Shrouded in a papery husk and a fair amount of mystery, tomatillos have begun to command global culinary acclaim. This concise guide to tomatillos has tips on how to buy, store, and prep them. Even better, you’ll discover how to use tomatillos in salsas, gazpacho, pickles, salads, stews, and more, with links to recipes.
This staple of Mexican and Central American cuisines is the foundation of many beloved dishes, which we’ll be exploring ahead.
What Are Tomatillos and Where Did They Come From?
Contrary to common belief, and even though their name translates to “little tomatoes,” tomatillos aren’t green or unripe tomatoes but entirely different fruits. They were first cultivated by the Aztecs and were an important food source in pre-Columbian Mexico.
After the Spanish conquest, tomatillos were introduced to Europe and quickly became popular in Spain and Italy. They were also brought to the Philippines and eventually made their way to the United States in the 1800s.
While tomatillos are generally used as vegetables, botanically speaking, they’re classified as fruits. Bright, almost neon green when raw, they fade to a murkier yellow-brown-lime color when cooked.
What do tomatillos taste like?
Comparing the unique flavor of tomatillos with any other ingredient would be nearly impossible. All at once, they’re sour, subtly sweet, and slightly spicy in the very same bite.
When roasted, they take on a whole new dimension of smoky goodness that’s simply irresistible. To peel away that delicate covering and discover the bold, complex flavors within takes only curiosity to learn more
Compared to green tomatoes, tomatillos have a more acidic taste overall with stronger vegetal notes. while their interior texture tends to be denser and less watery.
How to tell if tomatillos are ripe
It might be tough figuring out if your tomatillos are ripe if you grow them at home. But for the most part, all tomatillos that make it to the grocery store are ready to eat. A telltale sign is that the husk will be golden or brown, not green. Ripe tomatillos may also begin to outgrow their husks, causing those papery casings to split open.
Buying and Storing Tomatillos
When purchasing tomatillos, look for firm, bright green fruits with tight-fitting husks. Avoid any that are soft or wrinkled, as they may be past their prime. The husks should be dry and intact, with no signs of mold or decay.
While there are also purple and yellow cultivars, these heirlooms are much less common and unlikely to show up at the standard American supermarket.
Tomatillos can be stored in the refrigerator for up to two weeks, but it’s best to remove them from their husks and store them in a paper bag to prevent moisture buildup. If you’re not planning to use them right away, you can also freeze tomatillos by removing the husks, blanching them for a minute or two in boiling water, and then storing them in an airtight container.
Canned tomatillos are also available in most stores near the shelf stable salsas. It’s hard to beat that for convenience or accessibility, but you do lose something in the flavor department in exchange.
How To Prep and Cook Tomatillos
Don’t be daunted by a stack of fully wrapped tomatillos; prepping tomatillos is a breeze. Simply remove the husks with your hands and discard or compost them. You’ll notice a slightly sticky film on the surface, but a quick rinse under warm water will take care of that.
Once you’ve got them cleaned up, it’s time to decide how you want to use them. If you’re looking for a bright, tangy flavor with a zesty kick, go ahead and use them raw. But if you’re in the mood for a deeper, more savory taste, try cooking them, which can be done in several ways.
Roasting or grilling tomatillos whole (or simply cut in half), or chopping them up for a sauté, will bring out their rich, complex flavors and mellow out their acidity.
Tomatillo Nutrition Notes
Tomatillos are a low-calorie, nutrient-dense food that’s rich in vitamins and minerals. They’re an especially good source of vitamin C. They also contain considerable amounts of potassium and are a good source of fiber. They’re also notably high in antioxidants, including zeaxanthin and lutein.
At just 21 calories per half-cup serving, with a high water content, you can enjoy a generous portion. Plus, unlike many other condiments and sauces, fresh salsas made with tomatillos are low in sugar and a delicious way to fill up your plate. See the full nutrition profile of tomatillos.
Tomatillo Recipe Ideas and Serving Suggestions
Tomatillos add an exciting twist and a boost of nutrients to many savory dishes. Try a few traditional preparations for foolproof results, then experiment with all new ways to enjoy them in your everyday cooking.
Soups and stews: Many soups and stews can benefit from the addition of fresh tomatillos, especially Pozole Verde. This hearty stew features whole hominy, and when teamed with tomatillos makes a uniquely flavored dish.
Enchiladas and other tortilla specialties: Enchiladas come in all colors of the rainbow, but Enchiladas Verde are the glorious green version that takes advantage of the bright, zingy flavor of tomatillos in the sauce. Another great recipe to try is Chipotle Soy Curl Tacos with Tomatillo Salsa.
Gazpacho: Tomatoes create the classic base of chilled Tomato and Tomatillo Gazpacho, while tomatillos have fruity tartness and a great body to this summery soup. For a different twist, cut out the tomatoes altogether and make a refreshing Tomatillo Gazpacho with Cucumber that’s spicy and satisfying.
Simple salads: Take advantage of peak produce season and make a simple Tomato and Tomatillo Salad, tossed with an herbaceous cilantro vinaigrette.
Sensational salsas: Salsa Verde is a classic Mexican condiment made with tomatillos, jalapenos, onions, and cilantro. It’s tangy, spicy, and perfect for drizzling over tacos, enchiladas, or dipping tortilla chips. You could try a different take on the concept with tomato-free Fresh Corn and Tomatillo Salsa, shown just above.
Crispy fried tomatillos: Give them the southern treatment and make Fried Green Tomatillos, which can be enjoyed as a stand-alone snack or used as a sandwich filling. Crispy panko and Cajun seasoning make this version irresistible.
Unique pickles: If you end up with an excess, demanding to be used right away, making Pickled Tomatillos is always an excellent option for extending their shelf life and adding a tart, tangy, and salty flavor.
Contributed by Hannah Kaminsky: Hannah has developed an international following for her delicious recipes and mouthwatering food photography at the award-winning blog BitterSweet. Passionate about big flavors and simple techniques, she’s the author of Vegan Desserts, Vegan à la Mode, Easy as Vegan Pie, Real Food, Really Fast, Sweet Vegan Treats, The Student Vegan Cookbook, Super Vegan Scoops, and The Everyday Vegan Cheat Sheet Pan. Visit Hannah at BittersweetBlog.com.
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