a pile of fruit

What Are Tomatillos? How to Use Tomatillos in Recipes

Tomatillos, also known as Mexican husk tomatoes or tomate verde, are a popular ingredient in Mexican and Central American cuisine. But what exactly are tomatillos and how do you use them?

Here’s a guide to everything you need to know about this tangy green fruit.

Key Takeaways on Tomatillos:

  • Tomatillos are a small green fruit encased in a papery husk that is removed before eating.
  • They have a tangy, citrusy flavor that pairs well with spicy foods.
  • Tomatillos can be eaten raw but are more commonly cooked into salsas, sauces, stews and more.
  • Choose tomatillos that are firm and bright green – avoid mushy or yellowing ones.
  • Store fresh tomatillos in the fridge for up to two weeks. They also freeze well.

What is a Tomatillo?

Tomatillos (Physalis philadelphica) are a small round green fruit that are closely related to tomatoes and Cape gooseberries. The key difference is that tomatillos have a papery husk that covers the fruit.

Native to Mexico, tomatillos have been a staple ingredient in Central American cuisine for centuries. However, they have become more popular in recent decades in the United States, Canada and Europe as well.

a pile of fruit

Fresh tomatillos range in size from that of a large cherry tomato to a small plum tomato. They are always green when ripe – unlike regular tomatoes that turn red.

Underneath the dry outer husk, the fruit has a smooth, glossy surface that can be purple, green or yellowish. The flesh inside is firm and juicy with a tart, citrusy taste.

Tomatillo vs Tomato – How They’re Different

It’s easy to confuse tomatillos with green tomatoes, but they actually belong to completely different species of the nightshade family. Here are some key ways to tell them apart:

  • Husk – Tomatillos have a papery, inedible husk. Tomatoes do not.
  • Shape – Tomatillos are perfectly round while tomatoes have a more irregular shape.
  • Size – On average, tomatillos are smaller than most tomato varieties.
  • Color – Tomatillos stay green when ripe. Green tomatoes are simply unripe red tomatoes.
  • Flavor – Tomatillos have a tangy, citrusy taste. Tomatoes are more sweet and umami.
  • Seeds – Tomatillos usually have smaller, stickier seeds than tomatoes.
  • Uses – Tomatillos are rarely eaten raw. Tomatoes are very versatile raw or cooked.

So in summary, tomatillos have a husk, are smaller, sweeter and tangier than true green tomatoes. Once you taste them, it’s easy to distinguish their unique flavor.

Tomatillo Taste Explained

So what do tomatillos actually taste like? Here are some descriptions:

  • Tart and tangy
  • Citrusy, like lime or lemon
  • Slightly sour and acidic
  • Savory umami undertones
  • Sweet when very ripe
  • Herbaceous and grassy

Most people describe their flavor as a cross between a lemon, apple and tomato. They provide a bright, fruity acidity to balance out richer, spicier ingredients.

Tomatillos contain trace amounts of sugar and protein, but their tartness comes from malic acid. This is the same naturally occurring acid that gives green apples their sour bite.

In general, tomatillos have a more complex flavor when cooked. The acidity mellows out and brings out the savory, umami notes.

a plate of fruit sitting on a table

Tomatillos are rarely eaten raw since they can taste very acidic. Here are some of the most popular ways to cook with tomatillos:

Tomatillo Salsa

Green tomatillo salsa is by far the most well-known recipe. Tomatillos are blended with onions, garlic, cilantro, lime and diced chilies for a tangy dip or sauce. Salsa verde pairs perfectly with chips, tacos, eggs and grilled meats.

Enchilada Sauce

Another classic use for tomatillos is making enchilada sauce. Tomatillos and chilies are simmered into a smooth, green sauce perfect for smothering cheese enchiladas.

Tomatillo Soup

For a fresh, Mexican-inspired soup, tomatillos are simmered with veggie or chicken stock and pureed into a bright green soup. Zucchini, corn and cilantro are tasty add-ins.

Tomatillo Guacamole

Adding some chopped tomatillos into guacamole gives it a nice acidic kick to balance the rich avocado. They add flavor without overpowering the avocado like a lemon might.

Tomatillo Stew

Tomatillos can be added to stews along with meat, beans and veggies. They provide tangy flavor and help tenderize meats.

Tomatillo Pico de Gallo

Mix chopped tomatillos with onions, jalapeno, cilantro and lime juice for a unique take on fresh pico de gallo.

Baked Tomatillos

For a simple side dish, you can also roast or pan-fry tomatillos with a little olive oil, salt and pepper.

Are Tomatillos Toxic?

Tomatillos are not poisonous or toxic. However, the leaves and stems of the tomatillo plant contain small amounts of solanine. This is the same compound found in green potato peels.

So you should avoid eating large amounts of the tomatillo plant leaves or under-ripe green berries. But the tomatillos themselves are completely safe to eat when ripe.

Some people may also have minor allergic reactions to tomatillos if they are sensitive to nightshades. But most people can eat moderate amounts of tomatillos without any adverse effects.

How to Tell if Tomatillos are Ripe

a close up of a flower on a plant

Tomatillos can be harvested at various stages of ripeness. Here’s how to tell if tomatillos are fully ripe:

  • Color – Ripe tomatillos will be green with a yellowish hue underneath the husk. Avoid any with brown spots.
  • Size – Tomatillos are ripe when they reach full size, generally 1-2 inches in diameter depending on the variety.
  • Firmness – Ripe tomatillos feel firm and heavy. Soft, mushy tomatillos are overripe.
  • Husk – The husk will turn more brown and papery when ripe. It should easily separate from the fruit.
  • Stickiness – The natural sticky coating on tomatillos dries up as they ripen. Ripe tomatillos will not feel sticky.

Ideally, choose tomatillos that are uniformly green and plump. Give them a gentle squeeze to ensure they are not mushy. The husk color is not always reliable, so the firmness of the fruit inside is the best indicator.

Under-ripe tomatillos will taste very tart and acidic. Allowing them to ripen fully on the counter for 1-2 weeks will develop their flavor.

Where to Buy Tomatillos

a box of fruit and vegetables on display

Tomatillos can be purchased:

  • At grocery stores – Tomatillos are stocked in the produce section of many major supermarkets year-round. They are very affordable, usually $1-3 per pound.
  • Farmers markets – When in season, seek out fresh tomatillos from local farms at farmers markets.
  • Mexican markets – For the best selection and prices, shop at Mexican specialty grocery stores.
  • Online – Various produce delivery services ship fresh tomatillos nationwide when in season.

Tomatillos are in peak season during the summer months. In warm climates like California and Mexico, they can be grown almost year-round.

When buying fresh tomatillos, inspect them for any mushiness and store in the fridge for up to 2 weeks. For longer storage, freezing works very well. Cleaned tomatillos can be frozen whole or sliced for at least 3 months.

Canned vs Fresh Tomatillos

Tomatillos are also frequently canned or jarred for longer shelf life. Here’s how fresh and canned tomatillos compare:

  • Texture – Canned tomatillos will be softer than fresh. The texture can become almost sauce-like.
  • Flavor – Canning concentrates the taste and brings out more sweetness. Fresh tomatillos are more tart.
  • Convenience – Canned tomatillos save prep time. Fresh ones need husking and cleaning.
  • Uses – Canned work well pureed into sauces. Fresh are better for salsas.
  • Price – Canned are slightly more expensive than fresh per pound.

Either fresh or canned tomatillos will work for most recipes. Canned varieties lend themselves well to sauces since they break down and puree easily. Fresh tomatillos are ideal for salsa, guacamole or when you want some texture.

When substituting, generally use about 1 1/2 pounds fresh tomatillos for one 15-ounce can. Adjust any added water accordingly.

Frequently Asked Questions on Tomatillos

Here are answers to some common questions about tomatillos:

Are tomatillos spicy?

On their own, tomatillos have no heat or spiciness. However, they are often paired with hot peppers and chilies in Mexican recipes. When combined, this can make the dish taste spicy overall.

Do you eat the husk?

No, the papery husk is always removed before eating tomatillos. Only the green fruit inside is edible.

Can you substitute green tomatoes for tomatillos?

In a pinch, green tomatoes can work as a replacement but they do not have the same tangy, citrusy taste. Reduce any added acid like lime juice to account for the tomatillos’ natural acidity.

How do you store tomatillos?

Store fresh tomatillos in the fridge in a paper bag for up to 2 weeks. Make sure they are dry – moisture causes faster spoilage. For longer storage, clean and freeze them whole or sliced.

Are tomatillos acidic?

Yes, tomatillos have a high acid content due to the malic acid. Their pH is around 3.2-4.6, giving them a very tart, citrusy taste even when ripe.

Can you eat tomatillos raw?

Tomatillos can be eaten raw but their acidity is very pronounced. Most people prefer to cook tomatillos to mellow out their tart flavor. They can be pan-fried, roasted or simmered into sauces.

Do tomatillos go bad quickly?

Tomatillos will last 1-2 weeks in the fridge before spoiling if kept dry. Signs they have gone bad include brown/mushy spots and stickiness. Discard any tomatillos that smell unpleasant.

Are tomatillos keto?

Yes, tomatillos are low in natural sugars and rich in phytonutrients. Enjoy them on a keto diet for their tangy flavor and antioxidant benefits. One cup contains around 8 grams of carbs and 2 grams of fiber.

Put Tomatillos on Your Radar

Hopefully this guide has demystified the humble tomatillo for you. Now that you know how to choose, store and use them, put tomatillos in your regular recipe rotation.

Their zesty, citrusy flavor profile is incredibly versatile. Tomatillos can be turned into numerous Mexican staples like salsa verde, enchilada sauce, guacamole and more.

Beyond traditional recipes, slice up fresh tomatillos for salads, sandwiches or use them anywhere you want a tangy flavor boost.

So next time you spot tomatillos at the store, grab a bag and start experimenting. Your tastebuds will thank you.

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