What Are Tomatillos, Exactly?

Tomatillos 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 taste that’s all their own. They’re not exactly “little tomatoes,” as their name would suggest, nor does the Spanish tomate verde really tell the full story of what they are.

So what is a tomatillo, you ask? 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. 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.

1. Tomatillo Salsa

Chowhound

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.

2. Guacamole Taquero

Chowhound

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.

3. Tomato, Tomatillo, and Corn Salad with Avocado Dressing

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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.

4. Slow Cooker Chicken Chile Verde

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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.

5. Green Halibut Ceviche

Chowhound

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.

6. Sour Cream Chicken Enchiladas

Chowhound

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.

7. Easy Corn and Tomato Coleslaw

Chowhound

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.

Header image: Green Halibut Ceviche from Chowhound

Miki Kawasaki is a New York City–based food writer and graduate of Boston University's program in Gastronomy. Few things excite her more than a well-crafted sandwich or expertly spiced curry. If you ever run into her at a dinner party, make sure to hit her up for a few pieces of oddball culinary trivia.

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