Tomatoes are one of the most widely used vegetables in cooking. Their sweet, tart flavor plays a starring role in sauces, salads, sandwiches and more. However, like any fresh produce, tomatoes don’t last forever. It’s important to know how to tell if a tomato has gone bad, so you don’t accidentally eat spoiled ones.
Eating spoiled tomatoes can cause unpleasant symptoms like stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. This article covers all the signs of fresh vs. bad tomatoes, proper tomato storage and what to do if you’ve accidentally eaten one that’s over the hill.
Signs of a Fresh Tomato
When selecting tomatoes at the grocery store or farmers market, look for the following characteristics of fresh, ripe tomatoes:
- Bright, uniform color — tomatoes come in shades of red, pink, yellow, orange, green and purple. Regardless of the hue, the color should look vivid and consistent.
- Smooth, tight skin — the skin should be free from wrinkles, cracks, bruises and soft spots.
- Firm flesh — a ripe tomato will yield slightly to gentle pressure but feel plump and solid overall.
- Pleasant fragrance — fresh tomatoes have a delightful, sweet aroma. Pass on any that smell sour or fermented.
- Green stem — the stem and stem scar should look fresh and green, not dark or dried out.
- Heavy for its size — pick up the tomato and gauge its weight. Ripe tomatoes feel substantial and heavy in your hand.
What Causes Tomato to Go Bad?
Tomatoes are perishable fruits that eventually start deteriorating and rotting due to natural processes:
- Moisture loss — fresh tomatoes consist of about 94% water. Over time, the moisture starts to evaporate, causing the tomato to shrivel and look dried out. This concentrates the sugars and makes an older tomato taste oddly sweet.
- Enzyme action — tomatoes contain enzymes that help break down their cell structures. These enzymes continue working even after the tomato is picked, causing its flesh to gradually soften and degrade.
- Microbial growth — bacteria, molds and other microorganisms that naturally exist on tomato skin will multiply and colonize the fruit as it ages. This can result in rotting, fermentation and potentially dangerous pathogens.
- Physical damage — nicks, cuts and bruises accelerate decomposition by exposing the inner flesh and juices to air. This provides entry points for microbes to invade and colonize.
12 Signs That Your Tomato Is Bad
Knowing how to identify when a tomato is past its prime can help you avoid wasting money on subpar produce or accidentally consuming spoiled tomatoes.
1. Visible Mold
The most obvious indicator that a tomato has spoiled is the presence of visible mold. This fuzzy, cobweb-like white or green growth on the surface of the tomato signals the presence of microscopic mold spores.
Mold spores are present in the air and can begin growing on tomatoes through tiny bruises or cracks in the skin, especially if the tomato has been kept in warm, humid conditions. As the mold takes hold, it can cause tomatoes to rot and become unsafe to eat.
Never eat a tomato with visible mold on the surface, as the spores and associated toxins can make you sick. It’s also important to discard a moldy tomato properly so mold spores do not spread to other produce.
2. Unpleasant Odor
A fresh, ripe tomato should have a pleasant aroma. As tomatoes start to spoil, they give off foul smells that can signal it is time to throw them out.
Some key warning signs in a tomato’s odor include:
- A sour, fermented smell, like vinegar or overripe fruit
- A sulfurous odor, like rotten eggs
- An ammonia-like stench
- A garlicky, oniony reek
- An alcohol-like smell, like wine that has turned to vinegar
If your tomato smells odd or unpleasant in any way, it is best to err on the side of caution and not eat it. Relying on your sense of smell is an easy way to identify bad tomatoes before cutting into them.
3. Loose, Shriveled Skin
A prime tomato should feel firm and taut when gently squeezed. As a tomato starts deteriorating, you may notice the skin becomes wrinkled or shriveled.
This shrinking and loosening of the skin is caused by interior moisture evaporating faster than the tomato’s flesh is shrinking. Dents or divots in the tomato’s surface that do not spring back can also signal overly soft, aging flesh underneath.
|Fresh, firm tomato||Taut, shiny skin with no wrinkles or shriveling|
|Overripe tomato||Wrinkled skin, loose divots that do not spring back|
A tomato that is becoming loose and shriveled is past its prime. The softened flesh will not have the ideal texture in recipes.
4. Water-Soaked Spots
Water-soaked spots that appear translucent or sunken on the surface of a tomato indicate microbial growth and decay. These watery spots are caused by bacteria or fungi digesting the tomato’s flesh.
Water-soaked spots often appear at the blossom end of the tomato, but can develop anywhere on the surface. Tomatoes with water-soaked lesions larger than 1/4 inch should be discarded, as the inner flesh is likely compromised. Smaller spots can be trimmed away if the rest of the tomato still appears fresh.
5. Unusual Coloring
The typical coloring for a ripe tomato is a rich, uniform red. As a tomato deteriorates, you may notice unusual discolored patches or blotches.
Green spots or a yellowish cast signal under-ripeness and starchy flavor. Meanwhile, blackened splotches, orange discoloration, or brown streaks can indicate more advanced decay and unpleasant tastes.
Inside the tomato, the gel and seed pockets surrounding the inner cavity should appear bright red and juicy. Brown, mushy gel is a sign of spoilage. If the inner flesh is beginning to turn, the rest of the tomato should be discarded.
6. White Patches of Growth
Hard, dry, white patches on the surface of a tomato may appear to be a harmless mold. However, these patches are actually the result of bacterial canker.
Bacterial canker begins as small, watersoaked spots. As the bacteria proliferate, hard white or gray scabs form. These lesions indicate the bacteria has compromised the tomato’s flesh underneath. Bacterial canker can spread quickly between tomatoes if left unchecked.
To stop bacterial canker from infecting the rest of the tomatoes, discard any fruit displaying white lesions or growths. Make sure to clean any containers, utensils, and surfaces the affected tomato contacted.
7. Wrinkling Around the Stem
The stem end of a tomato can reveal early signs of trouble. If the skin and flesh appear shrunken or wrinkled around the stem scar, this indicates the tomato has been off the vine too long.
Tomatoes begin to deteriorate and shrivel first around the stem area after harvest. The loosening skin and flesh signal that the tomato is past peak ripeness. Eat these tomatoes soon or preserve via canning, sauce, or freezer methods.
8. Soft, Mushy Spots
As tomatoes age and cell walls begin breaking down, you may notice abnormally soft or mushy spots scattered across the surface. Healthy tomatoes should feel firm and juicy when gently squeezed.
These overly soft spots indicate microbial growth and enzymatic activity within the tomato. Pressing on the spots and feeling the flesh underneath give way signals that microorganisms have begun the rotting process from the inside out. Time to toss the tomato.
9. Wrinkled Blossom End
The end of the tomato opposite the stem is called the blossom end. This bottom region is prone to developing wrinkles and tiny cracks as the tomato sits after harvest.
While a few small lines are normal, a deeply wrinkled or caved in blossom end signals over-ripeness. This weakened area provides an entry point for molds to colonize and bacteria to colonize. For peak flavor and texture, use tomatoes soon after the blossom end begins wrinkling.
10. Dented, Sunken Area
Round, ripe tomatoes should feel taut and springy across the surface. If you notice a deep, sunken area or unusual denting, this indicates advanced deterioration.
As cell walls fully break down, tomatoes will begin to collapse inward, creating large concave patches and lesions. The flesh underneath these dented regions is overly soft and depleted. The sunken lesions allow microbial growth to advance deeper into the fruit.
Tomatoes with sunken, dented areas larger than 1 inch are too far gone and inedible. Smaller dents can be trimmed out if the surrounding flesh remains firm.
11. Darkened Seeds and Gel
To perform a final check on a tomato’s freshness, you need to look inside. Slice open the tomato and inspect the gel, seeds, and cavities.
Healthy tomatoes will have bright red, juicy gel and seeds. As tomatoes rot, this inner matrix turns brown, dark red, or black. Darkened gel and seeds signal microbial activity has reached the innermost flesh and tissues.
If the inner pulp, seed pockets, or cavities have changed from bright red to a darker hue, it is no longer edible. Any funky colors or textures among the gel, seeds, or inner walls mean the tomato has gone bad.
12. Fuzzy Texture
The last warning sign to check is the tomato’s raw texture once cut open. Press your finger gently against the exposed inner flesh.
If you notice a fuzzy or furry sensation, this indicates fungal growth has taken hold. Healthy tomatoes should feel smooth and juicy. The fuzziness results from mold filaments proliferating across the surface of the tomato’s interior.
Any fuzziness, velvety feel, or visible mold filaments inside means fungal decomposition has begun. Discard the tomato to avoid spreading spores or accidentally eating moldy portions.
How to Store Tomatoes
Follow these guidelines to keep tomatoes fresh and flavorful for weeks or even months after harvest.
Selecting Tomatoes for Storage
Picking the right tomatoes is an important first step for proper storage. Follow these tips when selecting tomatoes to store:
- Choose unripe, mature green tomatoes. Tomatoes should be fully sized and developed but still completely green.
- Avoid overripe, damaged, or bruised tomatoes. Check for cuts, cracks, soft spots, mold, or other defects.
- Handle tomatoes gently to avoid bruising. Bruises lead to quicker deterioration.
- Pick tomatoes in the morning when they are coolest. Avoid hot afternoons.
- Rinse and dry tomatoes thoroughly before storage. Any moisture can speed decay.
Picking the right tomatoes will give you the best chance of successful long-term storage.
Storing Tomatoes at Room Temperature
Keeping tomatoes at room temperature on the counter or table is the simplest storage method. Follow these tips for room temperature storage:
- Place tomatoes stem-side down in a single layer, not touching each other.
- Keep out of direct sunlight which can cause uneven ripening.
- Store in a basket, bowl, or pan, not sealed in plastic which can lead to mold.
- Use within 2-3 days for best quality. Check daily and remove any spoiled tomatoes.
Table 1 shows expected shelf life for ripe tomatoes held at room temperature:
|Storage Temperature||Expected Shelf Life|
|Room temperature (68-77°F)||2-3 days|
Room temperature storage works best for tomatoes you plan to use soon. The shelf life is limited to a few days.
Storing Tomatoes in the Refrigerator
Refrigerating tomatoes is another common approach. Follow these guidelines for fridge storage:
- Do not refrigerate tomatoes until fully ripe. Unripe tomatoes will not ripen properly in the fridge.
- Place ripe tomatoes stem-side down in a single layer in the vegetable drawer.
- Avoid storing tomatoes with fruits that produce ethylene gas like apples, bananas, and melons. The gas can prematurely soften tomatoes.
- Use within 4-7 days for best flavor. Check frequently for signs of spoilage.
Refrigeration slows ripening and decay to extend shelf life slightly longer than room temperature. Expect refrigerated tomatoes to last:
|Storage Temperature||Expected Shelf Life|
|Refrigerator (32-50°F)||4-7 days|
The cold temperature of the refrigerator can degrade taste and texture. Tomatoes are best stored at room temperature for flavor.
Freezing is another long-term storage method, maintaining flavor and nutrition for 6-12 months. Follow these steps:
- Rigid freezer-safe containers
- Heavy duty aluminum foil
- Permanent marker
Step-by-Step Freezing Instructions
- Select ripe tomatoes with thin skins for easier blanching. Do not freeze overripe or damaged tomatoes.
- Wash tomatoes thoroughly and dry well.
- Blanch tomatoes to prevent texture changes during freezing:
- Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil.
- Cut a small X in the bottom of each tomato.
- Working in batches, submerge tomatoes in boiling water for 60-90 seconds.
- Remove promptly with a slotted spoon and immediately rinse under cold water.
- Peel off skins starting at the X.
- Pack peeled tomatoes into rigid freezer containers, leaving 1⁄2 inch headspace.
- Press plastic wrap directly on the surface to prevent freezer burn.
- Seal containers airtight. Label with contents and date.
- Freeze for up to 6 months at 0°F or below.
- To use, remove desired quantity and thaw in the refrigerator overnight before cooking.
Frozen tomatoes are great for sauces, soups, stews, and casseroles. Blanching and quick freezing prevent loss of flavor and texture.
How to Store Tomato Paste and Crushed Tomatoes
Tomato paste and crushed tomatoes are kitchen staples derived from fresh tomatoes. Here are some tips for storing these tomato products:
Refrigerate opened tomato paste cans for up to 1 month. To freeze for longer storage, divide into usable portions in an ice cube tray. Freeze cubes solid then transfer to a freezer bag. Frozen cubes can be stored for 6-8 months.
Refrigerate opened crushed tomatoes for 5-7 days. To freeze, seal carton and freeze for 2-3 months.
Canning crushed tomatoes – Prepare crushed tomatoes and boil for 5 minutes before canning in a water bath canner for 45 minutes (pints) or 50 minutes (quarts). Always use current USDA-approved canning methods. Canned crushed tomatoes will keep 12-18 months. Refrigerate after opening.
Canning tomato paste – Make homemade tomato paste and can it by:
- Spooning paste into canning jars, leaving 1⁄4 inch headspace.
- Wiping rims clean and sealing lids.
- Processing jars in a pressure canner at 10 pounds pressure for 45 minutes (pints) or 50 minutes (quarts).
- Storing sealed jars up to 18 months in a cool, dark place. Refrigerate after opening.
Proper canning of tomato paste provides extended shelf life while retaining maximum nutrition and flavor. Never can tomato paste using a water bath canner—it must be pressure canned.
How Long Do Frozen Tomatoes Last?
Frozen tomatoes maintain quality for about 8-10 months in the freezer at 0°F or below. To maximize shelf life:
- Use high quality, undamaged ripe tomatoes. Blanch before freezing.
- Freeze tomatoes as soon as possible after harvest.
- Quick freeze tomatoes in a single layer on a tray before bagging.
- Exclude as much air as possible and seal bags airtight.
- Avoid temperature fluctuations by keeping the freezer at a constant 0°F.
Portion tomatoes into usable amounts so you can thaw only what is needed. Let frozen tomatoes thaw overnight in the fridge before use.
Can You Get Sick From Eating A Bad Tomato?
Eating spoiled tomatoes can sometimes cause foodborne illness. Common symptoms include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Abdominal cramps and diarrhea
- Fever and chills
These symptoms are usually temporary and resolve within 24-48 hours. However, certain high-risk individuals may develop severe illness.
What makes tomatoes potentially hazardous?
- Bacteria like salmonella and E. coli can invade damaged or decaying tomatoes.
- Mold can harbor toxins and fungi that cause digestive distress.
- The tomato plant is a member of the nightshade family. When spoiled, solanine and other glycoalkaloid compounds can form, causing headaches and stomach upset.
To avoid food poisoning, inspect tomatoes carefully and throw away any that are bruised, moldy or have an off smell or appearance. When in doubt, play it safe and discard!
Is It Safe to Eat Moldy Tomato?
It’s generally unsafe to eat any tomato that has mold growing on it, even if you cut the moldy parts off. Mold can penetrate deep into the tomato flesh via tiny roots and filaments. Its presence usually indicates the entire tomato is compromised and should be discarded.
Mold also produces mycotoxins as it multiplies. Mycotoxins can survive cooking temperatures and may still cause health issues if ingested. It’s just not worth risking your health over one moldy tomato!
Frequently Asked Questions
Here are answers to common questions about determining tomato freshness and spoilage:
Q: Can you store tomatoes in the fridge?
A: Yes, ripe tomatoes can be refrigerated in the crisper drawer for up to a week. Any longer and they tend to get mealy and lose flavor. Let tomatoes come to room temp before eating for best taste.
Q: Do green tomatoes go bad faster?
A: No, unripe green tomatoes last 2-4 weeks longer than ripe red tomatoes. They’ll eventually ripen at room temperature.
Q: What if my tomato has a soft spot?
A: Throw it out! Even a small soft spot likely means microbes have invaded and begun decomposing that area of the tomato. Eating it poses safety risks.
Q: Is it okay to cut mold off and eat the rest?
A: No, visible mold on produce means below-surface contamination has likely occurred. It’s unsafe to eat any of a moldy tomato.
Q: Can tomatoes be frozen?
A: Whole tomatoes don’t freeze well and turn mushy. Diced, crushed or pureed tomatoes can be frozen for later use in cooking. Blanch whole tomatoes before freezing to help retain texture.
When stored and handled properly, fresh ripe tomatoes should keep for 5-7 days at room temperature, or up to a week refrigerated. Signs like wrinkles, bruises, soft spots and mold indicate a tomato is overripe and should be discarded. With careful inspection and attentive food handling, you can enjoy delicious tomatoes without worrying about safety or freshness. Trust your senses – if a tomato smells funky, tastes off or its texture seems iffy, play it safe and throw it out.