Tomatoes are one of the most popular vegetables grown in home gardens. However, when summer heat becomes intense, tomatoes can suffer sunburn damage. This leads gardeners to wonder if sunburned tomatoes are safe to eat. In this article, we’ll explore what causes sunburn in tomatoes, how to identify it, and whether you can still eat sunburned tomatoes safely.
What Causes Sunburn in Tomatoes?
Tomatoes need full sun exposure to grow their best. However, during midsummer’s intense heat the sun’s ultraviolet rays can damage tomatoes. Sunscald, also called sunburn, happens when the fruit’s skin heats to over 100°F. The damage is similar to a bad sunburn on human skin.
Several factors can make sunscald more likely to occur:
- No wind flow – Still, hot air surrounds the plants
- Poor air circulation – Overcrowded plants prevent air movement
- Reflected sunlight – Bouncing off concrete, water or soil
- Partial shade – Creates hotter temperatures on exposed areas
- Damaged or pruned leaves – Reduces shading for fruit
- Age of fruit – Mature, ripening fruit is more prone to sunburn
The most susceptible areas on the tomato are the shoulders at the top. However, sunscald can appear anywhere the fruit’s skin is exposed to intense sun.
How to Identify Sunburn on Tomatoes
Sunburn on tomatoes appears as bleached, yellowish or whitish patches on the fruit. The damaged areas will be slightly softened or wrinkled. If the burn is severe, the skin may blister and peel.
The flesh beneath sunburned spots will turn light brown or grayish. There is often a distinct line separating the damaged tissue from healthy flesh.
Other typical symptoms of sunburned tomatoes include:
- Dry, corky texture
- Watersoaked appearance
- Cracked or splitting skin
- White or tan depressed areas
- Wrinkled, shriveled spots
Are Sunburned Tomatoes Safe To Eat?
Thesafety of eating tomatoes with some sunburn damage depends on the severity. Light sunscald that only impacts the skin is harmless. But deep sunburn that penetrates far into the flesh can allow decay to develop.
Here are some guidelines for determining if sunburned tomatoes are still edible:
- Mild sunscald – The skin is bleached and dry but still intact. The flesh beneath is only discolored slightly. These tomatoes are safe to eat after peeling off the damaged skin.
- Moderate sunburn – Skins are yellowed, wrinkled or crackled. The flesh underneath has light brown discoloration less than 1/4 inch deep. You can eat moderately burned tomatoes after cutting away all damaged parts.
- Severe sunburn – Skins are blistered, cracked open or peeling. The flesh is deeply discolored grayish-brown more than 1/2 inch deep. The texture is very dry or corky. Severely sunburned tomatoes should be discarded.
How to Prevent Sunburn on Tomato Plants
While you can still eat tomatoes with minimal sunburn, it’s best to avoid the damage. Here are some tips to help prevent sunscald:
- Plant tomatoes where they will get some shade during hot afternoons.
- Use stakes, cages or trellises so plants and fruits don’t touch the hot ground.
- Prune leaves only up to one-third to maintain good shading.
- Avoid overcrowding to encourage airflow.
- Use sun barriers like shade cloth if afternoon sun is intense.
- Choose less sun-sensitive tomato varieties.
- Water regularly so plants are not drought stressed.
- Use mulch to cool the soil and prevent reflected heat.
- Pick fruits before they fully ripen to avoid sun exposure.
What to Do With Sunburned Tomato Plants
If your tomato crop gets hit with sunburn, here are some options for dealing with the damaged plants and fruits:
- Harvest sunburned tomatoes – Pick all fruits as soon as possible and sort them based on the severity of damage. Eat those that are still good or preserve into sauces and salsas.
- Provide afternoon shade – Erect temporary shade structures or use shade cloth to protect plants through the hottest part of the day.
- Prune damaged foliage – Remove leaves or stems with sunburn to stimulate new growth.
- Water deeply – Ensure plants get 1-2 inches of water per week if rainfall is lacking to replenish moisture.
- Fertilize lightly – Apply a balanced fertilizer according to label directions to help plants recover.
- Monitor for pests – Damaged plants are more vulnerable to pests like hornworms. Check carefully and use control methods promptly if needed.
- Plant a fall crop – In areas with long growing seasons, replant heat-tolerant varieties in late summer for a fall harvest.
How to Use Sunburned Tomatoes
Sunburned tomatoes that are still sound enough to eat should be used soon after picking. Here are some tasty ways you can utilize tomatoes with light sunscald damage:
- Chop and add to salads, salsas or omelets.
- Slice onto sandwiches, hamburgers or pizza.
- Puree into gazpacho soup or tomato sauce.
- Dice and mix into rice, pasta, quinoa or couscous dishes.
- Skewer with other vegetables and grill or broil kabobs.
- Sauces & Salsas – Process into marinara, pizza, or pasta sauce. Also great for fresh homemade salsa.
- Juice & Cocktail – Juice sunburned tomatoes to enjoy as a beverage or use in bloody mary cocktails.
- Soup – Puree tomatoes into gazpacho soup or simmer into hearty tomato soup.
- Paste – Cook down tomatoes and strain to make a thick, concentrated paste.
- Canning – Water bath can tomato juice, sauces, salsas, soups, and paste to preserve.
Other Creative Uses
- Chop and mix into cornbread, muffins, or brownie batter.
- Roast slices with olive oil, balsamic, and garlic.
- Freeze diced tomatoes in ice cube trays for later use.
- Dehydrate slices in a food dehydrator as tasty veggie chips.
- Puree lightly sunburned tomatoes and use to make soap or face masks.
Getting optimal sun without overexposure can be tricky for tomato plants. While sunburn damage is cosmetically unattractive, tomatoes with mild or moderate sunscald are perfectly safe to consume. You can enjoy their flavor by creatively working around the affected parts. Adjusting your garden conditions can help prevent sunburn problems in future tomato crops.