Tomatillos: Everything You Need To Know

If you haven't yet been introduced to this fun-to-say fruit, here's everything you need to know about the tomatillo (aka Physalis philadelphica or Physalis ixocarpa). Let's start with the basics, which includes a common misconception. As Bon Appétit notes, no, it's not a baby tomato, although that's kind of what the name means in Spanish (tomatillo literally translates as "little tomato"). Also, it's commonly referred to as tomate verde in México, which means green tomato.

You'll sometimes hear it referred to as a husk tomato, or even a husk cherry, because of the thin, papery husk which protects the tomatillo as it grows, and must be peeled and washed before preparation (although this is sometimes done before they're displayed in supermarkets). Some even refer to it as a Mexican ground cherry, presumably due to its size and ability to self-sow (per MasterClass, ripe tomatillos that aren't harvested will drop to the ground and seed themselves).

How do tomatillos differ from related fruits like tomatoes?

Given how many other fruits tomatillos are compared to in terms of name, it's only fair to wonder how they compare in size, texture, and color. Per Small Kitchen Guide, tomatillos are both smaller and softer than green tomatoes. They're also smaller than most other varieties of tomatoes. According to MasterClass, tomatillos at their largest are about the size of a golf ball, while larger forms of tomatoes can grow as big as a softball. The one exception is cherry tomatoes. A mature tomatillo is about the same size, or slightly larger than a cherry tomato, per Harvest to Table.

Tomatoes also differ in texture from tomatillos, as MasterClass notes. Ripe tomatoes are tender, juicy, and easily bruised, whereas ripe tomatillos remain very firm and dense. What about the ground cherry, aka the cape gooseberry? Tomatillos are larger than ground cherries, but the two share the presence of a papery husk. Ground cherries are typically an orangish-yellow color, however, while tomatillos are most often green.

The history of the tomatillo

Per Scientific American, the earliest known tomatillo plant fossil was found in Patagonia and dates to 52 million years ago, making it the oldest evidence for any member of the nightshade family, which includes not just tomatoes, but also potatoes, chiles, ground cherries, and tobacco. Despite this far-flung fossil, the tomatillo's ancestral home, in terms of historical cultivation, is México, where it has been grown since at least 800 BCE, according to Many Eats. The word tomatillo, in fact, originated from the Nahuatl word tomatl, and tomatillos were important culinary ingredients for both the Aztecs and the Mayans.

It is thought that the appearance of the tomatillo in Southern Europe dates to the Spanish conquest of Mexico in the early 16th century (via Many Eats). In modern times, tomatillos grow in warm weather locales around the globe, including Australia, South Africa, and India, where they lend their distinctive flavor to curries and chutneys. They are also grown, of course, in the U.S.

Use of tomatillos in cooking

Tomatillos are most famously used in green salsas (via The New York Times) and as a staple element in Mexican cuisine. They aren't naturally spicy, but they are so often found in dishes that are spicy due to the use of chiles and chili powders, they sometimes have that reputation. Often roasted or boiled for green salsas, tomatillos themselves are typically green, although there are some varieties that are yellow-green, purple, or purple-green.

In addition to their use in green salsas, which can be served on the side or slathered generously on enchiladas and other dishes, tomatillos are used liberally throughout Mexican cuisine, per Taste of Home ... in soups, in marinades for meats, for breakfast standards like chilaquiles verdes, for signature national dishes like pozole verde, and much more.

Yes, tomatillos can be eaten raw. But they are sour, tart and acidic (per Eat Delights), as opposed to the sweeter, tangier flavor they have when cooked.

The health benefits of tomatillos

We mentioned that tomatillo is fun to say. The double l's should be pronounced like the y in yo: toe-mah-tee-yo. Beyond the euphony of the word as it rolls off your tongue, tomatillos also offer a wealth of health benefits. Per Organic Facts, they are low in sugar, fat, and carbohydrates, and rich in vitamins and minerals.

The most interesting thing about tomatillos from a health perspective, however, is that they may help reduce the risk of cancer. This is thought to be because of the presence of antioxidant phytochemicals called withanolides (via Biomedical). If that weren't enough to make you run out for a quick order of enchiladas with salsa verde, tomatillos are also reputed to improve digestion, improve vision, boost your immune system, lower blood pressure, improve heart health, and raise energy levels.

Be warned, though, that the husk, leaves, and stem of the tomatillo are toxic. Some also believe the unripe fruit is toxic, too, according to Taste of Home, and although this is somewhat controversial, it's best to steer clear of all but mature fruit.

Where to find tomatillos, and how to store them

As Our Everyday Life explains, tomatillos when ripe are easily plucked from the vine, and should be bursting from their husk, which will be turning from green to tan in color. Tomatillos are usually harvested during the late summer or early fall, per Gardening Know How.

Tomatillos are widely available in supermarkets around the U.S., according to Thrive Cuisine, including in Walmart, Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, Kroger, Publix, and Safeway stores. Fresh tomatillos should be found in the produce section, while canned tomatillos are generally found in the canned vegetable or international aisles, or with other Latin products. Fresh and canned tomatillos are available via Amazon, as are tomatillo-based salsas and sauces.

Thrive Cuisine notes that tomatillos may also be found at farmers markets, as well as at health food stores. Do not keep tomatillos next to apples and bananas, per Harvest to Table, since apples and bananas give off a natural gas called ethylene which will cause tomatillos to darken in storage.