Growing and Cooking Tangy Tomatillos

Homemade and Homegrown Tomatillo Salsa is a Great Summer Treat

Growing and Cooking Tangy Tomatillos

Tomatillos have a tangy, slightly herbal flavor and are most often used in salsas and sauces. A tomatillo can be eaten raw, making for a great salad topper or side. For a few years now, I have been trying to perfect the art of growing them on my Florida homestead. They produced abundantly in the summers in New York when I lived there. But down South, more than a few times, my tomatillo plants have succumbed to whitefly or heat stroke, only to be turned into next year’s compost. Through trial and error, I have recalculated what they like.

Part of the tomato lineage, tomatillos should be grown similarly. Planting them in a raised row gardening setup works well. Place plants three feet apart. Use a trellis or cage to create support. This allows air flow and reduces pests. You can also plant them as if you were growing cherry tomatoes in pots on your deck. Since tomatillos require cross-pollination, grow a few plants near each other. Like tomatoes, when establishing transplants you can bury the seedlings up to two-thirds the plant length to create stronger root systems.  To get a jumpstart on the growing season you can start seeds six to eight weeks before the last frost date. Once the weather does not dip below 50 degrees, you can leave the seedlings out to harden.

Coogan enjoying his tomatillo harvest.

Tomatillo plants like a lot of compost, enriched soil, and even moisture. I noticed that when I mulched the plants I encountered less whitefly. This kept the soil moist and required less watering. To prevent whitefly, commercial growers often use reflective mulch which makes the plants difficult for the whitefly to locate. Although they are marketed as full-sun summer crops, down in the South, they did best in early spring with a second crop planted in September. High temperatures and humidity cause the pollen to stick to the side of the flower, lowering pollination. Depending on the variety, plants will fruit in 60 to 85 days. When ripe, a tomatillo feels like an un-ripened tomato. It should be firm and green. Some varieties are the size of a dime, while others are plum-sized. Pick the fruits prior to the husk browning.

Tomatillo Salsa

Successful plants will produce around a pound of fruit a season. These yields make for a great crop to add to your fall canning salsa recipes list. After the husks are removed and the skins are washed, the tomatillos do not need to be peeled or seeded. You can flavor this salsa verde recipe with whatever chilies, peppers, or herbs you have available in your garden. Bring the ingredients to a boil and simmer for 20 minutes. Place the hot liquid into pint jars, leaving a half inch from the top. Process in boiling water for 15 minutes.

Salsa Verde

  • 5 cups chopped tomatillos
  • 2 cups chopped, chilies/jalapeños/peppers
  • 4 cups chopped onions
  • 1 cup freshly squeezed lime juice
  • 6 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon ground cumin
  • Fresh herbs (oregano, basil, cilantro, culantro, parsley)
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper
Tomatillo salsa tastes great fresh or canned and with meat, vegetables, or corn chips.
Verde tomatillos are the standard fruits for salsas like the famous salsa verde with its dark green color. Courtesy of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.

Tomatillo Soup

Using tomatillos as a soup base is a great way to use excess fruits. With peak harvest right before the weather cools, the timing is perfect. When it is about to freeze, pull up the plants and store the fruits on the plant upside down in a cool area. If stored in a root cellar or unheated garage, tomatillos can last a couple of months. On the counter, they last about a week. In the refrigerator, tomatillos can store for up to three weeks. Tomatillos can also be frozen whole or blended, frozen in ice cube trays for later use.

For soup, roast tomatillos and peppers under the broiler until charred. Purée until smooth. As they roast, in a soup pan sauté leeks in oil until softened. Add garlic, herbs, and vegetable broth and bring to a boil and simmer. Combine all ingredients and blend. Serve hot with sour cream, fresh herbs, and warm bread or tortillas.

Roasted Tomatillo Soup

  • 4 medium tomatillos
  • 1 jalapeno or green chile
  • 1/2 cup cilantro or parsley
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 leek, halved lengthwise and sliced
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 4 cups vegetable broth
  • 1 teaspoon cumin

Tomatillo History

Tomatillos are summer annuals originating in central Mexico through Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and northern Costa Rica. They have been grown for millennia and were a popular food in Aztec and Mayan societies.

Looking back, 52 million years ago to be precise, tomatillos were tiny. Earlier last year, scientists found two imprints of ancient tomatillos which were the size of a pen cap. Using radiometric dating, the scientists discovered that the nightshade family is at least 12 million years older than originally thought. The fossils show the tomatillo fruit, husk, and stem. Since tomatillos existed at least 52 million years ago, scientists conclude that the grandfather of the tomato and tomatillo must be older than that. Dinosaurs could have been eating salsa verde! But seriously, both tomatillos and dinosaurs could have been alive at the same time.

fossil tomatillo
This 52 million-year-old fossil of Physalis infinemundi is from Laguna del Hunco in Patagonia, Argentina. In this specimen, the former papery and lobed husk is broken at the top to reveal the large, fleshy berry underneath-now turned to coal. Credit: Peter Wilf, Penn State University
fossil tomatillo
This specimen displays the characteristic papery, lobed husk and details of the veins. Credit: Ignacio Escapa, Museo Paleontológico Egidio Feruglio

Today the fruits are used regularly in Mexican and Guatemalan cuisine. Traditionally, tomatillos are combined with chili peppers to make a sauce. Their flavor, a mix of lemon juice and a tomato, cools down the hot flavor of the peppers.

tomatillo variety
Amarylla tomatillos are great for jams and jellies. Courtesy of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.
Purple Coban tomatillo. Courtesy of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.
Rio Grande Verde variety. Courtesy of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.
Tiny from Coban is a dime-size tomatillo. Courtesy of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.


Tomatillo Varieties to Try
Amarylla Grows yellow firm fruits which are relatively sweet. Good
for jams and jellies in addition to the traditional salsas. 60 days to harvest.
Cherry tomato-size fruits ripen from green to purple. Popular in Guatemalan cuisine. 70 days to harvest.
Grande Verde
This is a determinate plant which grows to medium size
and produces apple colored fruits. 85 days to harvest.
from Coban
Tiny dime-size fruits are savory compared to the typical tart flavor of tomatillos.
Verde The standard large dark green fruit. Bred to produce large yields.

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