Vipavlenkoff / Shutterstock.com

Scientists are developing processing methods that would retain more of the fruits’ flavor.

Grocery store tomatoes and their freshly picked counterparts tend to taste like two different species. The latter are juicy and sweet; the former mealy, bland, and indistinguishable from cardboard. Your best bet, taste-wise, is probably to grow your own tomatoes or buy them at a farmers’ market. But for many city dwellers, that simply isn’t practical—and sometimes, seasonality be damned, you just want to have a caprese salad in December.

Now scientists are working to close this flavor gap. According to a new study presented at a meeting of the American Chemical Society, the key to better-tasting tomatoes could be as easy as “just add hot water.”

To understand how this works, let’s recap how tomatoes end up at the supermarket. First off, conventional growers don’t pick tomatoes at peak ripeness. They harvest the fruits at the “mature green” stage, degreen” them using ethylene gas, then store and ship them at low temperatures to prevent bruising and decay. While chilling protects the flesh of the fruit, it suppresses the production of certain flavor and aroma compounds, resulting in tomatoes that are red and robust on the outside but tasteless on the inside.

The new study doesn’t rethink this entire production chain. Rather, it proposes three simple fixes to improve the flavor of conventional tomatoes along the way.

The first option is to pre-heat the tomatoes. Researchers found that dipping the fruits in hot water (about 125 degrees Fahrenheit) for just five minutes yielded higher levels of flavor and aroma compounds. These benefits held up even after subsequent chilling. The second option, “fumigating” tomatoes in wintergreen oil, also resulted in better-tasting tomatoes with comparable shelf life.

The third option is to harvest the fruits later—at the “breaker” stage, when tomatoes are half-green and half-pink—and then fumigate them with a chemical that makes the fruit more resistant to decay. That way, they can skip the chilling step entirely and retain more of their natural flavor.

Since the researchers didn’t compare these methods head-to-head, it’s too early to say which one works best. But it’s worth remembering that, while the notion of pre-heating produce might seem counter-intuitive, it is already a part of agricultural practice. As the study’s lead researcher Jinhe Bai pointed out at a recent press conference, U.S. food safety law requires certain fruits and vegetables, including mangoes and grapefruit, to be heat-treated before they can be imported into the country.

Still, implementing any of these methods will require producers to shift their priorities from minimizing damage to maximizing flavor. Only time will tell whether growers catch up with the flavor science. But at least now there’s hope that someday you’ll be able to get fresh-tasting fruit without making a trip to the farmers’ market.

Top image: Vipavlenkoff/Shutterstock.com.

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