Tomatoes are a popular ingredient in any salad, adding a splash of bright red and a whole host of nutritional qualities.
They are packed full of things like vitamin C and lycopene, the latter of which is an antioxidant and helps keep blood cells functioning properly. You can also eat tomatoes on their own as a healthy snack, or add them to your favorite recipes.
You may have come across the name tomatillo when discussing the culinary or botanical world. This seems like it would logically be a kind of small tomato, and indeed it is also known as the Mexican husk tomato.
But how similar are the two vegetables in reality, and can you just substitute one for the other in your cooking? Here, we will explain the differences between tomatoes and tomatillos, and why they’re not as closely-related as you might think.
What Is a Tomatillo?
The tomatillo plant comes from the nightshade family, alongside tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and various other vegetables. The fruit resembles a green tomato on the inside, but is enveloped in a light brown papery skin, which makes it look more like a garlic at first glance.
It is also akin to the physalis, a typically orange fruit that has a papery covering. Tomatillos can vary in color from yellow to purple, while tomatoes are not just red, but can also be yellow, orange, green or purple – some varieties are even streaked with multiple colors.
Like tomatoes, there are many different varieties of tomatillos, some of which are more common than others. These include Toma Verde, Tamayo, Gulliver Hybrid, and Rendidora (all green), while purple varieties are mainly Purple de Milpa, Purple Hybrid, and Purple Coban.
Each variety has a slightly different color, which can make it difficult to know when they are properly ripe. The best way of determining a tomatillo’s ripeness is to feel the skin – it should be firm to the touch.
The flavor of tomatillos can be likened to that of tomatoes, but is a little less sweet. The texture is denser, and the flesh underneath the skin is pale green. When you cut open a tomatillo, you will see small seeds forming a ring close to the surface.
The flesh becomes whiter as it nears the center, and it looks somewhat translucent like a cucumber. Tomatillos often have a fairly round shape, but can also be shaped like an apple – it depends on the individual fruit.
Where Do Tomatillos Originate?
Tomatillos were originally found in Mexico, just like tomatoes. Evidence for their cultivation can be seen from the pre-Columbian era, dating as far back as 1000 BC.
Tomatoes were grown and harvested around the same time, but they’re not just a modification of the same plant. It is understandable to assume they might be, though, as tomatoes are sweeter and have a more pleasing appearance.
In the 1800s, tomatillos began to be distributed to other countries, where citizens took a liking to them and began growing plants of their own. However, they only began to be cultivated in the US in the 1980s.
Nowadays, tomatillos can be grown all over the world, as long as the soil they sit in can stay dry enough for them to thrive. Tomatoes are easiest to grow out of the two, and are very commonly seen in gardens, greenhouses and indoors.
The amount of sun they receive contributes to their taste, as full sun access results in a sweeter fruit.
The same is true for tomatillos, which require a lot of sun and well-drained soil. They grow best in US hardiness zones 8-10, giving a low temperature range of 15-30 degrees Fahrenheit.
What Does Tomatillo Mean?
The word tomatillo simply means ‘little tomato’, from the Spanish tomate and the diminutive –illo. Tomate itself is the Spanish colonists’ interpretation of the Aztec word tomato, meaning ‘plump fruit’. It is not difficult to spot the similarities between the two fruits, so this linguistic connection makes sense.
Another name for the tomatillo is miltomate, which is made up of tomate and the Nahuatl word milli (‘cultivated field’). There are various other words for tomatillos across the world, and all of them contain the word for tomato in some capacity.
It seems you can’t identify a tomatillo by name without referring to its crimson cousin.
What Can You Use Tomatillos For?
Since it is a Mexican fruit, the tomatillo features heavily in Mexican cuisine. It is a key part of the condiment salsa verde, which is just like regular salsa but with tomatillos instead of tomatoes, and is probably the most popular way to prepare tomatillos.
However, you can also add it to many other foods – it can be used in place of tomatoes, as well as tomatoes, or for things you wouldn’t use tomatoes in at all.
There is a wide variety of soups, sauces and dishes that you can make with the humble tomatillo, to give them a unique flavor and a touch of acidity. It can even be used in drinks and desserts if you’re feeling adventurous. Here, we share some of our favorite tomatillo recipes with you:
Let’s start with a classic – this recipe shows you how to make an authentic salsa verde, so you can bring a taste of Mexico to your own home. The writer recommends roasting the tomatillos first, as using them raw can make the salsa taste sour.
Tamales are another popular Mexican dish, and it turns out that tomatillos really work well here. The zingy flavor complements the chicken and gives it a fresh twist; you can adjust the levels of salt according to your personal taste.
Tomatillos in a cocktail? It’s more likely than you think: this avolada cocktail, similar to a Michelada, has a tang that is perfectly suited to those hot summer days with your friends. All the ingredients blend with the beer to make a spicy yet refreshing drink.
Tomatillos may look and sound like tomatoes, but are a separate fruit in their own right. They were originally found in Mexico, and have since been cultivated around the globe for their unique flavor and versatility.
As you have learned, tomatillos can be used as an ingredient in many types of dishes, from traditional Mexican foods to modern Western cooking. If you’re still not convinced, why not pick up some next time you go grocery shopping, so you can see for yourself what they can do?
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