What are heirloom tomatoes? What sorts of varieties are there? What are some of the best ways to highlight them in recipes? These are all excellent questions and ones I will answer in this ingredient spotlight!
While tomatoes are one of the most common and well known vegetables out there, all too many of them here in the US could double as tennis balls. Sadly, during the 20th century the concept of tomato became pallid and tasteless. Not anymore though!
While you can still find those sad tomatoes in American supermarkets and on perfunctory restaurant salads, people have rediscovered how amazing tomatoes can be. We have better hybrids available and many local farms pay their bills each year with the profits from beefsteak tomatoes. (Which are my favorite hybrid tomato!) And we have begun to rediscover heirloom tomato varieties.
This ingredient spotlight is going to focus mainly on heirloom tomatoes, but I will also bring in some general tomato knowledge as well. Let’s begin!
What are heirloom tomatoes?
In general heirloom varieties of any plant are a variety which has been in existence for several decades (before 1940 or at least grown for more than 50 years) or has been passed down in a family or region from farmer to farmer. In other words, heirlooms are varieties which existed before or at least outside factory farming. If we go back to the early 20th century or before, all fruits and vegetables were heirlooms, though then they were just food, and people would see a profusion of all sorts of shapes and sizes and flavors which would often change from town to town or region to region.
If you go to a farm stand which has heirloom tomatoes, expect to see a wide variety of colors, shapes, and sizes. I’ve taken photos of a number of the heirloom tomatoes I found at Langwater Farm here in town. (They have the best selection in the area and I’m always stopping there for some heirloom tomatoes or heirloom watermelon or other great produce.) Some of these tomatoes are quite popular and you may find them where you are as well, but as with pre-factory farming, heirlooms are going to vary from region to region and farm to farm.
There are MANY different heirloom tomatoes available! Many have been unfortunately lost, but many were saved as well. There are 15,000 known varieties and over 3,000 in active cultivation. Wow! If you are looking for plants you can buy them at farmer’s markets and farm stands in the spring, or online as plants or as seeds. (And of course heirlooms aren’t limited to tomatoes. You name the fruit or vegetable and there are so many more colors, shapes, and flavors out there than you would ever know from the supermarket.)
What are the differences between heirloom tomatoes and hybrid tomatoes?
There are a number of differences between heirloom tomatoes and hybrids. Most of these differences come down to developing tomatoes for ease of harvesting, shipping, and standardization.
Heirloom tomatoes are open pollinated, by bees or wind, while hybrid tomatoes can by open pollinated or hand pollinated though they are always controlled to prevent cross pollination. This means you can save the seeds of a heirloom tomato and it will breed true while you cannot from a hybrid. If you plant those seeds they will taste just like the tomato you took them from. Open pollination also allows for genetic mixing if you plant two different heirloom tomatoes near each other. (Then you might get a mystery tomato!)
Heirloom tomatoes have a wide variation in color, shape, and size. The standard shapes and sizes of hybrid tomatoes allow for machine harvesting. If all the tomatoes of a particular type are the same size (or nearly), it is easy to design a harvester for them.
Heirloom tomatoes are more perishable, bruise more easily, and many varieties will tend to develop cracks. None of these characteristics are good for shipping! Which is why most heirloom tomatoes you buy are likely grown near where you live.
Heirlooms have more variation in their flavor than hybrids. While you can find very tasty local sun-ripened hybrids during the growing season, most tomatoes you see will have been picked green and were grown more for their harvesting and shipping qualities than their taste. Heirlooms will also have more variation in their flavor. Different varieties will have different textures, sugar content, acidity, and flavor compounds.
That said, are they better? Yes and no. They provide more color and interest on the plate, and that is an important part of eating! However, one sun ripened tomato versus another is going to provide wonderful flavor and similar health benefits either way. While any tomato picked unripe will be dull and lacking no matter its origin. Basically, heirlooms are fun, colorful, interesting, and provide some variation in flavor; however, a great, vine-ripened beefsteak tomato is just as welcome on my plate.
Where can you buy heirloom tomatoes?
While you can sometimes buy heirloom tomatoes in the supermarket, I would recommend buying them at local farm stands and farmer’s markets. Unless your supermarket is buying local, vine-ripened, field-grown heirloom tomatoes (and some do during the growing season!), you will have many of the same issues with heirloom tomatoes you have with conventional, hybrid tomatoes.
I find it’s best to think of heirloom tomatoes as a short term treat for the summer.
Therefore, definitely buy heirloom tomatoes at farm stands and farmer’s markets (or hope to get gifted from neighbors who grow tomatoes), and maybe buy them at supermarkets. But don’t expect the same flavor once the season is over.
What’s the nutritional info on heirloom tomatoes?
Since heirloom tomatoes are simply interesting looking and tasting tomatoes, the nutritional information is about the same. Though they may be lower in lycopene since that is contained in the red color and heirlooms come in a rainbow of colors.
If you buy red or orange heirlooms, they will be rich in lycopene. Yellow heirlooms are a great source of beta carotene. Additionally, all tomatoes are low in calories and fat while being high in vitamin C, B vitamins, vitamin K, potassium, and a whole host of other phyto-nutrients.
Other resources to learn more about heirloom tomatoes: Heirloom tomatoes’ bizarre evolution, The Definitive Reason Heirloom Tomatoes Are Just Plain Better, The 19 Most Delicious Heirloom Tomatoes In The World, The epic stories behind 6 heirloom tomatoes, and What Is An Heirloom Tomato?
What are some great recipes for heirloom tomatoes?
While you can use heirloom tomatoes in any recipe calling for tomatoes, heirloom tomatoes do tend to be fairly expensive, so I’m sure you want to make the best use of them! Here are a few recipes where heirloom tomatoes can shine.
- Croxetti with Marinated Heirloom Tomatoes
- Tomato Rainbow Bruschetta with Basil Ricotta
- Eggs Baked in Tomatoes
- Heirloom tomato, Peach and Cucumber Salad
- Lamb, Goat Cheese, and Heirloom Tomato Salad
- Heirloom Tomato Mojitonico