What is a tomatillo, anyway? They might just be a food with an identity crisis. They kinda look like a green tomato, yet have a husk like a cape gooseberry and a tart taste that’s all their own. They’re not exactly “little tomatoes,” as their name would suggest, nor does the Spanish tomate verde (green tomato) really tell the full story of what they are. So keep reading to find out all about tomatillos.
Yes! Botanically speaking, they are members of the nightshade family, which is home to tomatoes and cape gooseberries, too. But tomatillos are a distinct species from both, growing to a roughly golf ball size with a more intensely sour flavor. Like their plant relatives, tomatillos love warm weather and have their peak season in summer and early fall. When brought to full maturity, their fruits can turn shades of red, purple, or yellow, just like their tomato cousins. Tomatillos are mostly harvested and eaten while green and underripe, however, while they still have their signature acidic edge.
There’s evidence that tomatillos have been cultivated in the area around modern-day Mexico since at least 800 B.C., plus it’s known that they were a part of the diets of the Mayans and Aztecs. Even today, they’re still associated mainly with Mexican and Central American cuisines, serving as a primary ingredient in recipes like salsa verde and chile verde.
When shopping for them, look for tomatillos that have dry and papery husks, avoiding ones that are especially shriveled or damp and moist. The husks should cover the fruit snugly and feel fairly tight—this is a sign that they were picked at the ideal moment just before ripening. The fruit itself should be firm without much give; dark or soft spots indicate that they’re beginning to spoil. There’s also a sticky, protective residue on the skin, which can easily be rinsed off before putting them to use.
You can cook tomatillos, which brings out their juices and subtle sweetness. Charred tomatillos can be part of the base of an authentic Mexican mole:
But they’re also pleasant raw, adding a biting acidity to salads and more. Whatever you do, don’t swap them out with green tomatoes in any of these recipes: there simply isn’t a substitute for the tomatillo’s signature tartness and tang!
Here are some of our favorite ways to eat tomatillos.
This green salsa can go wherever it pleases—there probably isn’t a single tortilla-based dish out there that wouldn’t benefit from its bright and cheery flavor. Get our Tomatillo Salsa recipe.
Salsa verde and guacamole team up to make one uber-condiment that conquers all other taco toppings. Use it liberally. Get our Guacamole Taquero recipe.
Raw tomatillos can add spark to a salad. They stand out as the perky one of the bunch in this combination that includes corn, jicama, tomato, and scallions. Get our Tomato, Tomatillo, and Corn Salad with Avocado Dressing recipe.
By cooking tomatillos and chicken together in the slow cooker, you get a chile that’s full of savory flavor and meat that is loaded with fresh juices. Get our Slow Cooker Chicken Chile Verde recipe.
The fish isn’t the only thing served raw in this snappy appetizer—the tomatillos are allowed to show their puckery uncooked flavor, too, alongside avocado and green olives. Get our Green Halibut Ceviche recipe.
Sour cream and tomatillos are blended together in this recipe to make an enchilada sauce that blankets the chicken-stuffed tortillas in oozingly rich decadence. Get our Sour Cream Chicken Enchiladas recipe.
Tomatillos are one of several ingredients that elevate this slaw beyond your basic pile of shredded cabbage. Serve it alongside some grilled meats for a breezy, summery meal. Get our Easy Corn and Tomato Coleslaw recipe.