You've probably seen them. Big and bulbous or small and perfectly round... in bright yellow or dark purple... faded like a sunset or striped like a green zebra...
Heirloom tomatoes are taking up all our time (and all our strength!) at the farm these days, weighing down baskets as we harvest and overflowing our tables at market.
What does "Heirloom" Mean?
Heirloom tomatoes are "open pollinated," which means they are freely pollinated by the bugs and winds, rather than controlled by human interaction in the pollination.
While this can introduce genetic variation into a plant, heirloom tomatoes "breed true," meaning their seeds produce a very similar tomato to the one they came from.
Heirloom tomato seeds have, by definition, been passed down and saved for many years. To be considered heirlooms, these tomatoes must come from plants in existence before 1940, and unaltered (genetically) since.
Heirlooms are genetically unique, and their appearance is often not what pops into your mind when you think of a tomato.
As corporate farming grew over the past decades, "the multitude of heirlooms that had adapted to survive well for hundreds of years were lost or replaced by fewer hybrid tomatoes, bred for their commercially attractive characteristics" (TomatoFest.com).
Luckily, with the newfound trendiness of farmers markets and local/green eating, heirloom tomatoes (and heirlooms of other fruits and vegetable, too!) are increasingly worthwhile for farmers to grow. That means they're increasingly available for you to purchase and enjoy.
Heirloom Tomato Tastes
Heirloom tomatoes taste better than other tomatoes. As far as I'm concerned, this is a fact. Their flavor is richer, deeper, and just plain better.
Heirloom tomato flavor is also much more varied. Some will have light notes and others will have an earthy deep flavor. Some are sweeter, some are more acidic.
Your best bet is to get a variety and try them all. Hold an heirloom tomato tasting at your house and try a whole line up to really explore the diversity of flavors.
What to do with them
When heirloom tomatoes are in season (late summer and early fall), I encourage you to use them in anything where you usually consider putting raw tomatoes.
Other easy ways to celebrate heirloom tomato season:
- Slice big heirlooms into big, thick slices and layer them with mozzarella and basil and a drizzle of olive oil for an impressive side (like this).
- Make an heirloom tomato salad: dice a variety of heirloom tomatoes, add finely chopped red onion, finely minced garlic, shredded basil, and mi in olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt, and pepper. Serve as a side salad or as a brochette on toasted baguette.
- Keep an eye out for markets selling "seconds" tomatoes, which can be purchased at a discount and used for making sauce and saved for the winter: here's how.
There are a LOT of varieties of heirloom tomatoes. Take advantage of the season by exploring them today.