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Tomatillos are an important component of Mexican and Tex-Mex cuisine, and for good reason! Find out exactly what they are, how to cook with them, where to buy them, plus some ideas for delicious plant-based recipes in this detailed guide.
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💚 What are tomatillos?
If you’re a fan of vibrant dishes like salsa verde or green pozole, then you’re most likely already familiar with the key ingredient that infuses these recipes with their distinctive flavors — the tomatillos, also known as Mexican husk tomatoes. If you’re yet to discover them, here is the low-down.
Despite their common association with vegetables, tomatillos are actually a type of fruit. As a member of the nightshade family, these tiny treasures are typically 2-3 inches in diameter and come encased in a delicate, papery husk. This unique packaging is one of the features that differentiates them from regular tomatoes.
Native to Central America, tomatillos are perfectly suited to thrive in warm climates. In fact, there’s evidence of tomatillos being cultivated by the Aztecs as far back as 800 BC!
The most frequently grown and commercially available variety of tomatillos is known as the ‘Toma Verde’. However, the tomatillo family isn’t just restricted to this popular variant. There’s an entire spectrum of other varieties as well, including some that are even purple in color!
🍅 Tomatillos vs tomatoes
Also part of the nightshade family, tomatoes thrive in similar growing conditions. But, they are members of a different species than tomatillos.
Tomatillos are sometimes referred to as “Mexican husk tomatoes” or “Mexican green tomatoes.” This can make matters a little confusing since the term green tomatoes can also simply refer to unripe red tomatoes.
In any case, you’ll definitely be able to tell the difference once you take your first bite of a tomatillo!
🍴 Flavor profile
Tomatillos are well-known for their tart, tangy, and juicy flavors. When raw, they’re especially acidic. However, once they’re cooked down the flavors mellow out quite a bit.
A common technique for preparing tomatillos is to roast them, bringing out slightly sweeter notes and a distinct smokiness.
🍎 Health benefits
Tomatillos are an incredibly nutritious fruit. They’re not only low in calories but also packed with essential nutrients. They contain dietary fiber and are a good source of vitamin C, which is an antioxidant that helps protect the body from free radicals.
Additionally, tomatillos provide iron, magnesium, phosphorus, and copper, as well as vitamin K and niacin. They also have unique phytochemicals called withanolides, which are known for their anti-cancer properties.
📝 How to cook with tomatillos
To prepare tomatillos, remove the husks with your hands and discard them. You’ll notice a sticky film on the outside of the tomatillos, which rinses off fairly easily under running water. Once rinsed, they are good to go!
Tomatillos are widely used for making salsa verde in Mexican cooking, but they can be used in more unique ways. Try some of these options:
- Blended: Use them as a sauce on tacos, chilaquiles, enchiladas, or arroz verde.
- Roasted: Roast and serve them as a side dish along with your favorite vegan protein.
- Fresh: Although you’ll mostly find them cooked, tomatillos are delicious in their raw form, adding a tangy and acidic kick.
- Fried: Try frying your tomatillos with a little salt (just like you would fried green tomatoes).
- Jam: Tomatillos make an excellent base for jams and preserves.
- Roasting: Preheat your oven to 425F, then cut the tomatillos in half and place them cut-side down on a baking sheet. Roast them for about 15-20 minutes, or until they are soft and slightly blackened.
- Blanching: To mellow out the tartness of raw tomatillos, you can briefly blanch them. Place them in boiling water for about 5 minutes. After blanching, quickly cool them in an ice water bath to stop the cooking process and preserve their vibrant color.
- Frying: Tomatillos can be sliced and fried for a caramelized flavor. In a pan, heat some oil over medium heat. Add sliced tomatillos and cook until they start to brown, about 3-4 minutes on each side.
🍽️ Dishes with tomatillos
Tomatillos can be utilized in a wide variety of dishes, but some of our favorite plant-based recipes include the following:
In general, tomatillos pair well with a range of flavors. Their tangy taste makes them a great companion to spicy chiles, cilantro, onions, and garlic in salsas and sauces. They also complement the richness of avocados in guacamole or avocado salsa.
Tomatillos store extremely well at room temperature, in the fridge, or in the freezer. Here’s how to keep them lasting longer:
- Room temperature: At room temperature, tomatillos will last for about 2-3 days on your countertop.
- Fridge: In the fridge, tomatillos can be stored for up to 2-3 weeks. It’s best to keep them in a paper bag to reduce moisture levels. We also recommend storing them with the husks on for additional protection.
- Freezer: To freeze your tomatillos, peel off the husks, rinse, and dry them. Next, place them on a baking tray and pop them in the freezer. Once they are fully frozen, transfer them into a freezer-safe bag or container to prevent freezer burn.
Note: Although not 100% necessary, leaving the husks on tomatillos will increase their longevity and freshness.
If you have an abundance of tomatillos, there are several methods you can use to preserve them. One of the most common methods is canning, which involves packing the tomatillos in jars and heat-processing them to create a vacuum seal.
You can also make tomatillo salsa or sauce, then can it for future use. For an extra tangy taste, try pickling your tomatillos in a solution of vinegar, salt, and sugar. Or, you can turn tomatillos into jams or jellies for a sweeter approach.
👌 How to pick perfect tomatillos
Navigating the produce section can be a little challenging when you’re unfamiliar with an ingredient, but don’t worry! Keep these tips in mind to choose the perfect tomatillos every time:
- Appearance: Look for firm fruits with a bright green color. The husk should be dry and closely fit around the fruit. You don’t want to see signs of mold or decay.
- Size: Tomatillos generally range in size from 2-3 inches. While the size doesn’t necessarily affect the flavor, larger tomatillos are often easier to work with.
- Husk: An intact, tight-fitting husk is a good indicator of freshness. The husk should be dry and papery, not damp or slimy.
- Texture: Feel the tomatillos through their husks. They should be firm and not give in to gentle pressure, indicating they are ripe and ready to use.
- Weight: A perfect tomatillo will feel heavy for its size. This means it’s going to be juicy and packed with flavor.
- Smell: Although not as strong as some other fruits and vegetables, a fresh tomatillo will have a slightly sweet, tangy scent. Avoid those with an off or sour smell.
💰 Where to buy tomatillos
From grocery stores to cans, here are the best ways to find tomatillos for your recipes:
- Large grocery stores: You can often find fresh tomatillos in the produce section of larger chain grocery stores.
- Latin or Mexican food markets: Specialized markets are excellent sources of specialized ingredients like tomatillos.
- Farmers’ markets: Check local farmers’ markets for fresh, locally grown tomatillos.
- Grow your own: If you enjoy gardening, try growing tomatillos at home! Seeds or starter plants can be found at nurseries, garden centers, or online seed retailers.
- Canned: In a pinch, canned tomatillos can usually be found in the international or canned goods aisle of your local grocery store or online.
♻️ Tomatillo substitutions
Tomatillos provide a very unique flavor profile to recipes they’re used in. If you don’t have access to any, here are two alternatives to try:
- Green tomatoes: Underripe tomatoes with a squeeze of lime juice will loosely emulate the flavor of tomatillos in soups and salsas.
- Gooseberries & green peppers: If you can’t find green tomatoes, try mixing gooseberries and green peppers together. You’ll end up with similar tart, tangy, acidic, and fresh flavors.
“Tomatillo” is a Spanish word that translates to “little tomato” in English.
The sticky part found on tomatillos (withanolides) is a defense mechanism to ward off harmful insects. To get rid of the stickiness, remove the husks and rinse them in water.
All members of the nightshade family contain a poisonous compound, called solanine. It can be found in the leaves, fruit, and roots of these foods. As for tomatillos, as long as they’re ripe, the husk is removed, and the sticky film is washed off, they’re completely safe to eat.
🤓 Learn about more ingredients
If you’re wondering what ingredients like piloncillo or Mexican oregano and how to use them, take a peek at some of our other guides:
Now you know the tomatillo has an extensive culinary history spanning back to Aztec times. It’s a prominent ingredient in not only Mexican cuisine but also in a variety of other dishes worldwide.
Their ability to infuse a sharp, tangy kick into salsa verde or to add a complex depth to hearty green pozole are just a few examples of how versatile these ‘little tomatoes’ are.
To truly unlock the potential of tomatillos, you need to learn by experimenting! Try roasting them for a smoky sweetness, blending them into vibrant, zesty salsa, or frying them like fried green tomatoes.
Whether you’re a seasoned chef or a home cook just starting your culinary journey, the use of tomatillos in your recipes can provide a unique new dimension to your meals.
Note: We’ve updated this post to include new information and helpful tips.