We’ve all heard that we should never store tomatoes in the fridge, but thanks to a team of scientists, we now know why this is legit.
Storing the tomato at chilly temperatures basically stresses the tropical fruit out, causing molecular changes that rob the tomato of its flavor, according to a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal.
When the tomatoes were stored in the fridge, at 41˚F for this study, the cold temperatures slowed the activities of genes—many of which produce the enzymes responsible for that sweet taste and grassy aroma of a just-picked tomato, which we all know and love.
Even when brought back up to a room temperature of 68˚F, the tomatoes’ enzymes never recovered. The damage is irreversible!
That pretty much explains why most mass-supermarket tomatoes—kept in cold storage after harvesting to extend shelf life—taste so blah, especially compared to fresh-picked summer tomatoes.
“Flavor is really the sum of taste and smell; smells in particular are essential to flavor. Think about how you can’t really taste anything when you have a cold,” study leader Harry J. Klee, a professor of horticultural sciences at the University of Florida, explained to TODAY. “The enzymes that go away when you chill a fruit are responsible for making those compounds that we smell. So enzymes go away, flavor volatiles go away and flavor is very negatively affected.”
For the study, researchers used one heirloom and one common supermarket variety, but Klee said that he suspects the findings would carry over to all varieties of tomatoes.
“There may be subtle differences,” he said, “but we do think that generally this will be true for all tomatoes that you’d buy in a store.”
Before this study, some skeptics of the whole no-fridge rule have staged their own home-kitchen tests. A food writer for Serious Eats found that his panel of taste-testers could detect little discernable difference between tomatoes kept on the counter or fridge, and that the fridge even improved it in some cases. His results, admittedly not “rigorous enough for publication in any scientific journal,” unleashed a torrent of backlash, so much so that he conducted another round of testing; he stood by his findings that a stint in the fridge was acceptable for “really good, ripe” tomatoes.
So where does the professor store his tomatoes at home?
“Never in the refrigerator!” Klee says emphatically. “In as cool a place as we have in the house on a counter. They'll last quite a while at room temperature.”