What Are Green Tomatoes And Can You Eat Them Raw?

An uber-familiar, nostalgic standout within the culinary lexicon — particularity in the south – fried green tomatoes are a staple dish that is storied and cherished for many (and an especially sublime novel and movie). For those unacquainted with the viridescent produce, though, green tomatoes can launch a bevy of questions: Is it just a type of tomato? Is it a fruit or vegetable? Would you cook with them the same way you'd cook with standard red tomatoes? Are they interchangeable with tomatillos? Don't fret — read on to learn all about the wonder of green tomatoes and have all of these questions answered — and more.

Garden & Gun notes that green tomatoes are merely plain ol' tomatoes that have been picked prior to ripening. They are verdant, bright green, and tend to be firmer than are ripened, red tomatoes. They have a "tight skin" and "a little larger than a tennis ball." The Kitchn notes that there are tomatoes, however, that *stay* green when fully ripe, such as green zebras. Paste Magazine notes that most green tomatoes may actually be a happy accident — unripened tomatoes that fall off the vine and are sometimes thrown out without a second thought. Instead, think resourcefully and use the unripened tomato for numerous, delicious culinary applications. 

Why are fried green tomatoes so important?

There's clearly an inherently contradictory element at play here. You don't often see people deliberately on the hunt for under-ripe strawberries or apples, but clearly, there's something about green tomatoes that sets them apart, from both a culinary perspective and as a cultural artifact.

Garden & Gun deems fried green tomatoes "the ultimate southern comfort food." There is nothing highfalutin about the preparation of the dish; green tomatoes are breaded in some combination of cornmeal, flour, buttermilk, seasonings, and spices before being deep-fried. But it's much more than the sum of its parts. It's redolent of the south, rich with history and culture, crisp and comforting, a shatteringly crisp coating giving way to tender, mild green tomato. It's unbeatable, and you needn't be from the south in order to enjoy. But hold on a moment. Culinary historian and food writer Robert F. Moss discovered something unexpected when delving into the origins of the famous dish: It may not be nearly as southern as you'd expect.

The history of fried green tomatoes

Bon Appétit discussed Robert F. Moss's book "The Fried Green Tomato Swindle and Other Southern Culinary Adventures" in 2013. The book notes that some early recipes may have originated form Jewish cookbooks in the early 1900s, including recipes gathered from "America, Austria, Germany, Russia, France, Poland, Roumania, etc." Serious Eats states that the novel and movie may have done more to make the dish "southern" than originally thought. The very first published recipe is said to have appeared in a Chicago newspaper in the late 1800s, prior to being mentioned in regional publications in "Kalamazoo, in Denver, in Iowa City, in Pittsburgh," in addition to southern cities like Augusta and Biloxi, according to Serious Eats. In the mid-1900s, though, the popularity began to taper off — until the novel was released. Fannie Flagg's novel is based on the Irondale Café near Birmingham, Alabama, which becomes The Whistle Stop Café in the novel and movie. The movie revolutionized the understanding of the modest dish and it soon took on a different meaning entirely.

In a truly bizarre twist, a 1940s Dothan, Alabama newspaper writer/editor actually mocked the idea of the dish, according to Moss. The newspaper stated "no self-respecting Southerner would dream of eating a fried green tomato." Guess that one didn't age too well, in retrospect (via Charleston Gazette-Mail).

How do you cook with green tomatoes?

Green tomatoes can become much more than just deep-fried deliciousness, though. They are firm, taut, acidic, sour, and offer an entirely different texture and flavor profile than regular tomatoes. The Spruce Eats also notes that they're much less juicy than standard red tomatoes. The flavor is very tart and astringent, but mellows out considerably once cooked. They make excellent relishes, compotes, side dishes, casseroles, pasta sauces, tarts or pies, and much more.

Paste Magazine also notes that they're naturally packed with pectin, so they lend themselves incredibly well to rich, savory jams. Fried green tomatoes are also not limited to just being paired with a creamy remoulade. Some even make fried green tomato sandwiches, top burgers, in specialty BLTs, or even used in eggs benedict.

Let's be clear: Tomatillos and green tomatoes are two totally different beasts. The tomatillo is actually in the gooseberry family, while the tomato is in the nightshade category. So be sure to not to use them interchangeably.

Are green tomatoes good for you?

It can be tricky to find green tomatoes in the supermarket, but if you have a garden and/or regularly plant tomatoes, you might have a treasure trove of green tomatoes right under your nose. Furthermore, local farmers' markets might also be a great source to find green tomatoes. In terms of storage, The Guardian notes that you shouldn't refrigerate tomatoes — regardless of color.

From a health perspective, N.C. Cooperative Extension notes that green tomatoes are packed with vitamins A and C, along with potassium, iron, calcium, fiber, magnesium, and more. Glamour notes that research done at the University of Iowa actually stated that green tomatoes help to build muscle and protect against atrophy, which is due to the presence of tomatidinine in the fruit. It also increases the body's propensity for endurance. Clearly, eating green tomatoes does wonders for our bodies, our gardens, and our taste buds. Time to stock up?

Can you eat green tomatoes raw?

Gardening Know How notes that tomatoes have high concentrations of lycopene, while Livestrong notes its high percentage of beta carotene. Livestrong also reports a study that says that consuming raw green tomatoes can be dangerous because of toxins present in the fruit, but there's contrasting information about this. They are part of the nightshade family, which can contain a harmful toxin called solanine. According to Gardening Know How, "it would take huge amount of tomatine to make a person ill," so if you had a few fried green tomatoes, you shouldn't' have any issues. Tomatine is a slightly less toxic variation of the toxins within the nightshade family. It should be noted, though, that some dogs do struggle with digestion of tomatoes, so definitely steer clear if you're planning on giving your dog some green tomato.

While the toxicity issue probably varies from person to person, it's better to be safe than sorry. Either ripen your green tomatoes and use the red variety in raw preparations, or be sure to cook your green tomatoes. Just don't sit down and eat a bushel of raw green tomatoes, and all should be well. If you're unsure what to cook, read, and/or watch, we think you know what we'd recommend.