The Best Time to Pick Tomatoes for Peak Quality (It’s Not What You Think!)

When’s the best time to pick a tomato? It’s reasonable to assume you should wait for the fruit to turn fully red and ripe on the vine. But to tell the truth, it isn’t necessarily the best time if you’re looking for the highest quality fruit. Here’s why it’s often a good idea to harvest tomatoes early and let them ripen OFF the vine.

Linda Ly
The best time to pick tomatoes for peak quality (it's not what you think!)

If you were asked when’s the best time to pick tomatoes, you would—naturally—say when they’re fully ripe, right?

But wait!

While it’s reasonable to assume that fruits are at their fullest flavor when allowed to ripen on the vine, it’s not necessarily the best time to harvest them. And I’ll explain why (along with my advice for when you should pick tomatoes if you want peak flavor, nutrition, and quality).

Three tomatoes on the vine in three different stages of ripeness, from green (left) to blushing (middle) to ripe (right)

The 3 stages of tomato ripening

First, let’s talk about ripening and what happens to a tomato as it goes through this process.

As I previously mentioned in this post on how long it takes for tomatoes to fully ripen, the amount of time for a mature green tomato to turn red (or whatever its mature color will be) is anywhere from four to eight weeks, depending on the type of tomato and its growing conditions.

Once a tomato fruit forms, it goes through several color changes in the ripening process (as seen in this tomato color classification chart from the USDA).

USDA chart showing tomato color classification

I characterize these changes as three stages:

Stage 1: Mature green tomatoes

Mature green tomatoes have grown to full size, but their flavor is still developing.

They start out in the self-explanatory “green” stage (which ranges from light green to dark green, depending on cultivar) before phasing into the “breakers” stage (where you can begin to see a slight break in color happening).

At this point, the tomato is fully green or has less than 10 percent color (with the break appearing tannish or yellowish, and perhaps a tinge of pink on the surface).

Most commercially grown tomatoes are picked at this stage so they can start to ripen during their long commute to the grocery store (without getting too mushy by the time they land in the display case).

Stage 2: Turning tomatoes

Turning tomatoes—or what I like to call blushing tomatoes—begin to show a definite change of color from green to greenish-yellow, pink, red, or any combination thereof.

When a tomato is “turning,” it has more than 10 percent (but less than 30 percent) color. A subtle blush, if you will.

After another week or two, the tomato moves into the “pink” stage, where the surface shows 30 to 60 percent pink or red.

Stage 3: Vine-ripened tomatoes

Ahhh, this is where most people start to get excited!

Tomatoes in the “light red” stage have more than 60 percent color on the surface. They’re almost fully pink or red and feel a touch softer, though not quite soft enough to be considered ripe.

Once the tomato has more than 90 percent color and is completely red (or orange or yellow or purple—whatever its mature color is), then it’s at peak flavor and texture. Not too soft, not too firm, and just right for fresh eating.

Let it sit in the sun for a bit, and I think we can all agree that a sun-warmed, vine-ripened tomato is heavenly!

So the best time to pick a tomato is…

Looking at the chart (here it is again), it’s clear that the best time to pick a tomato is in the “red” stage, as that’s when the color is deepest, the sugar content is highest, and the flesh is perfectly juicy.

USDA chart showing tomato color classification

But did you know that you don’t need to reach this stage on the vine?!

Contrary to popular belief, a homegrown vine-ripened tomato isn’t superior to a homegrown indoor-ripened tomato.

Our own psychological biases may have us think otherwise, but as long as a green tomato is mature (grown to full size), it doesn’t matter if it ripens indoors or outdoors.

That said, a mature green tomato has the best chances of ripening if it’s at least picked in the “breakers” stage, as sometimes it’s hard to tell when a green tomato is fully grown.

But unless you’re trying to beat the first frost, you can let your tomatoes continue developing into the “turning,” “pink,” or “light red” stage before you harvest them to finish ripening inside.

At any of these stages (when the fruit is still partially green), a tomato can be ripened off the vine with no loss of flavor, nutrition, or quality.

Cluster of icicle tomatoes on the vine in various stages of ripeness from green to red

But why would you pick a tomato early instead of letting it ripen on the vine?

For a few reasons:

  1. Tomatoes can quickly go from ripe to overripe before you get a chance to pick or eat them all. Harvesting the half-ripe fruits when you’re already in the garden assures that your tomatoes won’t get too mushy before you can use them.
  2. Pests love those sweet, soft, juicy fruits as much as you do, and leaving your tomatoes to fully ripen on the vines exposes them to birds, squirrels, raccoons, or other wildlife that may take a nibble before you do.
  3. A sudden rainstorm can cause that perfect tomato to crack or split as the fruit expands faster than its skin can stretch. This most often happens when there’s a heavy rain after a period of relatively dry weather.
  4. A heat wave can also lead to tomatoes cracking or splitting, as you’re more inclined to water frequently and more heavily while your tomatoes struggle to take up more water than they can handle.

As someone who gardens in a finicky climate with a short season, it’s just not worth the risk in my book.

So, I tend to pick tomatoes before they’re ripe and let them fully ripen to the “red” stage over the course of a week or two on my counter, as it buys me some time before I can use them all.

Colorful group of heirloom tomatoes ripening in a bowl on a marble counter

It also allows me to pull all my tomato plants sooner (if I want to transplant fall seedlings in their place or start a new round of fast-growing vegetables) and relieves the stress of waiting foreverrrr for those tomatoes to ripen before a freeze happens.

If you’ve faced the same quandary, pick with confidence while your tomatoes are in the “breakers” through “pink” stages, knowing your tomatoes will be every bit as good as if you left them on the vine (and without worry of a hungry critter getting to your crop first).

More tomato growing posts to explore:

One Comment

  1. Very good advice. We pick all tomatoes early ahead of a frost, and always pick heirlooms early because they split as they ripen fully outdoors. No birds or insects indoors.

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