What are tomatillos? Introduction and recipe

Glance at the spelling of a tomatillo and you may think someone flubbed “tomato.” See one in the market and you may think it’s a very unripe version thereof. But rest assured, their name is legit and while they’re related to the tomato, tomatillos are not to be mistaken for green tomatoes, those Southern fried favorites.

Native to Mexico and part of the nightshade family, tomatillos come in colors such as yellow, red and purple, but most commonly are green. They can be a harder to find in mass market stores than the ubiquitous tomato, but are readily available – and very inexpensive – at Hispanic grocers such as Northgate. I also regularly see them at local Food 4 Less stores and even H Mart, a wonderful Asian grocer. Wherever you find them, tomatillos are worth seeking out.

Like tomatoes, tomatillos are technically a fruit, and here that fact is easier to believe. Tomatillos can be eaten raw or cooked, but before using in any manner require some undressing. That’s because tomatillos are protected by an outer husk that is easily peeled off. Once disrobed, you should find a plump-yet-firm, glossy green globe. The husk can leave a slightly sticky residue, so rinse well and pat dry before using. Tomatillos will stay fresh in a refrigerator for about two weeks, so making them easy to keep on hand.

When eaten raw, tomatillos have a slightly tart taste and a crisp texture, as if a tomato and Granny Smith apple had a child together. Try tomatillos raw by slicing or quartering them and tossing in salads. They will add vibrancy and an interesting crunch.

I’m a fan of cooking tomatillos because it makes them softer and brings more interesting flavors to the party. Grilling is one easy option. Simply slice into quarters, brush with vegetable oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and then char on a grill to infuse a smoky taste.

My go-to use for tomatillos, however, is making them into a green salsa that’s an excellent garnish to tacos, quesadillas and burritos, or as a warm dip for tortilla chips. This salsa comes together in about 10 minutes simply by cooking the tomatillos in a pot until they soften and take on color, then either mashing for a chunky texture or whirling in a blender for a smooth one. Here’s a simple and highly adaptable recipe that’s easily doubled or tripled depending on the size or your party.


(Makes 2-3 servings)

  • 4 tomatillos, husked, rinsed and chopped
  • 3 large garlic cloves, chopped
  • 1/4 cup cilantro, rinsed and chopped
  • Pinch of cayenne pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1-2 ounces of lime juice
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Step 1: Put the tomatillos and garlic in a 2-quart or larger saucepan and cook over medium-low heat for five minutes or until the tomatillos take on a darker green color. Stir often to prevent sticking. If you like your salsa spicy, add half a jalapeno or Serrano pepper.

Step 2: When the tomatillos have darkened, mash with a potato masher or whirl the ingredients in a blender or food processor.

Step 3: Transfer to a bowl and add the cilantro, lime juice and spices. Stir well, then taste and adjust seasonings if needed.

Congratulations: You’ve just made a fresh, zippy tomatillo salsa. Enjoy warm on your next fiesta night, and promptly refrigerate any leftovers in a sealed container.


  1. Marie Gray said,

    June 19, 2013 @ 1:28 pm

    I often wanted to make my own tomatillo salsa but have no idea how. Now I do. Thank you. I will visit your site for other recipes.

  2. What are Tomatillos? -Acapulcos Mexican Family Restaurant said,

    January 8, 2014 @ 1:51 pm

    [...] the tomatoes are replace by tomatillos to make a striking green salsa. The following recipe from I Want to Cook will teach you how to make a basic tomatillo salsa that can be eaten with tortilla chips or used as [...]

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