Although tomatillos (aka Mexican husk tomatoes) are commonly prepared with tomatoes, they’re quite different from their cousins. The tomatillo is a tart, firm fruit that is covered in a papery husk that it gradually fills as it matures. It more closely resembles a cape gooseberry than a tomato.
Tomatillos are a good source of fiber, potassium, niacin, manganese, iron, phosphorus, magnesium, copper, and vitamins A, C and K. Furthermore, they’re easy to grow, fairly resistant to pests, and bees love them. Look at the beautiful flowers on them, too!
Ideal growing conditions
You will need to grow at least two tomatillo plants in order to ensure proper pollination. If you only have one plant, most of the husks will be empty or underdeveloped.
Start plants indoors about six weeks before the average final frost date, then harden them off and transplant them outside when the temperature will remain at least 10 degrees Celsius. Sow the transplants deep into the soil, as you would tomatoes. I find the seedlings are often unavoidably leggy, so don’t be afraid to bury 2/3 of each plant when you transplant it.
Tomatillos need full sun and soil that is well-drained and rich in compost. They require a lot of support, as they can grow several feet tall. If left to sprawl, the fruit may rot on the ground. In my experience, tomato cages are insufficient. Before transplanting your plants, pound some four foot high, thick metal stakes into the ground where you intend for them to grow. Space these 2-3 feet apart; each plant will grow many branches and yield hundreds of fruits. As the plants develop, loosely tie them to the stakes, using soft twine or tomato ties, avoiding tying areas where flowers are developing.
Tomatillos are native to all areas of the Americas except for the north; they are accustomed to heat. They do not need much maintenance or watering, but they do tolerate drought.
- Green tomatillos turn apple-green or yellow when ripe, and stay tart. They are used for sauces and main course dishes.
- Purple tomatillos start off green before turning purple. They are less tart than the green varieties, and as such as used in jams.
Harvesting, using, and preserving
Tomatillos are ready to be picked when they fill out the husk. If left to split the husk, they are not as good for cooking, because their flesh becomes softer and sweeter.
If they do not ripen before the frost, you can hang the entire plant upside down inside until the fruits ripen.
Tomatillos are most commonly associated with salsa verde, but they are a staple ingredient of other sauces and many Mexican dishes, such as enchiladas, burritos, and tacos. They can be eaten raw, or in stews, sandwiches, and salads.
Fresh tomatillos (with husks) can be stored in the fridge for two weeks, in a paper bag. Remove their husks and place them in a sealed plastic bag, and they can be stored an extra week. You can also freeze them as is, with husks removed, of course. The husk is never eaten.
- Earlier this year, scientists found a 52 million year old tomatillo fossil in the Patagonian region of Argentina.