also freeze tomatillos whole for later use — just place the fruit in a single layer on a cookie sheet and freeze until completely frozen, then transfer to sealable plastic freezer bags.

Like tomatoes, tomatillos can also be canned whole; or make a big batch of tomatillo salsa and can that. Tomatillos are rich in natural pectin, perfect for jam making; why not try this tomatillo and lime jam?

Tomatillos nutrition

Tomatillos may be delicious, but they aren’t super nutrient-dense. They do have quite a bit of Vitamin C and are good sources of Vitamin K and niacin, and are good sources of zeaxanthin and lutein, both necessary for eye health. They are also fairly high in fiber and low in calories.

Top photo by anphotos99/Adobe Stock.