Have you ever bought a ripe and luscious-looking mass market grocery store tomato, bitten into it, only to find that it was completely tasteless? If you have, then what are heirloom tomatoes is a question you should know the answer to.
I’ve had that unfortunate experience too. Afterwards I resolve to never again buy such tomatoes again, especially out of season. Occasionally I break down, but the result is inevitably the same. As soon as I taste the mass market tomato I get buyer’s remorse. Sure, I appreciate the red color of the fruit. (And yes, tomatoes are fruit, not vegetables.) But soon appreciation gives way to the realization that yet again, I’ve been duped.
And so the search for tasty tomatoes sends me, yet again, to a farmers market or stand. I’m willing to pay higher prices in the hopes of a tomato that actually tastes good, or even delicious.
Yesterday I stopped at a farmers stand and bought both heirloom and “regular” hybrid tomatoes. The heirlooms were almost twice the cost (per pound) as the regular. That price differential caused me to wonder exactly what makes a tomato heirloom and why they command such a high price. Do they really taste better than “hybrid” tomatoes?
A generally accepted definition of heirloom tomatoes comes from Taylor’s Guide to Heirloom Vegetables. To be an heirloom variety, the tomato must meet three criteria:
- The tomato must be able to reproduce itself from seed. This is called “open pollinated” propagation. Heirlooms are from a single genetic make-up, as compared to hybrids that farmers breed for qualities that have nothing to do with taste and everything to do with high productivity, and ease of packaging and transport.
- The variety must be at least 50 years old. Taylor’s Guide does note that some purists require the variety to be developed and preserved outside of the commercial seed trade in addition to being at least 50 years old. Tomatoes are native to the Andes mountains. Although introduced into the U.S. in the 18th Century, at first Americans (including Thomas Jefferson) considered them only ornamental plants. Today there are over 100 heirloom varieties. Heirloom often grow in irregular shapes, sometimes much larger than hybrids, and they come in many colors other than red.
- The variety must have its own history, which may be related to a particular ethnic group, climate, or region – or it may be a murkier, folk history.
Why are Heirloom Tomatoes So Expensive?
Heirloom tomatoes are expensive because they are not mass-produced. With fewer available (than hybrids), their price typically stays high. Heirlooms are not disease resistant, their vines produce less per acre than hybrid varieties, and they do not travel well. Also, they do not have thick skins to protect them during transport. Plus, their lack of uniformity in size and shape makes it difficult to package and transport them.
Do Heirloom Tomatoes Taste Better than Hybrids?
Although taste is personal, in general heirlooms are better tasting than hybrid varieties. Dr. Harry Klee at the University of Florida, researched the chemical and genetic components of flavor in fruits and vegetables, especially tomatoes. He and his team identified what makes heirloom tomatoes taste so good and trying to figure out how to make hybrids taste better. Also, a U.S. Department of Agriculture study profiled 74 varieties of heirloom tomatoes in order to understand why heirlooms taste better than other tomatoes.
Are farmers market hybrid tomatoes better than store-bought hybrids? The answer is a resounding “it depends.” I do find stores that claim to buy from local farmers in season and sometimes those tomatoes taste as good as farmers market hybrids to me. And I have bought farmers market tomatoes that weren’t very good. Golden cherry tomatoes seem wonderfully sweet to me no matter where I get them. Because hybrids can be bred to look good (and some of that breeding actually results in a poorer taste), you just cannot rely on a delicious-looking exterior as an indicator of taste. I do look for deep color and I am suspicious when the skin seems extraordinarily thick, but it the only way to really tell is to bite into it.
Tomato Storage and Preparation Tips
- Never refrigerate tomatoes
- In order to ripen them indoors, put them in a dark place not near heat or light.
- The easiest way to cut tomatoes is with a serrated edge knife.
- If you are using tomatoes in a cooked dish, peel them. (The skin will come off in cooking and if not discarded, it will “float” off the tomato in a rather unappealing manner. Here is an easy way to peel a tomato.
Useful Resources About Heirloom and Hybrid Tomatoes:
- Dr. Klee’s “Tasty Tomato” page – Scientific explanations of his research, his publication list, and links to tomato resources (scientific and non-scientific), especially heirlooms.
- Descriptions of various tomato varieties, including both hybrids and heirlooms.
- A fascinating and disturbing account of commercial tomato-farming – Tomatoland, by Barry Estabrook.