Heirloom tomatoes used to be very difficult to find outside of niche farmer’s markets, but with each passing year more and more of them are finding their way into large national supermarkets. Like apples, each heirloom tomato variety has its own unique taste, texture, and use, but they’re usually lumped together in a generic ‘heirloom tomato’ bin at the grocery store, and the different varieties are never explained or highlighted. Well, today I am going to do just that. I have a tasting guide below for the various varieties I grow, but there are hundreds more varieties out there so don’t be surprised if the availability at your farmer’s market is slightly different than what’s listed here. This is just a general guide to get you started and familiarize you with what to look for in tomatoes when you’re determining what to use them for. As a rule of thumb, roma tomatoes are not great for fresh-eating since they’re drier inside, but make for perfect sauce stock. The tomatoes listed below in the guide can be enjoyed both fresh and cooked, however, and any personal recommendations one way or the other are also included.
This is a good time to start to think about what tomatoes you may want to grow next year, and in the spring I’ll share a tomato seed-starting and planting guide, but for now you can just peruse and admire all the varieties of tomatoes out there. Late summer is also when most tomato bushes are at the height of production, so if you go to your local farmer’s market you should be able to get a wonderful variety of them and do a little taste-test of your own. My favorite way to eat fresh tomatoes is in a simple-yet-ridiculously-tasty caprese salad. The olive oil, salt, basil and mozzarella really bring out the sweetness, acidity, texture, and overall flavor of the fruit. The ingredients and preparation for caprese are incredibly simple, but the key to success with this salad lies in the quality of the ingredients you use. Ripe, juicy tomatoes, spright green basil, extra virgin olive oil, fresh mozzarella, and flake sea salt will make all the difference.
Juiciness – The juicier the tomato, the better it is for fresh eating. Salads, sandwiches, and burgers are all great uses for freshly-sliced juicy tomatoes like the beefsteak varieties. The less juicy the tomato, the better it is for making sauce, since the flavor is already more concentrated and you’ll have to stew the tomatoes for less time since there is less water to evaporate. The general roma tomato varieties are great examples of drier tomatoes.
Shape & Size – The shape can provide hints about what to do with a tomato, as well. Wide and medium to large tomatoes are great for slicing and use as toppings on pizzas and sandwiches, whereas smaller round or pear-shaped tomatoes can be quartered or cut in half and used in salads. Long and skinny tomatoes like roma varieties should be chopped up for stews or can be cut in half length-wise and roasted.
Texture – Color is not the only sign of ripeness in a tomato. Once it turns the correct hue for its particular variety, make sure to give the tomato a gentle squeeze before picking. When a tomato is ripe and ready for eating, it shouldn’t be hard, but should give a little. On the other hand, it should not feel mushy or break the skin when squeezing softly, as this is usually a sign that a tomato is overripe and is better tossed into the compost pile than used for eating. If the tomato has no give to it and feels pretty hard, let the tomato rest another day or two on the vine before coming back for another squeeze test.
A medium to large tomato with deep red coloring that can become a rich brown, often times with brownish-green streaks of color at the top. Its shape is usually round and flat, which makes it an ideal slicing variety. The shape paired with and its incredibly rich, sweet, and juicy flavor makes it perfect for using in sandwiches, burgers, and salads.
An old-time Italian favorite, this deeply ribbed tomato is as beautiful and it is delicious. A striking true red in color, they tend to be round and flat and can sometimes curl up around the stalk they’re growing from as the fruit matures, creating a u-shaped tomato. Classic acidic tomato flavor, perfect for sauces, stews, soups, and roasting. They’re wonderful for slicing and eating fresh, as well, when they’re large enough to get several slices out of a single one.
A sweet and juicy beefsteak tomato, this is the most flavorful of the white varieties which can sometimes be a little flavorless. Round with slight ribbing on the shoulders, it’s actually a very pale yellow color when ripe and can sometimes get a mild pink blush. Because of its striking color, it’s great for serving in salads and its shape makes it an excellent slicing tomato, too.
A very old heirloom variety, these bright yellow miniature tomatoes usually measure about 2 inches in height and have a defined pear-shape to them. They’re tangy and acidic in flavor and the plant itself is very productive and does well as a vining tomato, with long crawling branches that tend to creep up onto any plants growing nearby it. Perfect for using in salads, stews, or roasting and eating as a snack.
A very small cherry-type tomato, in fact the smallest heirloom tomato variety out there (they can get as small as 1/2 inch when ripe, mine are usually about 1 inch). But what it lacks in size it makes up for in flavor and productivity. Incredibly sweet and tangy, with long string-like branches that get weighed down with dozens upon dozens of fruit. They make for great snacking and the perfect addition to salads. I also like to roast them in the oven for a bit to get some of the moisture out and concentrate the flavor, then you can toss them with a little salt and olive oil and eat them like chewy delicious tomato chips.
This is the second-most productive tomato in my garden, falling right after the currant tomato. Gypsy tomatoes are a smooth-skinned purple tomato variety that produce round medium-sized fruit with an intensely rich and almost smokey flavor. They’e deep maroon in color with green streaks appearing near the top. It’s a Russian variety that’s gaining in popularity here in the states because of its incredibly unique flavor and ease-of-growth. I recommend slicing these for salads, using them in stews, or roasting them and using the roasted tomatoes as a stew or soup base.
This is hands down my favorite tomato variety. Unfortunately, this year my lone green grape seedling I brought up from California ended up succumbing to disease and thus the fruit of this plant ended up quite warped, as you can see. But when healthy, these oblong cherry-variety tomatoes are packed with an incredibly dense, sweet, and rich flavor. They also have only 10% of the seeds of similar cherry tomato varieties, which means more juice and meat inside and less chewy seeds. They turn a deep yellow-green when ripe and usually have a darker green tint towards the top. Inside they’re practically neon green, which makes them perfect for slicing in half and incorporating into salads. Their low-seed count also makes them great for salsa verde, but I have used them for everything from stews to sandwiches since their flavor is so incredible. My favorite way to enjoy them, though, is roasting the tomato halves, tossing with a little salt and olive oil, and eating them like chips.
A large and delicious beefsteak-style tomato with soft ribbing on the shoulders and a beautiful dusty magenta hue, though it can also come through as a pale-ish dusty pink, too. Incredible flavor, both rich and sweet with lots of juice. Great for slicing and eating fresh, as well as roasting and stews. Very versatile!
Brandywine is a classic heirloom tomato variety with notoriety for its incredible flavor. This yellow strain packs a tangy and rich punch and makes for an excellent slicing variety. Mine were smooth, round, and flat, but they can sometimes have a bit of ribbing on their shoulders. A little trickier to grow and not quite as productive or disease-resistant as other heirloom varieties, but the flavor is top notch.
A beautiful brownish brick red tomato with earthy green shoulders, its pear shape makes it great for cutting into quarters and eating in salads. Very smooth fruit and an incredibly productive plant, the flavor is wonderfully sweet and mellow. These tomatoes can get fairly large, too, if given the right growing conditions.
A bright crimson and perfectly round fruit, this was the most popular canning tomato in the U.S. for the better part of the 20th century. With a rich and strong flavor that can withstand the preserving process, this tomato makes for great soup and sauce stock. Its shape also lends itself to slicing and dicing for fresh-eating.