Sunday, July 31, 2011

Tomato Patch: Learning by Picking at "Breaker Stage"

"Breaker Stage" tomatoes when picked
My “breaker stage” tomato-picking experiment is progressing nicely and I’m learning as I go. I picked four less-than-ripe tomatoes last Monday (July 25) just before arrival of showers that I thought might cause the fruit to split. I took the tomatoes inside and let them continue ripening on our kitchen counter until Friday (July 29).

Photo 1 shows the four tomatoes when I picked them on July 25. Back row: Brandywine Red, Brandywine (Sudduth’s Strain), and Virginia Sweets. Front row: Big Mama and a common cherry tomato, Sungold. I added the Sungold to give an idea of the comparative sizes of the fruit. The Sungold within a day disappeared in a sudden gnashing of my teeth, and the Big Mama surrendered peacefully to a slicing knife on Thursday evening when Ellen and I were making sandwiches.

"Breakers" four days later
The three biggest tomatoes slowly ripened for four days on our kitchen counter, where the temperature was approximately 78°F. Photo 2 shows them just before we sliced them for lunch on Friday (July 28), and Photo 3 shows slices just a few minutes later.

How did they taste? Did they have the exciting flavor of vine-ripened tomatoes—as my earlier posting suggested would be the case? Or were they “off flavor” or even as tasteless as the tomatoes we’re accustomed to bringing home from the supermarket?

I was particularly interested in seeing how the Brandywine (Sudduth’s Strain) and the Virginia Sweets, both heirlooms varieties, ripened inside. Over the years I’ve “lost” many of that pink Brandywine because I stubbornly let them hang on their vines while I waited for their color to intensify. I wanted a deep pink, I suppose—but the fruit often cracked and rotted before I decided to pick it. Conventional wisdom says heirloom tomatoes ripen internally before they appear ripe externally.

The Virginia Sweets is a new variety for me this year, and I didn’t really know what it would look like when ripe. Its seed packet describes mature fruit as “gold-red bicolors” and “golden yellow beefsteaks … colored with red stripes that turn into a ruby blush.” Just what would that look like out in the garden?

Sliced "breakers"
So cut and sample we did. All three tasted great. I’ve frequently grown Brandywine (Sudduth’s Strain), and Ellen and I both thought it was as mouth watering as one ripened on the vine. The Brandywine Red tasted nearly as good as the Sudduth’s Stain, but was “juicier” and not as solid as the Sudduth’s. The meat of the Virginia Sweets was mostly yellow, but it tasted more like a red tomato than a bland “low-acid” yellow.

However, I’ve learned a few things during this experiment.

First, I’ll pick tomatoes even earlier—when they’re just beginning to add color and before they are “nearly ripe” or show any signs of cracking or other problems. The Brandywine Red was almost too ripe by the time I sliced it. The Sudduth’s Brandywine had begun to crack on the vine, and the crack widened as it ripened in the kitchen, so I had to dispose of more of the “meat” that I wanted to eat.

Second, I will start slicing heirlooms, such as the Brandywines, before they look absolutely ripe on the outside. I’ve accepted the conventional wisdom that they are ripe inside before they look ripe.

When I was preparing to take a picture of the tomatoes, I happened to think that I’ve never weighed tomatoes. I grow them to eat, and eat them we do. But just to see how much they weighed, I got out a simple kitchen scale. Here are their approximate weights:

Sungold, not large enough to accurately weigh.

Big Mama, 5 ounces (140 g). (This is a small Big Mama according to the Burpee catalog description.)

Brandywine Red, 15 ounces (425 g).

Brandywine (Sudduth’s Strain), 1 lb 1 oz (480 g).

Virginia Sweets, 1 lb 9 oz (800 g). Yes, that is one large tomato, impressive even while hanging on the vine.

Have you picked tomatoes before they were fully ripe? If you have, please post a Comment about how picking at breaker stage works for you and how you think the ripened fruit tastes. Does it taste as good as vine-ripened fruit? And if you grow heirlooms, share a tip about how you tell when they’re ripe?

Grow it. Experiment. Eat it. Comment.

P.S. If you didn’t read my earlier posting about picking tomatoes at breaker stage and want more information, CLICK HERE.


  1. My dad regularly picked tomatoes the instant they started showing any color at all, and in the fall, when frost was predicted, he picked ALL of them, regardless of their color. Would that more people would do this, rather than suddenly finding they have too many and give them away to people like me when they are bordering on overripe.

  2. Hi, California J. I wish I were as smart as your dad through the years. Maybe I wouldn't have given away so many overripe tomatoes. But I know now. Better late than never! I gave some friends some Brandywines today--in early to late "breaker stage" but none yet ripe. They'll get to eat them all.

  3. Wish I were there to get some from you too! I'm buying from the farmers market here--my friends aren't growing any more than they can eat. I suspect they overwater--their plants don't generally make it very long.

  4. Heirloom tomatoes have not pleased me at all. 1st my father-in-law planted some years ago & they went from ripe to rotten in a few hours off the vine. The ones I purchased from the Dutch Farmer's Market also went from ripe to rotten by the time I got them home. As for picking my own early, I do it in self defense since the critters from the woods take their bites when they first start turning color.