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High Heat is Best for Grilling Tomatoes

Fire-charred tomatoes give soup, salsa, and pasta an irresistible smoky-sweet flavor

Fine Cooking Issue 46
Photos: Scott Phillips
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There are a few reasons why you may not automatically think of tomatoes when you think of grilling. First, there’s all this talk that nothing beats a ripe, just-off-the-vine tomato (just slice, sprinkle with salt, and you’re good to go). Also, there’s a fear of the tomatoes bursting and making a mess of the grill. Finally, there’s all that zucchini that you have to do something with.

Well, I’m a big fan of the unadorned tomato, when it’s perfectly ripe and garden fresh. But even so, I can’t resist what grilling does to a tomato, intensifying its flavor by concentrating its juices and giving its skin a smoky flavor that’s great in all kinds of dishes. Plus, since you don’t want to grill those tomatoes that are so ripe they’re practically oozing, you can save those to eat raw. As for the bursting phobia: yes, occasionally, that does happen, but not often if you follow my tips for grilling tomatoes.

A fire that’s hotter than you think wise

It seems counterintuitive that you’d want high heat to grill what seems like a delicate vegetable (or fruit, if you’re in that camp). But if you’re after a smoky flavor, higher-than-you-think-necessary heat works best.

The tricks: the right tomato, ready tongs, and vigilance. When choosing tomatoes to grill, don’t use juicy, overly ripe ones. They’ll fall apart during cooking and lose all their juices in the flames. Tomatoes with thicker skins, like plum tomatoes, won’t burst as easily as thinner-skinned ones, which require more vigilance.

Prepare your outdoor grill or barbecue

Adjust the grill grate so that it’s 4 to 5 inches from the flame or heat source. Heat a gas grill to high and a charcoal grill to medium hot (the coals should be covered with light ash, and you should be able to hold your hand just over the grate for no more than 3 seconds).

I think food always tastes best grilled over a wood fire, and tomatoes are no exception. But all these recipes taste great with tomatoes grilled on a gas grill, too—as long as your grill has enough oomph to get a good char on the tomatoes. For a gas grill, start with the heat set on high and give it plenty of time to heat up, 15 to 20 minutes. You also might need to close the lid on a gas grill for added heat, especially if it’s a little cool outside.

If you’re using a charcoal grill, you want a fire that’s medium hot; the coals should be thickly covered with a light-colored ash, and you should be able to keep your hand just over the grate for only three seconds. With a charcoal fire, it’s best to keep one area of the grill cooler, if possible, in case you need to move the tomatoes away from the flames. I also highly recommend using natural hardwood charcoal instead of petroleum-based briquettes for the best flavor. 

Stay close, with tongs and spatula in hand. The more charred and blistered the skin, the more smoky your grilled tomatoes will taste. There’s a bit of tension, therefore, between wanting to pull them off the grill before they burst and wanting to get them good and charred. Use the tongs to turn the tomatoes and leave them on until they’re blackened at least in a few places; a few thin cracks won’t hurt, and even a burst tomato isn’t the end of the world.

A sprinkling of salt adds flavor while also removing excess water. Turn the salted tomatoes over on a rack and let them drain for half an hour.
Tomato halves are much easier to handle on the-grill than tomato slices. Use tongs to move them around and keep a spatula handy, too.

The tomato’s size helps determine the best grilling method

I generally handle grilling my tomatoes differently based on their size. For cherry tomatoes, the best way is to skewer them; otherwise, you’ll be chasing them around the grill. They can work threaded on a single skewer, but for ease of turning, try inserting two parallel skewers. Use very thin metal skewers, or wooden skewers that have been soaked in water for 30 minutes to keep them from burning. Don’t be tempted to cut small tomatoes before skewering since this is a sure way to sacrifice them to the flames below.

Char tomatoes whole when looks don’t matter. This is the simplest way of grilling tomatoes—stem on, core in—perfect for the times you’re chopping the grilled tomatoes for a salad or puréeing them to various degrees for soup, such as a tomato bisque or for a salsa. The flavor might not be as concentrated as you get from the method described next, but more of the tomatoes’ juices are preserved.

For a colorful, summery side dish, grill tomato halves. I salt and drain halved plum tomatoes or larger tomatoes before grilling them for a side dish, which gives the flavor intensification a head start. I brush the skin side of the tomatoes with oil to help keep them from sticking and start grilling with the cut side down. (Because they can still stick a bit, have a spatula handy to help flip them; tongs alone might tear them.) When the halves are done, all I need to do is drizzle the cut side with a bit of vinaigrette, which the warm tomatoes just eat up. I don’t recommend trying to grill slices, even thick ones. The seeds and juices will most likely fall through the grates. Better to stick with grilling a half or whole tomato and slicing it carefully once cooled, if that’s what you’re after.

Grilled tomatoes make the easiest bisque and a summery pasta. The best part about grilled tomatoes is their versatility. They are perfect for salads, on sandwiches, in pastas, salsas, soups, or just on their own as a side dish for grilled steak, chicken, or fish. To further enhance the flavor of plain grilled tomatoes, serve them with your favorite vinaigrette—anchovy-based ones are great—and add a few chopped fresh herbs such as basil, thyme, savory, parsley, chives, oregano, or rosemary. You can also top them with capers, olives, and crumbled cheese, such as feta or Gorgonzola.

Grilled tomato halves drink in a bright garlic and herb vinaigrette. These can be made ahead and served warm or at room temperature, but do dress the tomatoes while they’re hot.

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