Heirloom tomatoes are open-pollinated tomato varieties passed down through generations. They’re prized for their diverse shapes, colors, and flavors.
They’re different from standard commercial tomatoes. These tomatoes are not bred for uniformity or shelf life but for taste and historical significance.
Heirloom varieties can vary, from sweet and juicy Brandywine to the tangy Cherokee Purple. They’re a favorite among gardeners and food enthusiasts for their rich, authentic flavors.
Learn more about what makes them so special!
What Are Heirloom Tomatoes?
Heirloom tomatoes have been described as “the purebred dogs of the tomato world.” And that sums it up.
Merriam-Webster defines an heirloom as “something of special value handed down from one generation to another.” That’s also true of heirloom tomatoes.
In other words, heirloom tomatoes are tomatoes that come from heirloom seeds. These seeds have been passed from generation to generation. They’re the best of the best.
They aren’t hybrids, and they haven’t been crossbred. Instead, someone years ago took the seeds from the best tomato plants they had. Then, they grew new tomatoes with them.
They took the seeds from those best tomato plants and grew new plants the following year. And so on and so forth. So they’re the closest things to “purebred tomatoes” out there.
There’s no specific tomato you can point to and say, “That’s an heirloom tomato!” Heirloom tomatoes come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and varieties.
What makes them heirlooms is they’re the same as plants grown decades ago.
How Did Heirloom Tomatoes Get Their Name?
The world “heirloom” defines anything significant handed from one generation to the next.
Heirloom tomatoes got their name because the term fits them perfectly. The seeds used to grow them were passed from one generation to the next.
The earliest tomato farmers took seeds from the plants they liked best. Maybe the tomatoes were larger than others, or perhaps they had more juice.
For whatever reason, the farmers thought those tomato plants were better than others. So they kept the seeds and planted them to grow bigger, juicier tomatoes the following year.
They continued this system year after year, generation after generation.
Heirloom Tomatoes vs. Hybrid Tomatoes
Breeding tomatoes for specific traits sounds a lot like hybridization. So, what makes heirloom tomatoes different from hybrid tomatoes?
- Heirloom tomatoes are grown from the seeds of one specific plant. That plant just happened to have the desirable traits farmers wanted to replicate.
- Hybrid tomatoes, though, are typically cross-pollinated. They require at least two parent plants.
For example, maybe Plant A produced large tomatoes, but Plant B had juicy ones. As a result, farmers cross-pollinated Plant A with Plant B to make an entirely new plant.
That process, also known as hybridization, results in hybrid tomatoes. They aren’t “pure” like heirloom tomatoes, instead containing traits from multiple plants.
Let’s go back to the dog metaphor to simplify things.
An heirloom tomato is like a purebred Labrador retriever from a stellar bloodline. A hybrid tomato is more like a Labradoodle whose mom is a Poodle and whose dad is a Labrador.
However, neither heirloom nor hybrid tomatoes are genetically modified. Hybrids were just naturally “bred” from two separate plants.
Finally, heirloom tomatoes typically taste better. They’re more flavorful and fresher than hybrid tomatoes. They’re also more expensive, on average, than hybrid tomatoes.
What Do Heirloom Tomatoes Taste Like?
As mentioned, there are different varieties of heirloom tomatoes, and they all taste different. So it’s impossible to describe all heirloom tomatoes’ flavors definitively.
However, they’re generally considered fresher and more robust than other tomatoes. They also typically have more juice, though their colors’ vary widely.
Take the Cherokee purple tomato, for example. It’s an heirloom tomato, but it isn’t brighter or redder than other tomatoes. Instead, its color can range from greenish-orange to purplish-black. Its flavor is also deep and rich.
On the other hand, Amana orange tomatoes are light orange when ripe. Their taste is sweet and tropical.
Different Varieties of Heirloom Tomatoes
Let’s look at some of the different varieties of heirloom tomatoes. These are some of the most popular:
- Amana Orange: These are light orange and have a tropical flavor.
- Amy’s Sugar Gem: Sweet and golf ball-sized, these tomatoes are pretty distinctive. They’re primarily red, but they have bright gold sparkles on their skin.
- Azoychka: These sweet, fruity tomatoes are yellowish-orange and originally come from Russia.
- Black Cherry: These dark, mahogany-colored tomatoes are rich and somewhat sweet and savory.
- Black Krim: Black krims are dark red Ukrainian tomatoes. They’re very juicy and have a naturally salty flavor.
- Blondkopfchen: Originally from Germany, these tomatoes are small cherry tomatoes. Unlike some cherry tomatoes, they’re bright yellow. They’re wonderfully sweet, almost sugary, and extremely hardy.
- Brandywine. These tomatoes look like traditional beefsteak tomatoes but have ridges like pumpkins. They come in a wide variety of colors, too. Some people call them “the perfect tomato.” They judge all other tomato flavors by comparing them to Brandywines.
- Cherokee Chocolate. These are similar to the Cherokee purple tomatoes mentioned above. Their color is darker, though, more chocolate-like.
- Cherokee Purple. They’re large and dark with a rich, deep flavor.
- Chocolate Stripes. As the name implies, these tomatoes are darkly colored, almost like chocolate. They also have stripes, which are usually greenish-gray. They have a rich, earthy flavor and a moderate amount of juice.
- Flamme. These orange tomatoes look more like persimmons than tomatoes. And it’s not just because of their orange color. They’re also similarly shaped. They’re incredibly juicy and perfect for making sauces.
- Green Zebra. Green zebras are some of the most popular green tomatoes. They’re light green with yellow stripes and have a tart and tangy taste. They make excellent fried green tomatoes.
- La Carotina. These orange tomatoes are famous for their bright, citrusy sweetness.
- Snow White. As you can probably guess from the name, these tomatoes are white. They’re small cherry tomatoes with unique ivory-colored skins. They’re sweet and perfect for snacking.
- Sunset’s Red Horizon. These red beefsteak tomatoes are quintessentially tomato-flavored.
- Taxi. The taxi tomato takes its name from its vibrant yellow (taxi-like) color. It’s sweet and meaty and can grow to the size of a baseball.
- Yellow Gooseberry. These tomatoes, too, feature a bright yellow color. They’re small and typically only an inch in diameter. They have a bright, sweet taste.
As you can see, there’s a massive variety of heirloom tomatoes. And this isn’t even the entire list!
Hopefully, that makes it easier to see why there’s no definitive “one-size-fits-all” description of their taste.
How to Use Heirloom Tomatoes
You can do a ton of things with heirloom tomatoes. Prepare them using practically any cooking method. You can stew them, boil them, grill them, fry them, bake them, and more.
But remember: They’re the “best of the best.” Therefore, when they’re fresh and raw, they really shine. These are tomatoes you want to take center stage.
Use them in recipes where tomatoes are the star of the show. Some examples include:
- BLT sandwiches
- Tomato and mayonnaise sandwiches
- Tomato tarts
- Fresh summer salads
- Baked tomato slices
- Fried green tomatoes
- Tomatoes with salt
- Tomato pie
- Caprese salads (or skewers)
You can also use them to make sauces, soups, etc. Here are a few of my favorites:
- Marinara sauce
- Coconut curry tomato sauce
- Tomato soup
- Tomato bisque
- Tomato sauce
- Beef and tomato stew
- Vegetable soup
- Basil marinara
Of course, you can put tomatoes on any sandwich, burger, salad, or wrap. They always make a tasty addition to those meals.
Finally, let me leave you with a few of my favorite recipes that benefit from heirloom tomatoes. These are the ones where the tomatoes aren’t the star of the show.
- Copycat Ruby Tuesday’s Chicken Fresco
- Mexican Pizza
- Spicy Beef Tacos with Cherry Tomato Salsa
- Tomato and Eggplant Tian
- Pesto Pizza with Fresh Tomatoes and Mozzarella
Use your heirloom tomatoes however you like. Just be sure you enjoy them!
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