Have You Met… Tomatillos

This post is part of a series meant to spotlight ingredients, providing nutritional background, a little culinary inspiration, and perhaps encourage you to take an adventure into new markets and cuisines.

Have you met… tomatillos?

Suspicious about why some pale green tomatoes are hidden inside a tiny crepe paper lantern? You should be. Tomatoes these are not; they’re tomatillos. Oh, and those green salsas at your local Mexican restaurant? Also tomatillo!

Although the literal translation from Spanish is “little tomato,” and another of its monikers is the Mexican husk tomato, the tomatillo (pronounced toe-muh-tee-oh), is only distant kin to that juicy red summertime favorite. Tomatillos are actually more closely related to the ground cherry, or cape gooseberry. These cousins are all members of the extensive and very ancient botanical family Solanaceae, or nightshades,* to which potato, eggplant, bell pepper and chili peppers also belong.

First cultivated by early mesoamerican civilizations, credit goes to the Aztecs for domestication. The tomatillo continues today to be a staple of Mexican and central American cuisines, and is spreading in popularity — for deliciously good reasons.

What’s so great about them?

Naturally low in calories (about 20 per 1/2-cup serving), tomatillos contain zero cholesterol, and negligible amounts of fat and sodium. This serving provides nearly 10% and 15% of your daily needs for vitamin K and vitamin C, respectively, plus about 5% of the DVs for potassiummanganesefiber and niacin (B3).

Tomatillos contain the pigments lutein and zeaxanthin — antioxidant carotenoids associated with improved eye health and reduced risk of age-related visual decline, including macular degeneration. Research is studying potentially anti-cancer compounds called anolides found in tomatillos, which may help protect men from the formation of colon cancer cells.

In small amounts (roughly 1% to 3% of your daily needs per serving), tomatillos provide magnesiumphosphorousiron and the trace mineral copper, plus vitamin A and several of the other B vitamins.

*Concerned about eating nightshade fruit + veg? Let us please debunk the myths.

Where do I find them? // What do I look for?

Tomatillos are easily, and often more cheaply, sourced from Latin American and some Asian markets. Most larger chain supermarkets carry tomatillos now as well. Though typically stocked year-round, tomatillos are in season and offer peak flavor from May through October. Fresh tastes best and is the most versatile, but you can find canned tomatillos at many markets — save this pre-cooked option for soups, stews and other cooked dishes that incorporates several other ingredients. (One 11-oz. can will substitute for 1 lb. of fresh tomatillos.)

Always look for tomatillos still in the crinkly paper-like husks that are dry, free of dirt or mold, and fit tightly around the fruit (it’s fine if the husk is slightly split). Underneath, the ideal tomatillo is firm like an unripe tomato, with a shiny bright yellow-green color; avoid those with overly yellow skin. The skin will often be sticky (totally normal), and it should have a fresh herby-vegetal smell.

Tomatillos range from about the size of cherry (1-inch diameter) to a ping pong ball (1.5-inch diameter) to that of a tangerine (2- to 2 1/2-inch diameter). Smaller are regarded more highly by chefs for being more sweet, less bitter. There are also heirloom yellow and purple varietals, which are generally even sweeter than the green tomatillos.

Store tomatillos with the husks on at room temperature out of direct sunlight for a few days. For longer storage, refrigerate loosely wrapped in a plastic or paper bag in the crisper drawer — husked and washed keep 2 to 3 weeks in the cold; unhusked will last about 2 weeks.

How do I use them?

The tomatillo has a citrus-y tart sweetness with flavors and acidity similar to green apple, lemon and plum. Inside, the flesh is typically white or very pale green, and is sturdier than that of tomatoes, almost spongy. To use, peel off the papery husk, and give the fruit a good wash under warm water to remove the stickiness. Like tomatoes, tomatillos do not require peeling (of the skin) or seeding.

Cooking enhances the sweetness and softens the acidity, making them incredibly versatile ingredients. After grilling, sautéing or roasting, the tomatillo is often pureed to make traditional Mexican sauces for mole verde (green mole), chili verde (green chili pork stew), or enchiladas verde with chicken or seafood (must reprise my shrimp version). I also wedge tomatillos for skewers on the grill to serve alongside a protein, or sauté chunks to throw in stir-fries or with eggs.

You can also enjoy the fresh lemony tartness of tomatillos in raw dishes like vibrant green sauces and condiments — think Mexican salsa cruda (raw salsa), salsa verde (green salsa) or green versions of pico de gallo. Heck, I’m positive these would literally blend right in to a green smoothie!

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Pollo en pipian verde (chicken with Pueblan pepita-tomatillo sauce)
+ Chilled cucumber and tomatillo gazpacho
+ A new, lighter spin on guacamole with avocado + mango and tomatillo
Watermelon, strawberry + tomatillo salad with mint and balsamic
+ Coconut milk-based roasted tomatillo and chickpea curry
+ Not-so-Bloody Mary with roasted tomatillos and jalapeno hot sauce
+ Spicy cucumber juice, tequila + tomatillo cocktail
+ Grilled corn on the cob with tomatillo-avocado sauce
Black bean soup with tomatillos and corn
+ Grilled shrimp + tomatillo cocktail with spinach and horseradish
+ Crockpot beef carne adobada

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The above links will hopefully begin your love affair with tomatillos. Then, try one of our favorite suuuuper simple recipes: Blistered Tomatillo Jalapeño Salsa Verde!

Cheers, Heather

Tell me… Are you and tomatillos well acquainted, or is this a new ingredient introduction? 

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p.s. I love hearing from you! Check back if you ask a question, because I’ll answer it here.

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Eat Well Edibles Have You Met...


    • Heather Goesch, MPH, RDN, LDN says:

      I can imagine that’d be fun for kids, especially since ground cherries are a lot smaller and probably much easier/quicker to de-husk! We bought a pint of ground cherries at the Dane County Farmers’ Market back home in Wisconsin, and have never seen them since (in NC or travelling). Such an intriguing flavor — kind of like a sweet and fruity yellow tomato.

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