A tomatillo (Physalis philadelphica) looks like a small green tomato covered with a pale green husk. A tomatillo (Physalis philadelphica) looks like a small green tomato covered with a pale green husk. The name tomatillo means “little tomato” in Spanish, and the fruit is indeed related to tomatoes, both being a part of the nightshade or Solanaceae family. They are close relatives of the Cape gooseberry (not a true gooseberry) and the Japanese Lantern fruit (bladder cherry).

They are often confused with actual green tomatoes, the unripe versions of regular tomatoes which they resemble. These two fruits are actually different species, although they are from the same botanical family. Green tomatoes are tomatoes that didn’t ripen by the end of the growing season. so, they are commonly seen in late summer and early autumn, which happens to be when tomatillos are in season as well.

Both have a tart, acidic flavor and firm, almost crunchy texture, and can be used in many of the same ways. The most obvious difference is that tomatillos have a husk on them and are much smaller than most green tomatoes.

Tomatillos are very popular and unique to Mexican and Southwest cooking. Curiously they haven’t found a place in other world cuisines like so many “new world” crops have like tomatoes, corn and peppers.

The fruit, generally 1.5 to 2 inches in diameter, ripens from a vivid green to a yellow color, but tomatillos are almost always used when green, when their unique flavor is at its height. Some varieties, however, are purplish or yellow in color.

Although the fruit looks like a little green tomato, the flesh is much firmer and has a tangy flavor all its own, with lemony and spicy herbal overtones. They are now widely available in the U.S. and available all year.

Tomatillos are easy to grow for you gardeners out there and, in the Southwest and Mexico grow wild. There are several varieties all of which are interchangeable in cooking:

Purple – This has a dark purple skin that adds color to the garden. It’s a lot sweeter than other green-colored tomatillos and makes a great snack fresh off the plant. Purple is equally delicious in salsa.

Purple Coban – Another purple-colored variety, this one is an heirloom. It matures in 70 days.

Toma Verde – This type is quick-maturing tomatillo (60 days) that produces relatively large sized fruits. It’s an excellent ingredient for any Mexican recipe.

Tomayo – This variety yields big green balls of semi-sweet tomatillos. Another excellent choice for salsa-making.

Amarylla – A yellow colored variety that matures in about 60 days. Amarylla is good for salsa but sweet enough for preserves.

Rio Grande Verde – For the gardener looking for a plant that yields big fruits, this variety is the number one choice. It yields tomatillos almost as big as apples!

Using Tomatillos
The husk, called a calyx, is easy to remove but leaves a sticky residue that needs to be washed off before the fruit is used.
Tomatillos are central to the flavor of salsa verde (with its many variations), and many other Mexican and Central American dishes. They can be used raw but they are often cooked. Cooking softens the texture and deepens the flavor of the fruit.

Buying Tomatillos
When you purchase tomatillos, the husk will probably be light brown and slightly opened. Make sure the fruit underneath is a uniform light green color with a firm texture. Avoid soft tomatillos unless you have a recipe that specifically calls for yellow, riper, fruit. Mexican cooks sometimes pull up entire plants and hang them upside down in a dry place, with the fruits still attached and can last for months.

If you need to store them, leave them in their husk and place them in a paper bag in the refrigerator for up to one month. They can also be frozen for long-term storage.

Other Names
In Mexico, the tomatillo is also known as milto-mate, tomate verde, tomate de milpa, fresadilla, or even just tomate. They are also called Mexican husk tomatoes and like many members of the genus Physalis, ground cherries. The tomatillo was probably more often consumed during ancient times than the sweet red tomato or jitomate and has been cultivated in Mexico since pre-Columbian times.

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This article was published in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, October 2023

All photographs by John Burgess of Santa Rosa Press Democrat