What’s the Difference Between Green Tomatoes and Tomatillos?

updated Oct 4, 2023
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Upon first glance, tomatillos and green tomatoes look a lot alike — they’re both green, have a round shape, and a shiny surface. When you look a little further, though, you’ll notice some unique difference between the two. In fact, there are quite a few difference between tomatillos and green tomatoes, including size, taste, and texture.

Quick Overview

The Difference Between Tomatillos and Green Tomatoes

Tomatillos are small, round fruit that grow inside of an inedible paper-like husk and have have slightly sweet and tart flavor. Tomatillos are commonly used to make dishes like Salsa Verde and Chicken Posole. Green tomatoes peak during summer and fall, are much larger than tomatillos, and have a firm texture and more earthy flavor. Green tomatoes are commonly used to make dishes like Fried Green Tomatoes.

Green tomatoes and tomatillos are different in ripeness and usages as well, so it’s not always okay to substitute one for the other. Tomatillos also tend to be juicier and not as firm as green tomatoes, so they are quite different in texture. When a tomatillo is ripe, it remains a small, green fruit, and it grows inside a papery husk called a calyx. On the other hand, a green tomato is the unripe fruit of any variety of tomato plant. The fruit does not grown inside a papery husk, and it can be large or small and picked at any time throughout the summer or fall.

What Are Tomatillos?

Tomatillos are small, firm bright-green fruits (yes, fruits!) about the size of a golf ball and native to Mexico, and are sometimes called Mexican green tomatoes or jamberries. Tomatillos grow inside an inedible paper husk and are small and uniform in size. The surface of a tomatillo is slightly tacky to the touch, which is why recipes say to rinse them before cooking. The ripe fruit is most often seen in U.S. grocery stores as green, but it can be yellow or purple as well.

Although tomatillos are mainly used in savory applications, you can use them on the sweet side of things like in this spiced chocolate cake with sweet tomatillo sauce. Tomatillos are most often used in dishes Salsa Verde and Chile Verde Stew, although they can also be eaten raw and can be found year-round, most often in Latin American grocery stores.

(Image credit: David P. Smith)

What Do Tomatillos Taste Like?

Tomatillos generally have an acidic, bright, tart, and almost citrus-like flavor and can be used raw or cooked. Raw tomatillos have bright green color and sharp flavor, which is well-suited for different types of salsa or toppings.

To tone down the sharp flavor a bit, slice the fruits in half and roast them on a baking sheet or char them on a hot, dry skillet for a few minutes. The cooking process will mute the color and the flavor a bit, but it will still pack plenty of punch.

How to Use Tomatillos

Common in Mexican cuisine, tomatillos (and the sauces and salsas made from them) pair well with anything from tacos to grilled salmon to pork tenderloin. Or go fusion and try tomatillos in this smoky tomatillo shakshuka recipe.

Combine them with chilies, garlic, cilantro, and lime to add a little heat and amp up the citrus and herbal notes in the fruit. Store the sauce in the fridge, or freeze cubes of it and add it to soups and stews for a quick and easy flavor boost.

What Are Green Tomatoes?

Green tomatoes are simply the firm unripe fruit of any tomato plant. They can be large or small depending the variety of the tomato (although don’t confuse them with a Green Zebra, a variety of tomato that stays green when ripe). Color and firmness are pretty much the only similarity green tomatoes share with tomatillos.

Green tomatoes are often sold in the fall — when cooler temperatures mean the tomatoes don’t get the necessary heat to ripen further and change color — although you can pick green tomatoes off the vine at any time.

What Do Green Tomatoes Taste Like?

Green tomatoes aren’t something you want to sink your teeth into like an apple, although they are firm like one. The taste is neutral leaning toward astringent, although the tartness mellows out with cooking. This explains why the fruit is usually cooked and most often fried

How to Use Green Tomatoes

Unlike the fruit in its more mature state, green tomatoes hold their shape when cooking, and aren’t as watery. They’re usually cooked and most often fried and in the well-known Southern recipe for fried green tomatoes, but that’s hardly the only way to use up this summertime staple. Use them in this recipe for chicken thighs with green tomatoes, basil and ginger or explore the world of pickled tomatoes.