Heirloom tomatoes explained
August 16th, 2010
06:00 PM ET
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Food writers - myself definitely included - are frequently guilty of being so far inside our precious little world of edibles that we can't see the arugula for the amaranth. This hit home last weekend as I was trawling my local farmers market, found a stand selling heirloom tomatoes for $2.99 a pound and started fist pumping like I'd hit the Powerball.

It's not too much of a stretch to say that it's been nearly two years since I had a really smashing tomato. Last year, my own garden succumbed to the blight that wiped out major portions of the Northeast's heirloom tomato crop, and the few available for purchase were priced to gouge. This isn't to say I have led a tomato-free existence since 2008. It's just that, as I noted to a nearby shopper, once you eat a Wapsipinicon Peach, a Black from Tula or a Cherokee Purple, there ain't no going back to the grocery store.

It's not that I go around just randomly evangelizing about produce to strangers; I save that for friends, family and my extremely patient greyhound, Edward Spaghedward. In this case, a woman who'd been standing on the periphery of the stand noticed me shoveling heaps of tumorous, gnarled, scarred and otherwise unlovely tomatoes into a sack and asked, "Um, what ARE those? It says tomatoes, but...I've never seen anything like that before." I went off into a spiel about how the uglier they were, the better they'd taste, blah, blah and she dutifully selected a few that were not quite so post-nuclear in appearance and went to to the register.

Seconds later, I resisted the urge to jump in upon hearing a similar inquiry from a woman on the other side of the table, seeing as the question wasn't directed to me. Her gentleman struggled valiantly, "They're heirloom, which means they're...old?"

Well...kinda. Here's the deal. Heirloom seeds come from plants that have remained genetically unchanged and have been open-pollinated (by insects, birds, wind, etc.) for at least 50 - or some say 100 - years. This means no hybridizing with other varieties of plants. This has its ups and downs.

On one hand, the Amish Paste or Beefsteak tomato you're biting into tastes the same as it would have in your grandfather's day. It hasn't been genetically modified to select durability or uniform appearance over flavor, so while it might be lumpy and bumpy, and appear any color from moon-pale, purple, pink or black to gold, green, yellow, brown and zebra-striped, chances are it's going to be luscious, or growers wouldn't have bothered propagating the line.

On the other, a cruelly short shelf life and thin skin can cause havoc for a farmer who's looking to transport a harvest, and many varieties haven't been bred for disease resistance - hence the devastation wrought by last year's blight. Also - some people just like a uniformly round, red, taste-free tomato.

Let them have the bland, beauty pageant supermarket 'maters. We'll hold out for the ugly stuff.

Oh – and as she was making her selections, the curious shopper asked me, "So how do you, like, eat them?" I'm a big fan of open-mouth-and-insert-delicious-slices, but if you wanna get all shmancy about it, try a Caprese salad.

Grab a few really luscious tomatoes. Slice thickly, sprinkle lightly with kosher or sea salt and a bit of freshly ground black pepper, stack with slices of fresh mozzarella, layer on a few fresh basil leaves and anoint with the nicest olive oil you can get your paws on. Flick with a bit of balsamic and serve immediately.

Or, if you'd care to omit the cheese, just dice a pile of larger tomatoes and halve any that are cherry or grape-sized. Put them in a bowl, drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle kosher or sea salt. Put it in the fridge to let the flavors meld - as long as you can make yourself hold out - then scoop onto crusty bread and serve. Don't be shy about mopping the bowl with spare bread. It would be a crime not to.

And then there are cocktails:

The Frisky Farmer
Smokey Maria
Heirloom Tomato Lemonade

While you're at it, how about scoring yourself a few freebies? Just scoop out some of the seeds from your favorite tomato, along with their surrounding glop and put in all a glass of water. Cover with plastic wrap, poke a small hole in the wrap and place on a windowsill for a couple of days. Stir it once a day and replace the wrap.

You'll see a little bit of white mold floating on top of the water. Scoop that off, along with any floating seeds (they're duds). Pour the water and seeds in a sieve and rinse thoroughly, agitating with your fingers if you'd care to.

Put the seeds on a paper plate, labeled with the seeds' variety if you happen to know it, and let them dry thoroughly. Then store them in an envelope in a cool dark place (the fridge is fine) until the next planting season. Saved properly, they'll germinate for up to ten years.

Previously - High above Manhattan, a vegetable garden grows

soundoff (33 Responses)
  1. Tom

    All heirloom tomatoes are indeterminate and eventually take over the garden and produce little. I now go with determinate or semi-determinite varieties.

    June 22, 2014 at 12:49 am |
  2. William Richardson

    Before soy bean was added to Miracle whip &fat was removed for the obese in this country,tomatos in
    michigan lost their flavor by genetically treating the seeds;therefore the flavor of the tomato has ben removed.My favorite sandwich with Miracle whip is no longer a favorite.not even a BLT.The taste is not the same!

    August 10, 2011 at 10:21 am |
  3. Paul

    Heirloom, Smeirloom. I am getting a little tired of all of the terms used to propagate a product and its supposed benefits. I agree with the gentleman who said that there's no real way to determine if something hasn't by means of natural process been cross polinated with another plant.
    Sustainable, green all of these terms have been used to psychologically fool us into thing we're getting something better. Farm fresh or locally grown would do it for me but marketing these terms makes people think "oh I have to have that".
    I first heard the term "heirloom tomoto" on the Martha Stewart show, that was the first clue to the marketing strategy behind what everyone supposedly wants.

    August 30, 2010 at 10:42 am |
  4. Jonathan

    I think this quote is a bit suspect:
    "Heirloom seeds come from plants that have remained genetically unchanged and have been open-pollinated (by insects, birds, wind, etc.) for at least 50 – or some say 100 – years. This means no hybridizing with other varieties of plants. This has its ups and downs."

    If it is truly open-pollinated, then you actually can't be sure of which plant the pollen came from, meaning that it is unlikely to have been "genetically unchanged". Isn't that a bit like saying your dog's puppies are a genetically unchanged version of their mother?

    Also, the author's use of the term "genetically modified" is misleading. It implies some type of transgenic approach to altering the genetics. Would the author also say that he/she is a genetically modified version of his or her parents?

    August 27, 2010 at 7:48 am |
    • kws

      Exactly. Many people on this page have mentioned problems with 'hierloom' tomatoes (prone to disease, easily damaged, low yield, etc) and those are the reasons hybrid varieties were created decades ago. The big reason why people claim that they taste 'better' has more to do with the fruit being left to ripen on the plant and are eaten just a few days after they were picked. The more robust hybrids will also taste much better if they are picked and eaten in the same manner.

      Sure, they may taste different and if one is growing several different varieties as a hobby, that is fine. However, promoting the 'hierloom' varieties as superior is a marketing scam designed to liberate as much cash as possible from gullible foodies.

      September 9, 2010 at 10:01 pm |
  5. srm7782

    It has been a great year for the heirlooms. My mother started them in Florida and we transplanted them in Ohio. Amish Paste – very solid, Brandywine, Cherokee were very productive, although the plants did not always look the best. Some days a few looked like they were dying but always came back. Some of the plants were well over 5 feet tall and very bushy and many of the tomatoes were over soft-ball sized. Something rewarding about growing your own and knowing they are truly organic. It is true they are a bit more fragile, but they do taste great. I just brought a grocery bag full to work and left in the break room, they were gone in a half hour. This was my first attempt and will certainly do it again, although I was a bit concerned since we did not plant any hybrids. Thanks MOM!

    August 27, 2010 at 5:56 am |
  6. LaLa

    I manage a greenhouse and we plant over 30 varities of tomatoes. (small number compared to what is avail!0 and MOST of what we grow as plants are heirloom. 90% of customers WANT them. They are all I grow at home. If someone is having trouble with them try a Rutger tomato. very tough/disease resistant plant. Not nearly as exotic as Black of Tula or Cherokee Purple but more dependable. My personal fav is the Early Girl or Celebrity. Not huge tomates but very good flavor. I prefer to core them out and mix contents with either cottage cheese or tuna salad and replace to center of tomato and devour!

    August 18, 2010 at 12:45 pm |
  7. sqibum

    I've been growing tomatoes in South Jersey for 30 years and have tried some heirloom varieties, but I always return to my favorite, the Supersonic. It's big, disease resistant and tastes better than anything else. Remember, the only thing money can't buy are true love and the taste of home grown tomatoes.

    August 18, 2010 at 12:18 pm |
  8. Kelley

    Here in the foothills of NC, my Dad and I grow an amazing heirloom called "Mule Team". I got the seeds several years ago from the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. They're large enough for sandwhiches, but not so juicy as to make a soggy mess. The seed chambers are small and there's enough good firm sweet flesh that they also make wonderful sauce. A true all-purpose tomato. Not to mention very prolific. (But very tall and prone to fall over without good support.) Don't know how far north they'll grow, but we love them.

    August 18, 2010 at 11:39 am |
  9. Jack L. Crain

    One needs to define the term, "heirloom." I have seen lots of new cultivars being advertised as heirloom when clearly they are not. They are simply unusual. Some are interesting, some merely an odd color, many are almost tasteless.

    August 18, 2010 at 9:26 am |
  10. Majormojo

    I thought "heirloom tomatoes" was a metaphor for breast augmentation.

    August 18, 2010 at 7:06 am |
  11. Kwajer

    Never heard of them before.

    August 18, 2010 at 6:51 am |
  12. Kat

    Check out http://www.heirloomtomatoplants.com/ - Laurel is wonderful. They are based in Yorba Linda, CA. She has mailed plants to me and they are incredibly healthy and well-packed. I hesitate to recommend her here because there are already folks who order plants nearly a year ahead. But for a thorough explanation of heirloom tomatoes and a list of different heirloom tomatoes (with descriptions) that will blow your mind, visit this website. You won't regret it.

    August 18, 2010 at 2:44 am |
  13. Joe Carroll

    I am no fan of grocery store tomatoes. They are picked green, then shot with ethylene gas which gives them the red tomato color but does not improve taste. They still taste like a green tomato. HOWEVER, it is not necessary to buy heirloom tomatos to get that vine ripe tomatoey-good flavor. I grow my own tomatos every summer and use hybrid seedlings. My personal favorite is Better Boy which is drought and disease resistant. Let them ripen on the vine and the tomato taste will explode in your mouth. The problem is NOT the type of tomato, the problem is picking them green and then gassing them.

    August 18, 2010 at 2:34 am |
  14. Emma

    I had a delicious one over the weekend. My sister picked some up at a farmers market and gave 2 of them to me. I've been eating them for a couple of days. They have that authentic tomato flavor that just makes a salad delicious. My mother sliced one up and sat down with a fork. They are delicious but there are no markets around me that sell the good ones so I just do without. Someday when I have more time on my hands, I will probably start growing my own so I don't have to worry about pesticides or salmonella contamination.

    August 18, 2010 at 12:20 am |
  15. Ludvig

    My Uncle Cletus would take tomatoes that were green and use the recipe for dill pickles and pickle them. They were great. Really tasted good.

    August 17, 2010 at 6:42 pm |
    • Gene

      Chow-chow. Is what we call your pickled green maters.

      January 16, 2014 at 3:44 pm |
  16. ALJO

    The only part of summer I look forward to is...TOMATO SEASON! Fresh off the farm...yummy, luscious. To my knowledge, I've never had an heirloom as an adult (prices tend to be ruinous) but, when I was a child, my grandfather grew these divine little cherry tomatos and, something that was virtually skinless and seedless...just solid slabs of edible tomato "meat". To this day, the scent from certain varieties snap me right back to my six-yr-old self, "helping" with the gardening. Sigh! I really miss those.

    August 17, 2010 at 6:18 pm |
    • LaLa

      probably the sweet 100 cherry tomato. get the seeds online.. Cherry are some of the easiest to grow and U can be successful growing them in pots! save seeds ona paper plate for following year. MOST of the time cherry will come back volunteer!

      August 18, 2010 at 12:47 pm |
  17. bree

    The almost black one are very tasty. I tried growing them last year, had 3 large plants and got 11 tomatoes. Very susceptible to all sorts of diseases, fungi, rot, etc, etc. Local farmer market growers tried them a couple years and gave up – too much trouble, too little production.

    August 17, 2010 at 3:53 pm |
    • larry

      i had the same issues. Also gave up.

      August 18, 2010 at 11:24 am |
  18. Amber

    I would totally buy them all the time if I could but they are not easily enough available to be fanatic about them and there are times when firmer tomatoes really are a blessing and they aren't ALWAYS tasteless (those ones in the grocery store on the vines are pretty good- you can pop them in the sun for a day in the window and they'll get tastier also). I find heirlooms are really really tasty if you can chop them up or the like but they tend to make sandwiches mushy.

    I don't have room to grow them myself either. I did once buy a bunch of seeds and give them to someone else to grow for me, but I never got any.

    August 17, 2010 at 1:20 pm |
  19. ICastelnau

    I am in the middle of Tomato Season – I have about 45 different varieties planted in my home garden. Hybrids, heirloom, determinate, indeterminate, I mix them all, for the pleasure of my family and guests. I thoroughly enjoyed this article, it is bringing good memories of my weekly trips to the Farmers Market where so many people don't seem to know anything about heirloom tomatoes. . Personally, being an avid tomato grower, I don't like the ones I find at the Farmers Markets. They just don't compare to the ones i am growing. My tomatoes look better, healthier, are more colorful, and more tasty than the ones I can find at the markets.

    I found additional information about Heirloom Tomatoes that will complement this article. I am not sure I am allowed to copy and paste the content, but the link is: http://www.tomatogeek.com/2010/04/25/categories-of-heirloom-tomatoes/
    It gives a nice description of Commercial Heirloom Tomatoes, The Family Heirloom Tomatoes, The Created Heirloom Tomatoes, and The mystery Heirloom Tomatoes.

    August 17, 2010 at 12:49 pm |
  20. The_Mick

    In February, before I do my backyard garden (May), I order seeds so I can try out varieties not easily available as plants. My favorite heirloom is "Brandywine" – it has an excellent, unique taste, and the plant has unusual potato plant-like leaves. It's not a heavy producer, but it is an indeterminate variety, meaning it keeps growing and producing into the Fall. Watch out for heirloom varieties that can't take the heat of your area or are "determinates" (stop producing during the Summer). But overall, if I grew just one variety, it would be one of the modern indeterminate varieties like Supersonic or Jet Star which are relatively large, taste excellent, and produce very abundantly well into the Fall. Jet Star plants are often cheaply available in the nurseries in the Spring, Supersonic [my personal perference] occasionally so. They outdo the heirlooms in taste and production in my view.

    August 17, 2010 at 12:26 pm |
    • The_Mick

      I should add to my comment that I live near Baltimore in Anne Arundel County (centered on Annapolis and well-respected in its own right for farm tomato quality) and my comments apply to that tomato-friendly location. Different varieties perform differently in different locations.

      August 17, 2010 at 12:37 pm |
      • craig

        Great lopes from there too!

        August 17, 2010 at 12:52 pm |
  21. Shelburne

    I must correct myself. The divine dry-farmed Early Girls don't NEED anything but a hand to transport them to my mouth. That said, they're good with the aforementioned embellishments.

    August 17, 2010 at 5:13 am |
  22. Shelburne

    I am a seasonal tomato glutton. I wait, in quiet anticipation, for the typical late-summer glut to hit my local farmers market and then I go to town. I'm not big on the stranger-colored ones – I've found the pale yellows and some of the bruise-colored ones don't deliver the piquant sweet-tart taste of my favorites – dry-farmed Early Girls. These small, globular salad bombs are tomato to the fifth power and need little primping beyond some good olive oil, coarse salt and a nearly superfluous splash of balsamic.That said, I'm open to having my mind changed...

    August 17, 2010 at 5:11 am |
    • The_Mick

      A TV gardener whose name escapes me but who had a show around 1970, found a man who got his Early Girls to ripen on the vine in New England before anyone else and won a local prize for that year after year. The man finally disclosed his secret. After the tomatoes got to a decent size, he shoveled into the dirt all around each plant, cutting a lot of roots, and the plants apparently give themselves a signal that they need to ripen the fruit ASAP!

      August 17, 2010 at 12:32 pm |
  23. Jerry


    August 16, 2010 at 6:46 pm |
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