Heirloom Tomatoes: History, Selection, Uses & More

Heirloom Tomatoes: History, Selection, Uses & More

Key Takeaways

  • Heirloom tomatoes are open-pollinated varieties passed down through generations, prized for their exceptional flavor and unique characteristics.
  • These tomatoes come in a wide range of colors, shapes, and sizes, adding diversity to your garden and plate.
  • Heirlooms have a rich history, connecting us to the past through their preservation of rare genetics and flavors.
  • Choosing heirlooms offers incredible taste, better nutrition, and the assurance of no GMOs in your tomatoes.
  • When selecting heirlooms, look for rich color, firmness, and a fresh tomato aroma to ensure the best flavor.
  • Heirloom tomatoes are versatile and can be used in various dishes, from fresh salads to sauces, but handle them with care for optimal storage and shelf life.

Heirloom tomatoes have become the darling of farmers markets and upscale grocery stores everywhere. Their colorful array and unique shapes attract the eye, but their rich history and incredible taste make them a must-have for any home chef. Learn all about heirlooms so you can find and savor these special tomatoes.

What Are Heirloom Tomatoes?

Heirloom tomatoes are open-pollinated varieties that have been passed down through generations. To qualify as an heirloom, the tomato must be at least 50 years old. Unlike hybrid tomatoes developed for mass production, heirlooms are treasured for their exceptional flavor and intriguing stories.

Heirlooms come in a stunning range of colors, shapes, and sizes. From tiny yellow pear tomatoes to monstrous purple beefsteaks, heirlooms display greater diversity than you’ll find in the produce section. They may have green stripes, dark shoulders, or even a pink blush when ripe. Some heirlooms are perfectly round while others have deep ribs or look more like peppers.

Heirloom Tomato Plant Attributes

Common NameHeirloom tomato
Botanical NameSolanum lycopersicum
Plant TypeVegetable/Fruit
Mature Size3-10 ft. tall, 1-4 ft. wide
Sun ExposureFull
Soil TypeWell-drained but moist clay, loam, or sand
Soil pHMildly acidic (5.8-6.8)
Hardiness Zones2-11 (USDA)
Native AreaSouth America
ToxicityStems, leaves, and roots are toxic to pets, mildly toxic to humans

The History Behind Heirlooms

Heirloom tomatoes connect us to generations past through their preservation of rare genetics. These treasured seeds traveled from Europe along with immigrants who brought their favorite varieties. Farmers then selected and shared seeds from the tastiest plants, slowly developing new stable heirloom varieties adapted to local conditions.

Sadly, the rise of industrial agriculture brought a focus on efficient harvesting, tough skins for shipping, and disease resistance. Flavor and uniqueness fell by the wayside. As genetically identical hybrids came to dominate commercial tomato production, more than 90% of heirloom varieties were lost.

Thankfully, some seeds were saved by passionate gardeners. Organizations like Seed Savers Exchange now preserve thousands of heirlooms by collecting and sharing seeds. New heirlooms occasionally arise when pollinators cross two existing heirlooms. The heirs of these lucky gardeners get to enjoy the unique offspring.

Why You Should Choose Heirlooms

Heirloom tomatoes offer an amazing culinary experience. Their flavor simply can’t compare to the watery grocery store offerings. Here are some top reasons to go heirloom:

  • Incredible taste – Complex, nuanced flavors range from tangy to savory to sweet. Each variety has a distinct personality.
  • Better nutrition – Heirlooms tend to be higher in Vitamin C, lycopene, and other antioxidants compared to hybrids.
  • No GMOs – Heirlooms are always open-pollinated so you don’t have to worry about genetic modification.
  • Fun colors and shapes – From striped to splotched, heirlooms add beauty and whimsy to any dish.
  • Support biodiversity – Choosing heirlooms helps preserve genetic diversity and farming heritage.
  • Make connections – Growing an heirloom that’s been in a family for generations links us to the past.

How to Select the Best Heirloom Tomatoes

With so many tempting choices stacked up at farm stands, how do you pick the perfect heirloom tomato? Here are some tips:

  • Look for tomatoes with rich color. Opt for fully red, orange, yellow, or even deep purple skin. Green shoulders likely mean the tomato isn’t fully ripe.
  • Gently squeeze to check for firmness. Avoid mushy or bruised tomatoes.
  • Sniff the stem end. You should detect a fresh, tomatoey aroma. Pass on any with fermented scents.
  • Seek out unusual shapes and striping. Distinctive markings indicate a true heirloom.
  • Chat with farmers about flavor. Some varieties are intensely sweet while others have tangy zing.

Don’t judge a tomato by its cover. Misshapen and heavily ribbed heirlooms can hide superb flavor inside. Give them a try!

Best Uses for Heirloom Tomatoes

The exceptional taste and texture of heirloom tomatoes make them ideal for:

  • Eating fresh – Simply slice and enjoy raw on salads, BLTs, antipasto platters or all by themselves.
  • Sauces and salsas – Heirlooms add rich tomato flavor. Try roasting or smoking them first.
  • Bruschetta and Panzanella – Diced heirlooms pair perfectly with crisp bread in these Italian favorites.
  • Soups and stews – Add big chunks of heirlooms just before serving so they hold their shape.
  • Pasta dishes – Toss chopped heirlooms with hot pasta. The heat brings out their sweetness.
  • Kabobs and grilling – Sturdy heirlooms won’t fall apart on the grill like other tomatoes.

Let the heirlooms shine by using simple preparations. Don’t overpower their sublime flavor with too many competing ingredients.

How to Store Heirloom Tomatoes

Handle heirlooms gently to avoid bruising. Because they have thinner skins than hybrids, heirlooms don’t store quite as long. Follow these guidelines:

  • Leave stems on – Never refrigerate tomatoes with the stems removed. The stem slows moisture loss.
  • Keep at room temperature – Store heirlooms stem-end down on the counter out of direct sunlight.
  • Refrigerate judiciously – Chilling damages texture and flavor. Only refrigerate overripe tomatoes. Bring back to room temp before eating.
  • Crackdown on damaged fruit – Use up any split or cracked heirlooms promptly. Their thinner skins lose moisture faster once damaged.
  • Can or freeze for later – Make sauce, salsa, or stew with abundance. Freeze in sealed bags with the air pressed out.

With proper storage, most heirlooms will retain excellent eating quality for 3-5 days. Savor every last slice!

12 Heirloom Tomatoes to Try

A rainbow awaits you in the heirloom tomato world. These 12 classic heirloom varieties make wonderful additions to any garden or menu:

Brandywine – Amish heirloom prized for silky texture and rich, tangy flavor. Rosy-pink beefsteaks can weigh over 2 lbs!

Cherokee Purple – Dusky purple color and sweet, smoky taste. Medium-sized with green shoulders when ripe.

Mortgage Lifter – Huge, meaty pink fruit exceeding 4 lbs! Nice acid-sugar balance.

Green Zebra – Bright green stripes on small, juicy tomatoeshttps://tomatoabout.com/black-krim-tomato/. Tart and a little spicy when fully ripe.

Black Krim – Eye-catching deep purple with dark green shoulders. Complex, wine-like flavor.

San Marzano – Elongated Italian heirloom perfect for sauces and canning. Dense texture.

Hillbilly – Heavily ribbed and irregular yellow tomatoes with orange streaks. Complex sweet-tart taste.

Lemon Boy – Pale yellow, round tomatoes with a mild, lemony flavor. Good yields on vigorous vines.

Amish Paste – Excellent for sauces and canning. Meaty red interior with few seeds.

Eva Purple Ball – Round pink fruit grows in clusters. Sweet and juicy with a great tomato aroma.

Chocolate Stripes – Beautiful vertical green and brown stripes. The rich taste is not chocolatey.

Yellow Pear – Prolific, bite-sized heirloom with mild flavor. Cute in salads or snacks.

Now that you know what makes heirloom tomatoes so special, start seeking them out! Discovering new flavorful varieties connects you to centuries of tradition with each delightful bite.

Heirloom Tomatoes Vs. Hybrid Tomatoes Vs. Genetically Modified Tomatoes

Tomato TypeHow They’re ProducedBenefitsDrawbacks
HeirloomOpen-pollination; Seeds saved and replantedIncredible taste, high nutrition, unique diversityLower yields, less disease resistance
HybridControlled cross between two parent plantsImproved yield, uniformity, disease resistanceReduced flavor and nutrition
GMODirect DNA modification in a labEnhanced commercial traits like shelf lifeUntested effects, banned in many countries

Heirloom Tomato Health Benefits

Heirlooms aren’t just delicious – they offer impressive health benefits:

  • Higher levels of lycopene, an antioxidant that reduces the risk of cancer, heart disease, and other chronic illnesses
  • More overall antioxidants, vitamin C, and other nutrients than commercial hybrids
  • No genetically modified traits
  • When cooked into sauces and stews, the available lycopene content is increased even further

Choosing heirlooms lets you get exceptional flavor and nutrition in one tasty package!

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: What are the best heirloom tomatoes for containers?

A: The best heirloom varieties for growing in containers include Red Fig, Yellow Pear, Dester, and Tommy Toe. Look for naturally compact plants under 3 feet tall that don’t require staking. Determinate, early-fruiting heirlooms work well

Q: How can you tell if an heirloom tomato is fully ripe?

A: Check for a deep, uniform color without green shoulders. Give a gentle squeeze – it should feel firm but yield slightly. Check the bottom for a rich color and compare it to other ripening fruits on the plant. Sniff the stem end for a sweet, tomatoey aroma.

Q: What heirloom tomatoes go well in salsa?

A: Good salsa heirlooms include Mexican varieties like Green Zebra, Cherokee Purple, Speckled Roman, Aunt Ruby’s German Green, and Black Plum for a range of heat, sweetness, and acidity. Mix heirlooms for texture and depth of flavor. Roast or smoke them first.

Wrapping up!

With their unparalleled taste, dazzling colors, fascinating history, and impressive health benefits, heirloom tomatoes have earned their popularity among home chefs and gardeners alike.

As you explore the kaleidoscope of heirloom varieties, each juicy bite connects you to generations from around the world who nurtured these special tomatoes. Choose heirlooms for your next salad, sauce, or sandwich for a flavor experience you won’t find anywhere else.

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By Mohsin

Hi, I’m Mohsin, creator of Tomato about website. I have over a two decade of gardening experience and I love helping others growing healthy tomatoes!

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