Last year I forgot to grow tomatillos and, come September, daily lamented my mistake. Never again; I am sowing them now. You wouldn’t expect a sour-tasting relative of the tomato to get under your skin, but once you’ve married it with lime, salt, chilli and coriander, the common tomato looks rather basic in its sweetness. Tomatillo, Physalis philadelphica, with its crisp flesh and tart flavour, is the key ingredient for a Mexican salsa, whether used raw or roasted. It works equally well as a base for soups and combines well with white beans, pork and chicken.
Tomatillos are quick to germinate. Photograph: Getty Images/iStockphoto
The first and perhaps only rule with tomatillos is not to grow too many plants or you will quickly find yourself overwhelmed with fruit. You need two plants for pollination, which is done by insects, so if you are growing them indoors make sure the bees can get in. Three plants and you’ll eat well into autumn; four and you will be bottling into December. Five plants and you might as well start your own salsa bottling business.
Tomatillos are sown just like tomatoes and are quick to germinate if the seed is fresh – within five days on a sunny windowsill or heated propagator.
The last window for sowing is the next two weeks, but you will be able to buy plug plants now from Suttons, Sea Spring Seeds and Vegetable Plants Direct. You can, of course, start them off much earlier, but I find if they get checked in cold growth when young they struggle to pick up again. The plants grow to about 30-45cm high and then they start sprawling, often leaning on the ground. The branches are fragile and break easily, particularly in strong winds.
They are not tidy sorts, but let them go as they please as any pruning tends to affect the overall harvest. Once established they are very unfussy, just don’t overwater them: they hail from South America and don’t want wet feet.
The Purple de Milpa tomatillo. Photograph: Alamy
Wait for the fruit to swell in the papery husks before harvesting, they should be the size of a small tomato. There are several forms: mostly the fruit is green or purple or a mixture of both. Dr Wyche’s Yellow has purple and yellow fruit. The purple forms have a stronger sweet-sour flavour, whereas the green-yellow ones tend to be more tart.
The unripe fruit of either variety is very tart, but well worth experimenting with – it’s nice thinly sliced in salads. I think the best salsas are a mix of tomatillo and tomato, the acid-sugar balance compliments each ingredient in such a pleasing manner. The plants often get weighed down by harvest, and fruit that sits on the ground will get munched by slugs, so get in there first.
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Guess what. Tomatillos aren’t baby tomatoes. Yeah. Even though the Spanish name translates to “little tomato,” they are something else entirely. What are tomatillos then? Allow us to explain.
First things first. These little fruits (yep, they’re fruits, just like tomatoes and cucumbers) are native to (and largely grown in) Mexico, but have been adopted by American farmers due to their resistance to disease. Tomatillos, sometimes called husk tomatoes, look like green, unripe tomatoes with a dry, leafy husk that wraps around the outside. The color of the fruit is a beautiful bright green, which fades a bit once you cook them—but hey, some of us just peak early, right?
Tomatillos have a slightly more acidic, slightly less sweet flavor than ripe and unripe tomatoes. Overall, the flavor is more vegetal and bright, and the interior texture is denser and less watery. Prepping a tomatillo is pretty straight forward. The husks can be easily removed with your hands and discarded. You’ll notice a sticky film on the surface, which will come off with a quick rinse under warm water. From here, you decide what you want to do with them. If you want to keep the flavor bright and play up their bracing acidity, use them raw. If you want to mellow out that acidity a bit and access the fruit’s deeper, more savory qualities, cooking them—whether you’re roasting or grilling them whole or chopping them for a saute—is the move.
Four very good words: Avocado. Tomatillo. Salsa. Verde.
Roasted tomatillo salsa is great. Raw tomatillo salsa is tangy and great. But tomatillos are good for more than salsa. You can keep the sauce train running by pureeing them into creamy sauces and curries, or add them into vinaigrettes for more acid. They can also sub in for a tomato when sliced thinly, layered over some ricotta, drizzled with olive oil, and eaten on toast. You can grill them with onions for steak side, incorporate them into bean-heavy chili or posole, or braise them with chicken for a saucy stew.
Tomatillos are versatile as all hell and pack fresh, tangy flavor that lights up a spring or summer dinner. They can be anything you want them to be. Just don’t call them baby tomatoes. It hurts their feelings.
- Tomatillo salsa is a solid tostada topping, FYI.
- What Is a Tomatillo—and How Is It Different From a Tomato?
- What Is a Tomatillo?
- Tomatillo vs. Tomato
- Tomatillo Recipes
- What is a tomatillo?
- What’s the difference between a tomato and a tomatillo?
- What do tomatillos taste like?
- Is a tomatillo toxic / poisonous?
- How can you tell if they’re ripe?
- Where can I buy tomatillos?
- The Background File
- Various Varieties
- Can I Grow My Own?
- Growing Tomatillo Plants In Your Garden
Tomatillo salsa is a solid tostada topping, FYI.
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What Is a Tomatillo—and How Is It Different From a Tomato?
Tomatillo means, literally, “little tomato.” Its name is misleading, though—tomatillos are a completely different fruit. Here’s what you need to know about the Mexican staple, including how to use it:
What Is a Tomatillo?
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Tomatillos, sometimes called husk tomatoes, are a staple in Mexican cuisine. The small, round, green fruit is a member of the nightshade family, and comes from a plant of the same name. They look almost like unripe, green tomatoes—except tomatillos are wrapped in a dry, papery, corn-like husk.
Tomatillos are eaten raw or cooked. They’re particularly notable for the major part they play in many salsa verde recipes.
At their best in fall, tomatillos taste tart, fruity, and slightly herbal.
Tomatillo vs. Tomato
Tomatoes and tomatillos are both members of the nightshade family, they both are frequently misidentified as vegetables, and they grow best in warm climates. That’s where the similarities end.
Unripe, they look the same (save for the tomatillo’s husk). However, most tomatillos remain green throughout the ripening process. Tomatoes, meanwhile, eventually develop a rich red color.
Tomatoes come in a variety of rounded shapes and sizes—they’re frequently spherical, oblong, or kidney-shaped. They come in differently sized varieties like cherry and heirloom. Tomatillos are typically small to medium-sized and are almost always spherical.
Ready to try your hand at cooking with tomatillos? Salsa verde is a great place to start. Check out more of our favorite tomatillo recipes below:
- Salsa Verde
- Grilled Cumin Chicken with Fresh Tomatillo Sauce
- Tomatillo and Chayote Chicken
- Spicy Tomatillo-Lime Sauce
- Tomatillo Grilled Cheese and Bacon Sandwiches
Tomatillos are very popular in Mexican cuisine, but what is a tomatillo and how do you use it? Read on for the answers and recipes for some of the best ways to use the delicious green fruit!
What is a tomatillo?
A tomatillo is a small round fruit with a green color and papery husk. They’re native to Mexico and are commonly used in Mexican cuisine to make salsas, sauces and more. Other names for the fruit are:
- Mexican husk tomato
- husk cherry
- Mexican tomato
What’s the difference between a tomato and a tomatillo?
At first glance, tomatillos look very similar to green tomatoes, but they’re actually two very different fruits. Even though the word “tomatillo” literally translates to “little tomato” in English, don’t be fooled. They’re not the same thing.
Like tomatoes, a tomatillo plant is easy to grow, and both are plants in the nightshade family. But that’s where the similarities end.
Tomatoes are sweeter, red in color and don’t have the vibrant tartness that tomatillos have.
What do tomatillos taste like?
Fresh tomatillos have a unique flavor that is tart, bright and almost citrusy. They are mainly eaten cooked, but can also be prepared raw.
When boiled, the tomatillos tend to keep their tart flavor. When roasted, tomatillos become a little sweeter and lose some of their tartness.
Some popular recipes that use tomatillos include:
- Salsa Verde
- Tomatillo Guacamole Salsa
- Pork Chile Verde
- Chicken Pozole Verde
Bonus points – tomatillos are healthy, too! They have a good amount of dietary fiber, and are also rich in antioxidants, niacin, potassium, and manganese.
Is a tomatillo toxic / poisonous?
There are parts of the plant that are poisonous, including the leaves, husk, and stem. As the fruit ripens, the papery husk (also known as the lantern) will loosen, revealing the fruit inside. The husk will leave behind a sticky residue. Before using them, be sure to scrub the fruit clean.
Some people believe that the unripe fruit is also poisonous. There is some debate over this, so it is probably best to avoid using them until they are fully ripe. The unripe fruit is very sour, so it isn’t something most people will want to eat anyway.
How can you tell if they’re ripe?
To check for ripeness, peel back a little bit of the husk, until you can see the fruit inside. It should be a bright green color and firm to the touch. If you notice any blemishes or soft spots, throw the fruit away.
Also try to get tomatillos that have completely filled their husks. That’s a good sign that they’re fully mature and tend to be a little more flavorful.
Where can I buy tomatillos?
If you can’t find fresh tomatillos in the produce section of the grocery store, look for them at a Mexican food market. If all else fails you can use canned tomatillos, found in the ethnic foods section of most grocery stores.
The canned ones come peeled and cooked, so they’re ready to use. The only thing you’ll need to do first is drain any liquid from the can.
If you want to use canned tomatillos as a substitute for fresh, an 11-ounce can will substitute for a pound of fresh. On average, there are 15-18 small tomatillos in one pound or about 8-10 medium tomatillos in one pound.
A tart gift from Mexico, tomatillos (Physalis philadelphica) are commonly used by chefs and home cooks throughout the United States and around the world to add a piquant va-va-voom to sauces and chutneys.
Beneath an intriguing, yet inedible, papery husk lies a fruit that, while mimicking the appearance of a green tomato, tastes nothing like a tomato.
Tomatillos’ flavor instead is often described as as “citrusy”, “tart,” “sour,” and “tangy.” Some compare the fruit’s taste to that of a Granny Smith apple or a green grape.
If you’ve sampled a salsa or jam containing these green wonders – or even a tomatillo mojito – you may have considered adding tomatillo (toh-mah-tee-yo) plants to your garden.
Let’s explore the taxonomy and history of the plant, and then we’ll look at how to grow and harvest it.
The Background File
Tomatillos are part of the nightshade (Solanaceae) family, along with tomatoes and peppers. The leaves look a bit like those of eggplant, another nightshade plant. Nightshade plants are grouped together because they each produce the same particular type of flower.
The fruit’s very name is a misnomer. “Tomatillo” means “little tomato” in Spanish, and while they are distantly related, the tomatillo is very definitely not a tomato.
Nevertheless, nicknames linking the two tasty fruits abound, with the tomatillo also being referred to as “tomate verde” (green tomato) and “husk tomato.”
Originating in Mexico and Central America, this citrusy plant has been an important food crop for millennia, though the plant has been around for even longer. In fact, in early 2017, scientists writing for the journal “Science” reported on their discovery and analysis of a 52-million-year-old fossilized tomatillo found in the Patagonia region of Argentina.
Tomatillo plants grow wild throughout their native regions, and some wild varieties in parts of the midwestern United States, where they — despite their edibility — are derisively referred to as weeds and are considered invasive.
Historical records show that numerous North American native tribes used these wild fruits (Physalis longifolia) to treat headache and stomachache, according to the Native Medicinal Research Program at the University of Kansas.
Prized for their unusual flavor and bright green color, these tangy fruits are now cultivated and enjoyed around the world. They can be eaten raw but most commonly are cooked.
Toma Verde is among the more common cultivars, producing the classic, golf ball-sized green fruit. Grande Rio Verde is another well-liked variety, producing a larger, 2-3” sweet sphere. Seeds are available from Mountain Valley Seed Co.
A number of purple types also exist, including Purple Coban, Tiny from Coban, and De Milpa.
And a special variety called Amarylla produces immature green fruit that are only ready to harvest once they turn yellow, contrary to the usual harvesting advice (see below). The Amarylla is known to do well for gardeners in northern zones.
Can I Grow My Own?
In North America, tomatillos are grown as an annual.
As their popularity spreads, seedlings are becoming more commonly available at local garden centers, though not always at big box stores. You can also mail order seeds and propagate your own.
If you go the seed route, start them indoors six to eight weeks before the last frost is expected in your area.
An important consideration when selecting transplants or starting seeds: Because tomatillos are not self-pollinating, they must be planted in groups of at least two to ensure fruiting.
Most gardeners find 2-4 plants produce sufficient fruits for plenty of salsa verde. The plants’ bright yellow flowers will attract bees and other pollinators. You might also add nasturtiums or marigolds as companion plants that will attract pollinators.
Though the tomatillo is a lighter feeder than the tomato, you will nevertheless want to work about two inches of compost into the soil, maintaining a neutral pH close to 7.0. You’ll want to thoroughly aerate your soil to improve drainage, and you should grow tomatillo plants in raised beds if you have heavy clay dirt.
Like their cousin the tomato, they want lots of sun, so select an appropriately bright location. And as with tomatoes, you’ll encourage strong, healthy plants if you bury 2/3 of each transplant to enable additional root growth from the stem.
Space plants about three feet apart. These semi-determinate plants tend to sprawl — growing to be 3 to 4 feet tall and wide — so you might want to use a trellis, stake, or cage for support.
The vines prefer well-drained soil, and can even tolerate moderate drought conditions. They do best, however, with an inch or so of water per week. They certainly won’t grow well in soaking-wet ground.
Adding a 2- to 3-inch layer of organic mulch is a good idea to conserve soil moisture and suppress weeds.
The vines are well-suited for container growing. Use a 5-gallon pot for each plant. Keep an eye on soil moisture, as container dirt dries out more quickly.
Photo credit: .
About Gretchen Heber
A former garden editor for a daily newspaper in Austin, Texas, Gretchen Heber goes through entirely too many pruners and garden gloves in a year’s time. She’s never met a succulent she didn’t like and gets really irritated every 3-4 years when Austin actually has a freeze cold enough to kill them. To Gretchen, nothing is more rewarding than a quick dash to the garden to pluck herbs to season the evening meal. And it’s definitely time for a happy dance when she’s able to beat the squirrels to the peaches, figs, or loquats.
Growing Tomatillo Plants In Your Garden
If you’ve ever seen one, you probably wonder, “What is a tomatillo?” Tomatillo plants (Physalis philadelphica) are native to Mexico. They are quite common in the western hemisphere of the United States, and will most assuredly be found growing in Texas and New Mexico.
When you plant your tomatillos, make sure the area you choose in your garden gets full sunshine and is well-drained. They don’t like soaking wet ground because they are native to a hotter climate. You also want the soil to be as close to a pH of 7.0 as possible.
You can buy your plants from a garden center in your area. If you can’t find them, start seeds indoors about 6 to 8 weeks before the last frost is expected. Of course, if you live in a warmer climate, you can start your tomatillo plants directly in the ground after all chance of frost has gone by.
Be aware that tomatillos are not self-fertilizing. This means that you need at least two tomatillo plants in order to get fruit. Otherwise, you’ll have empty tomatillo husks.
You can harden your tomatillo plants when the weather reaches 50 F. (10 C.) and consistently stays that way at night. By hardening, you should set them outdoors a little at a time so they get used to the outdoors.
The tomatillo grows well in tomato cages or on its own. If you put your tomatillo plants in cages, set the plants 2 feet (.60 m.) apart, or if you want to let them sprawl, set them 3 feet (.91 m.) apart.
If water is scarce, you can give them a drink. The plants do well without a lot of water, but do not like drought conditions. Adding some organic mulch can be a great way to help retain moisture and keep out weeds for your growing tomatillos.
Harvesting the growing tomatillos is easy enough. Just wait for the fruit to get firm and the husk to get dry, papery and straw colored. Once this happens, your tomatillos are ready to pick.
Tomatillos store well in the refrigerator for up to two weeks, and even longer if you put them in a plastic storage bag.
If you started your seeds indoors, follow the instructions below. If you germinated your seeds outside in your garden, you can skip this section and head on over to the Sun, Soil & Water guide.
1. HARDENING THEM OFF:
Outdoor direct sunlight is always more intense than either indoor grow lights or light filtered through a window. Many new gardeners make the mistake of immediately transplanting their plants outdoors into direct sunlight before “hardening” them off. This mistake can cause extreme sunburn that severely damages or kills your plants. To be safe, plan to harden your tomatillo seedlings off outdoors over the course of a week as follows:
- Days 1 – 3: Place your seedlings outdoors in a shady spot that will only get 3-5 hours of direct sunlight throughout the day.
- Days 4 – 5: Place your seedlings in a slightly sunnier spot that will get about 5-6 hours of direct sunlight.
- Days 6 – 7: Place your seedlings in a full sun spot.
Occasionally, your seedlings’ leaves may appear limp due to lack of water, so try to keep their soil moist, but not wet. If you notice your seedling leaves beginning to look white and papery, they’ve gotten sunburned; put them in a partly shady spot for a few days and allow them to recover. Again, if you don’t properly harden off your seedlings, they can get severely sunburned, which will either slow their growth to a crawl while they recover or possibly kill them (if they’re small or weak). Also, be sure that you bring your tomatillo seedlings inside any time the temperatures drop below 50ºF.
2. PLANTING OUTSIDE:
The last historical frost date for your area has now arrived and your tomatillo seedlings are all hardened off…Now it’s time to plant them outdoors! Before you start planting, make sure to look at your local 10 day weather forecast on www.weather.com. If you see any day or night temperatures in the mid-40°F range or below, hold off on planting. This tip has saved us quite a bit of heartache over the past few years as extreme weather and temperature fluctuations have becomes the “new normal.”
IMPORTANT NOTE: As mentioned earlier in this GrowGuide, be sure to plant at least two tomatillo plants near each other since a single tomatillo plant will not self-pollinate itself well (or at all).
3. BURYING FOR STRONGER ROOTS:
Would you like your tomatillo plants to use less water and less fertilizer while also holding up better against strong wind or storms. Here’s how: for any tomatillo seedlings over 6″ tall, carefully trim off all the side branches below the top growth tip (use clean clippers or scissors and cut each branch back to the stem). Next, dig a hole deep enough to bury the plant to the point that the top remaining branches and growth tip are a few inches off of the ground. If you don’t have rich, healthy soil where you’re planting them, consider getting organic gardening soil from your local gardening center. Once buried, the tomatillo plants’ stem will grow roots, making the mature plants’ root system deeper and more extensive in the soil.
Immediately after planting, give each newly planted tomatillo seedlings a deep watering around the base of the plant.
5. TWO IMPORTANT TRANSPLANTING TRICKS:
Two final planting tips that will make your life much easier: 1) The Stick Trick – New transplanted seedlings are often “chopped down” by the aptly named “cutworms.” We’ve had 100% success stopping these pests. We simply find a stick roughly the same thickness as a toothpick and stick it in the ground right next to the stem of our seedlings. When the cutworms come along and feel around the seedling, it is tricked into thinking that the plant is too tough to cut down, so it moves along to its next victim. 2) Wood Chips/Mulch – We can’t overemphasize how important top-dressing your beds with wood chips or mulch is for building and maintaing healthy soil, regulating soil moisture & temperature, and blocking unwanted plants – aka “weeds.” After you plant your seedlings, make sure to put at least a few inches of mulch on top of the soil surface around your plants, if it’s not already there.
In our experience, some tomatillo plants (the green-fruited Physalis ixocarpa varieties) can grow as large or larger than indeterminate tomato plants, whereas the average size of the purple-fruited Physalis philadelphica varieties tends to be about 3-4 feet tall x 3-4 feet wide. As your tomatillo plants grow, it’s a good idea to put a trellis or sturdy tomato cage over them for good structural support. We’ve also experimented with leaving the plants uncaged and they’ve ended up taking on more of a crawling growth habit, with the branches spreading along the ground and setting new roots where they touch the surface. If you don’t have a lot of room to grow, caging is definitely a better option.
Caging your tomatillo plants can also help to reduce disease, increase air circulation to the leaves, and make it easier to maintain the plants and harvest the fruit. There are lots of different options, but we’ve found that most wire trellises from gardening centers are too small and flimsy to do much good. We’ve tried a lot of tomato and tomatillo training systems over the years, but the one that works best for us is our “homemade” 2.5′ diameter x 6′ tall cages that we make from concrete reinforcing wire. They’re strong, tall and can be reused for many years. We’ll put them on our tomatillo transplants as soon as they go in the ground and help the plants grow up and through them as the mature. For a full list of training options that will work for tomatoes or tomatillos, check out this helpful list at extension.org.
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