When you see tomatillos [toh-MAH-tee-YOS] at your grocery store or farmer’s market, don’t dismiss these strange-looking orbs encased in thin, papery husks. Remove the husks and you’ll find firm, green tomato-like fruit that give south-of-the-border salsas and sauces their bright and slightly tart, lemony flavor.
Tomatillos are also known as husk tomatoes or Mexican green tomatoes. While botanically related to tomatoes, they do not share their cousins’ sweet and juicy characteristics. Unlike tomatoes, tomatillos have a dense, heavily seeded interior, creamy-hued flesh and tart flavor. They are best eaten while green and firm.
Tomatillo Facts and Figures
A Brief History of the Tomatillo
- The tomatillo, Physalis philadelphic, is a member of the Solanaceae or nightshade family and closely related to the Cape gooseberry (Physalis peruviana). Tomatillos are sometimes called tomates verdes or “green tomatoes,” but should not be mistaken for unripe tomatoes. Tomatoes and tomatillos are distant cousins, sharing the same family but not the same genus.
- Tomatillos or “little tomatoes” in Spanish range from one-inch in diameter up to the size of golf balls. Smaller tomatillos are generally sweeter than the larger ones.
- Tomatillos contain a pectin-like substance that thickens sauces and salsas during refrigeration.
- A half-cup serving of raw tomatillo contains about 21 calories and is an excellent source of dietary fiber, potassium and other trace minerals, vitamin C and niacin. Tomatillos are cholesterol-free and low in sodium and saturated fat. Unlike tomatoes, tomatillos do not contain lycopene. They do, however, contain different anti-oxidant phytochemicals known as withanolides.
- Tomatillos are hardy, adaptive and easy to grow annuals that thrive in tropical, sub-tropical and temperate regions. Mexico and Guatemala are main growing regions. In the U.S., tomatillos are cultivated in California, Texas and Louisiana and other Southern states.
The tomatillo originated in Mesoamerica and was part of the Mexican diet as far back as 800 B.C. in pre-Columbian times. The ancient Aztec peoples living in central Mexico first domesticated the tomatillo, probably before the arrival of the tomato. The Aztec word for the “husk tomato” was miltomatl
. From Mexico, the Spanish most likely introduced the tomatillo to Europe, where it never gained favor. Today, due to the popularity of Mexican and Southwestern dishes, the tomatillo is a staple in American cuisine.
How to Select Tomatillos
Fresh imported tomatillos are available year round in Mexican grocery stores, specialty food stores and many chain supermarkets. They are often displayed near the fresh chiles. Look for domestically-grown tomatillos May through November
Here are guidelines for selecting tomatillos:
- 1. The papery husk is a good indicator of freshness. The husk should be dry, intact, light brown, mold-free and fresh looking (i.e., not shriveled or dry). The husk should also fit tightly around the fruit.
2. If you peel back the husk, the fruit should be green, firm and blemish-free. Do not choose tomatillos that are turning yellow or have soft spots, blemishes or shriveled skin. Fully ripe tomatillos are yellow and rarely brought to market.
3. Smaller tomatillos are generally sweeter than larger, golf-ball sized ones.
How to Store Tomatillos
– Use tomatillos as soon as possible after buying or picking. For best flavor, use while still green and tart. Tomatillos will turn yellow and lose their tartness as they ripen. Just-bought or just-picked tomatillos will last for up to 3 weeks in the refrigerator as long as the husks remain dry. Put fruit with husks in an open container and place in crisper drawer or the coldest part of refrigerator.
– Tomatillos freeze beautifully and will keep in the freezer for up to six months. Remove the husks, then carefully wash and dry. Put fruit in heavy duty freezer bags, seal tightly and place in freezer. Remember to date and label each bag.
– If your garden or farmer’s market has a bounty of tomatillos, you can preserve whole tomatillos for later use. Alternatively, make and can your favorite salsa verde or tomatillo relish.
To can tomatillos, pick ones that are green, unblemished and firm. Here are some useful equivalents:
- 14 pounds of fresh tomatillos yields 7 quarts
- 9 pounds of fresh tomatillos yields 9 pints
- 32 pounds or one bushel of tomatillos yields 14 to 16 quarts
Always use safe canning procedures, date and label jars, and store in a cool, dry place.
How to Prepare Tomatillos
First remove and discard the papery husks. The tomatillos may have a slightly sticky surface – this is normal. Rinse fruit under cold water to remove the sticky residue. Dry the tomatillos. The tomatillos are now ready to use raw or to cook. You do not have to peel or seed the fruit before using.
How to Cook with Tomatillos
Raw tomatillos have a firm texture and a fresh, acidic citrusy or lemony flavor. Puree in blender or food processor or slice, dice and chop as you would tomatoes. Use raw tomatillos in salsas, sauces, relishes, salads and cold soups.
Cooking tomatillos greatly enhances their flavor, mellowing the sharpness and reducing acidity. Tomatillos are commonly roasted or blanched before using. In some recipes, you will saute, fry or braise tomatillos with the other ingredients.
- Blanching - Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Carefully add whole tomatillos, husks removed. Boil for 3 to 5 minutes or until soft. Drain. Blanched tomatillos are ready to crush or puree.
- Roasting – Many recipes call for roasted tomatillos. Note that during roasting, tomatillos may collapse or burst, becoming soft and juicy.
Broiler – Preheat oven to broiler setting. Arrange single layer of whole tomatillos (husks removed) on a rimmed baking sheet. Place baking sheet about 4 to 5 inches below broiler. Broil about 5 minutes. Tomatillos should be blotchy black and its color turning from lime green to olive. Flip the tomatillos and broil for another 3 to 5 minutes. Cool before using.
Oven – Preheat oven to 400 F. Place whole tomatillos (husks removed) on large rimmed baking sheet. Bake for about 20 minutes or until tomatillos collapse and release their juices. Cool before using.
Stovetop – Preheat a cast iron skillet or other heavyweight fry pan on medium. Place a single layer of whole tomatillos (husks removed) in the pan. Turn heat down to medium-low and roast for 10 to 12 minutes. Flip and roast for another 10 to 12 minutes. When ready, the roasted tomatillos will be soft and lightly browned on their tops and bottoms. Cool before using.
- Complementary flavors – Tomatillos pair well with ingredients used in Mexican dishes including chicken, chiles, corn, cilantro, onions and tomatoes.