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What Is a Tomatillo?
The tomatillo is a fruit—technically, a berry—containing many tiny seeds and wrapped in a papery husk called a calyx. Tomatillos are part of the nightshade family, along with tomatoes, potatoes, and peppers, but they’re even more closely related to ground cherries (aka cape gooseberries) and the Chinese lantern plant.
What Does Tomatillo Mean?
The word tomatillo (“little tomato” in Spanish) comes from the Nahuatl word tomatl, but in present-day Mexico tomatillos are typically known as tomates verdes (“green tomatoes”). Despite the name, tomates verdes are not the same as what we call green tomatoes in the U.S. Green tomatoes are the hard, unripe fruits of the tomato plant (species: Solanum lycopersicum), while tomatillos (species: Physalis philadelphica or Physalis ixocarpa) remain firm even when fully ripe. Tomatillos—also called husk tomatoes and Mexican ground cherries—predate tomatoes by about 300 years and are generally smaller, with tinier seeds and denser flesh than tomatoes. That said, unripe green tomatoes are a pretty good substitute for real tomatillos.
Where Do Tomatillos Come From?
Tomatillos were first domesticated by the Aztecs around 800 BCE and have been an important crop in Central America ever since. In western Mexico, the tomatillo grows semi-wild, due to its ability to self-sow: Ripe tomatillos that aren’t harvested will drop to the ground and seed themselves, reappearing in spots where they planted years before. In the U.S., you can find tomatillos at Mexican grocery stores and at farmers markets in the summer and fall.
What Do Tomatillos Look Like?
Tomatillos come in a variety of colors and shapes, the most common of which are the golf ball–size green tomatillos used to make salsa verde. The next most popular is the smaller, sweeter miltomates, which are purple and about the size of a marble. Ripe tomatillos should be firm to the touch and bursting out of their husks. To cook with tomatillos, you’ll need to remove their papery husks: Simply peel them off and rinse tomatillos in warm water to remove any sticky residue or stuck-on bits.
7 Different Ways to Eat Tomatillos
An incredibly versatile fruit, you can use tomatillos in countless dishes. Here are a few favorites:
- Make salsa verde. Tomatillo salsa verde is by far the most popular way to prepare these fruits. It's typically made by boiling tomatillos and blending them with garlic cloves, chiles, and fresh cilantro leaves. Find our recipe for easy salsa verde here.
- Use as a topping. Once you’ve made a batch of salsa verde (literally “green salsa”), the possibilities are endless: You can use it on arroz verde (green rice), chilaquiles verdes, chicken enchiladas verdes, huevos rancheros, pork chile verde, and countless other Mexican dishes. (Or just serve it with store-bought tortilla chips!)
- Broil them. Experiment with broiling the tomatillos to make roasted tomatillo salsa, or add an avocado for a creamier green sauce.
- Roast and serve as a side dish. Roasted, halved tomatillos add an acidic kick to blander foods like chicken—try them with braised chicken legs, chicken breasts, or your favorite protein.
- Eat them raw. Often cooked until tender to bring out their sweeter notes, fresh tomatillos can also be served raw. Try raw diced tomatillos in a ceviche or chow-chow. (Learn how to make chow-chow with Chef Thomas Keller here.)
- Fry them. Slice, bread, and fry tomatillos just as you would green tomatoes.
- Drink them. To make a green Bloody Mary, blend tomatillos, cucumber, fresh lime juice, and jalapeño in a blender or food processor and mix with vodka. Serve with your favorite Mary toppings. (Learn how Chef Wolfgang Puck makes a perfect Bloody Mary here.)
- Turn them into a soup. Tomatillos make an excellent green tortilla soup or cold tomatillo gazpacho.
- Preserve them. With their high pectin content and tart flavor, tomatillos make excellent jams and chutneys.
Fried Tomatillos RecipeEMAIL RECIPE
- 4 large tomatillos, husks removed and rinsed
- 2 cups breadcrumbs
- 2 eggs
- 1 cup flour
- Vegetable oil
- Slice tomatillos about ⅓ inch thick. Place slices on a clean towel or wire rack and sprinkle with salt.
- Place breadcrumbs in a shallow bowl. In a second shallow bowl, beat eggs with 1 tablespoon water. Place flour in a third shallow bowl.
- Pat tomatillo slices dry. In a large skillet, pour oil to a depth of 1 inch and heat over medium.
- Coat each tomatillo slice in flour, then egg, then breadcrumbs. When the oil is hot and shimmering, add tomatillo slices in a single layer. Fry until golden, about 3 minutes, then flip with a spatula or tongs and continue frying until golden on the other side, about 2 more minutes.
- Drain on paper towels and sprinkle with salt while still warm.