Heirloom Tomatoes: All About Them
Heirloom tomatoes come from open-pollinated cultivars. Open-pollinated plants, also known as heirloom or standard, are varieties that have stable traits from one generation to the next. An open-pollinated seed is distinct from a hybrid seed. Hybrid seeds are the first generation offspring of two distant and distinct parental lines of the same species. Seeds taken from a hybrid may either be sterile or more commonly fail to breed true, not incorporating and expressing the desired traits of the parent. Gardeners are better able to save seeds from open-pollinated or heirloom plants.
Heirloom tomatoes have been selected over the years for their flavor. The word “heirloom” refers to the history behind the fruit, provoking endless images of farmers in their garden taste-testing and then saving seeds from the best tomatoes. Each heirloom variety has a distinctive story, history, flavor and appearance. In general, heirlooms are commonly less seedy, more flavorful and colorful, and sweeter then hybrid tomatoes. Because they have been selected for flavor and not ease of production on a large-scale, they may be more susceptible to cracking and disease while in the field. Heirloom tomatoes need special attention and, for this reason, farmers charge more for them at market. However, we think they are well-worth it and hope you do too!
Below are the main varieties of heirlooms we grow and their characteristics. (Get the printable version here!)
Brandywine: A popular variety among gardeners and cooks alike, this Amish beefsteak-sized tomato has rosy pink skin and an intense tomato flavor. Each fruit can weigh up to two pounds and is among the slowest tomatoes to ripen.
Cherokee Purple: A 2013 Tomato Tasting winner! This tomato was one of the first to be popular in the “black” color group of tomatoes. It is not only popular for its dark color, but for its unique flavor and dense juicy texture as well. These tomatoes carry a green shoulder across the top and they have a tendency for the seeds to be surrounded by a green gel. The variety was shared by the Cherokee Indians with a gardener over 100 years ago in Tennessee and came onto the market in 1991.
Green Zebra: Pale green with dark green stripes. Sweet and zingy flavor
Indigo Apple: Turns shiny black or matte purple in the sun. Mild, aromatic flavor.
La Carotina: Light peach-orange juicy meat. Wellbalanced citrusy flavors with a hint of carrot.
Lava Flow: Light orange with subtle green and darker orange vertical striping. Pastel yellow and pink flesh. Complex, fruity, and well-balanced flavor.
Red Zebra: Fire-engine-red fruit, covered with bright yellow stripes. Sweet and flavorful.
Taxi: Smooth, blemish-free baseball-sized lemonyellow tomato. Sweet-flavored.
Striped German: A 2013 Tomato Tasting winner! Another large tomato producer with gorgeous bi-color flesh of yellow and pink. It has sweet complex flavors and is meaty and juicy. Many Striped German tomatoes are bumpy or almost ribbed. The name suggests a “Pennsylvania Dutch” or at least Mennonite origin, possibly coming from Hampshire County, West Virginia. We have grown this variety for years and continue to love it.
Valencia: This is a round, smooth fruit with a brilliant orange appearance. It is a family heirloom from Maine. Some say it is called “Valencia” because it looks like a Valencia orange, while others suspect it came from Valencia, Spain. It is hard to find and is a threatened variety, which is why we love to grow it. The tomato has an excellent and complex tomato taste, with a great balance of acid and sweet. It is meaty and rich with very few seeds. It has been described as bursting with flavor, rich and buttery as well as pineapple-like, sweet and refreshing.
How to Store
Store at room temperature, on the counter out of direct sunlight.
3 Ways to Prepare
- Eat them fresh! Slice and serve with mozzarella and basil, drizzled with balsamic and olive oil right before serving.
- Make a fresh salsa! Mix together chopped tomato, onion, pepper (jalapeno, if you like it hot!), garlic, cumin, salt, and pepper. Add cilantro for even more flavor!
- Roast them, freeze them, and use them later! Halve and roast, cut side down, in a low oven (200–350º) until they begin to get wrinkled and begin to loose some of their moisture.
Below are some recipes that we love at the height of tomato season. But remember, the beauty of heirlooms is that they are delicious all on their own, with a drizzle of olive oil and some sea salt.
- Every year, Farm Co-Founder Will Allen makes huge batches of his famous Fresh Salsa.
- We served this Tomato Coconut Soup at our Tomato Tasting back in 2011.
- Cold, raw, healthy Tomato Gazpacho is a Spanish, and now local, favorite.