Husk tomatoes

Or ground cherries

August 30, 2010

For me, the most interesting farmers’ market offering of late summer is husk tomatoes. Never heard of them? Also known as ground cherries, strawberry tomatoes, and dwarf Cape gooseberries, it’s no wonder that they’re little understood.

Are they sweet berries or savory tomatoes? And what the heck do you do with them?

Husk tomatoes are neither cherries nor gooseberries. Their papery, Chinese-lantern-like husks offer the best clue as to their pedigree. Like tomatillos, husk tomatoes belong to the genus Physalis, which is a member of the Solanaceae family, better known for producing peppers, eggplants, potatoes, and tomatoes.

These low-growing, petite nightshades evolved in the warmer, wilder parts of the American continent. In fact, you can sometimes find husk tomatoes growing along the edges of open fields; just make sure they have husks to distinguish them from poisonous, non-husked look-alikes.

ground cherries
Husk tomatoes are covered in papery husks.

Husk tomatoes are turning up more frequently at farmers’ markets and CSAs due to their unusual flavor and heirloom quirks. About the size of a blueberry, a ground cherry tastes similar to a super-sweet cherry tomato, with a hint of — strawberry? Mango? What is that mysterious flavor? You just might keep eating them to find out.

Author and naturalist Euell Gibbons declared this elusive essence “so good it doesn’t have to resemble something else.”

To many, husk tomatoes are an acquired taste, but their hard-to-classify flavor is the key to their versatility. They lend a unique tropical flavor to otherwise garden-variety ingredients — an almost otherworldly treat if you try to eat mostly from your local, non-tropical foodshed.

Not only are husk tomatoes addictive out of hand, but they’re great tossed into fruit salads, scattered over green salads, or chopped into a terrific relish for ladling over fresh grilled fish or scooping up with tortilla chips.

Harvesting husk tomatoes is easy, as they usually just fall off the vine at the perfect stage of ripeness. (Where I live in Massachusetts, that’s August through September.) Simply lift up the branches and gather the ground cherries that have collected on the ground beneath, avoiding those with husks that are darkened. The husks should be beige, with a dry, parchment-like quality; the fruits should be a rosy yellow when removed from their papery wrappers.

If the fruits are still tinged with green, let them sit in their husks in a cool, dry place for several days to a week, and they’ll sweeten up.

In addition to their many raw uses, husk tomatoes also make wonderful pies and preserves. That is, if you can gather enough of them. If not, they match up well with apples in yet another example of serendipitous seasonal pairings.

That just leaves the matter of their confusing nomenclature. My own personal semantics: I call them husk tomatoes in savory preparations, while I find the name ground cherries sounds infinitely more appealing in desserts. Dwarf Cape gooseberries? Forget about it; that explanation might take all day!

Based in Boston, Tammy Donroe blogs at Food on the Food.

There are 10 comments on this item
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1. by Adrienne on Aug 30, 2010 at 2:09 PM PDT

I love ground cherries! A couple of years ago I made little tarts with them. This year I’ll give your relish a try :)

2. by Melch on Aug 30, 2010 at 5:38 PM PDT

What a great write-up! I’ve never heard of ground cherries before but the only question left for me is where can I find them :) Time for a little look around the farmer’s markets.

3. by Heather on Aug 31, 2010 at 8:41 AM PDT

We think they taste buttery, a bit like croissants. We only have a few bushes this year and just eat them plain- no need to fuss around in the kitchen.

4. by amy manning on Sep 12, 2010 at 1:00 PM PDT

I love these! My toddler will sit everyday with the plants and search for the ripe ones. He’s not wild about vegetables either. I also really like tomatillos, which you can read about here:

5. by anonymous on Oct 15, 2010 at 8:17 PM PDT

My farmer told me they taste like Froot Loops, so when I was eating them that’s what I expected. They taste like Froot Loop flavored tomatoes!

6. by cyd on Sep 13, 2011 at 7:44 PM PDT

i just bought market said they were gooseberries...not! hmmm- what to make!

7. by anonymous on Oct 2, 2011 at 4:04 PM PDT

The ground cherries I have came from gurneys and contrary to belief The roots where I live in US zone 5 actually behave as a perennial with no fruit to over winter on the ground. But just like a Tomatillo they are sticky and slightly tart when green. But they are not as big as a Tomatillo by far.

8. by anonymous on Jul 25, 2012 at 4:11 PM PDT

My daughter likes to try different things in her garden as well as the staples. This year she planted ground cherries. They are great. Now to find recipes for them.

9. by Mr. Al on Jul 1, 2013 at 9:10 PM PDT

When I was young my grandparents always had a bowl on their kitchen table full of strawberry tomatoes. It was so much fun to hunt for the plants and collect our own. If you want to plant some childhood memories get a pack of seeds and start a family tradition. What memories!!

10. by anonymous on Sep 12, 2014 at 4:05 PM PDT

Thank you so much for your well written mother in law just gave us ground cherries from her garden,i enjoyed the flavor but had no clue what they were.We cannot stop eating them!

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