What Are Tomatillos? Plus 6 Ways to Cook Them

Updated 11/27/19

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Tomatillos aren’t all that common, automatically making them seem a bit strange or hard to work with. Sheathed in a papery skin, when unwrapped they look and feel like firm green tomatoes, but are no such thing. They’re much denser in texture and have a much more tart and tangy flavor than tomatoes and can sometimes even be described as unpleasantly bitter or astringent when eaten raw. Luckily, there are many, easy ways to coax out the best a tomatillo has to offer, and their bright, summery bite lingers on the palate with just a hint of acidity and a subtle sweetness that makes for delicious sauces, dips, stews, and even cocktails.

Before learning how to prep these pretty little packages and cook them in 6 different ways, there are just a few things it'd be good to know, like, what are they and where did they come from. So let’s get to it.

What Are Tomatillos and Where Do They Come From?

Like I mentioned above, tomatillos are often compared to, or even mistaken for, green tomatoes—a “problem” perhaps made even more confusing due to the fact that they’re sometimes known as Mexican green tomatoes and can even be called tomate verde, literally green tomato, in Spanish. While they’re both part of the nightshade family (which also includes potatoes, eggplants, and bell peppers), tomatillos are actually more closely related to the Cape gooseberry (otherwise known as a Peruvian groundcherry, goldenberry, physalis) than the tomato. They’re most known in their larger, green form, but can also be found in a smaller, purple variety.

Tomatillos (also known as Mexican husk tomatoes or simply husk tomatoes, in addition to Mexican green tomatoes as mentioned above) are native to Mexico and Central America are often considered a staple food throughout the entire region. They lend their little white seeds and distinct flavor to just about any and all variations of salsa verde, play well in other sauces, soups, and stews from posole verde to chile verde, and are delicious when breaded and fried or made into thick, glossy jams or preserves.

How to Prep a Tomatillo

A tomatillo isn’t a tomato—we know this—but getting a tomatillo ready for eating isn't much more difficult than washing up a tomato. Peel away all the gauzy husk (known as the calyx), wash the firm fruit under warm running water to get rid of any of that sticky residue on the skin, and they’re ready to chop up, be sliced, or used whole.

If the calyx is giving you trouble and is especially hard to remove, as is sometimes the case, soak or just rinse the tomatillo under warm water until you can remove that papery wrapping more easily.

6 Ways to Cook a Tomatillo

1. Boil Them

One of the easiest ways to mellow out the flavor and soften up the flesh of a tomatillo is to boil it whole. Bring a pot of water to boil, season with salt as you would for pasta or for blanching vegetables and greens, and add the prepped tomatillos. Boil them for between 4 and 5 minutes, then scoop them out with a slotted spoon. At this point, you can blend them up in a food processor with garlic, cilantro, and a jalapeño for a simple salsa verde, or make a plain tomatillo purée that can be added to other dips, soups, or stews.

2. Roast Them

While boiling is a great, super easy method for cooking a tomatillo, roasting them offers even more flavor for not that much more work. Leave them whole, or halve or quarter them, before adding to a baking sheet and tossing with some vegetable oil. Add peppers, garlic, onions, or other vegetables to the mix if desired. Let them roast at about 400°F until super soft, then blend and use as above, or even serve as is for a tart, punchy side with grilled or pulled meats.

3. Bread and Fry Them

Tomatillos make excellent candidates for breading and frying because they’re firmer than, say, a green tomato, and take well to creamy accompaniments that tend to hang out close to anything and everything in a crispy coating. To fry them, slice the prepped tomatillos about a quarter to half an inch thick. Bread them by dipping them first in beaten eggs, then in breadcrumbs (or a mixture of flour and cornmeal) seasoned with salt, pepper, and your choice of ground spices (cayenne or cumin work particularly well). Deep fry them in a pot of neutral oil until golden brown and crisp and serve with aforementioned creamy dip.

4. Grill or Broil Them

Similar to roasted tomatillos, grilled or broiled tomatillos take on a tantalizingly smoky flavor that just gives something extra to anything they’re used in. Char whole, prepped tomatillos directly on your grill or place them on a baking sheet and broil them until bubbly and just starting to blacken slightly in the oven. You can also use the flame from a gas stove to char them, or toss them in a hot cast iron pan until the skin starts to turn deep brown. Throw them in the blender as in the boiled and roasted methods above, or let them cool before chopping them up for salads or chunky salsas.

5. Use Them Raw

To avoid the sometimes overpoweringly astringent aspects of a raw tomatillo, pair them with plenty of other flavorful ingredients. You’re not trying to hide the flavor of the tomatillo, just balance it out. Think about chopping them up into a ceviche with a mild fish, spicy chili peppers, lime juice, onion, and cilantro.

Another option is to gently massage the firm fruit with some salt and sugar until soft and juicy before letting them rest overnight and serving simply with some olive oil; the salt and sugar helps break down the flesh and draw out the nice flavors waiting deep within.

6. Preserve Them

Laden with pectin, a natural thickening agent, tomatillos are great for making into jams or other thick preserves—like chutneys, for example. The simplest way to get a jammy tomatillo mixture is to toss them into a small pot with sugar, water, some citrus juice (lime is a natural pairing), and a pinch of salt. Bring to a simmer over medium heat and let cook, stirring occasionally, until the mixture has thickened. For another take, try this recipe.

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