The FAQ Series: Tomatoes

People think of tomatoes as a summer crop – as in June and July summer. And perhaps you live in a Magical Land of Elves and Unicorns (hello, Florida and southern California!) where field-grown tomatoes are available virtually year-round. Here in western Colorado, however, field-grown tomatoes don’t come on strong until August and September – but of course all the food blogs and magazines are telling us that it’s now time for apple cider and winter squash and pumpkin spice everything. It’s a confusing period, this shoulder season.

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Seed packets offer plenty of information – and if it’s an heirloom, they’ll be sure to mention it.

There is no debate that tomatoes are the star of the garden. They’re by far the most popular crop for home gardeners as well as the biggest seller at farmers’ markets, and more tomatoes are grown each year than any other fruit in the world – including apples and bananas. There are more than twenty thousand known varieties of tomatoes, and new cultivars are developed every year.

Like the word organic, the word heirloom gets thrown around a lot in reference to tomatoes. But what is an heirloom tomato, exactly? And why do they cost five dollars a pound?

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Our ‘Indigo Rose’ tomatoes, sadly still unripe even in early September.

The word heirloom doesn’t have any sort of legal definition in the U.S. when it comes to crops. In terms of plant botany, however, it’s generally accepted that an heirloom is a particular variety that’s existed for fifty years or more (World War II is the most common demarcation line), and is often one that’s been passed down from generation to generation. Decades and centuries ago, people immigrated to other countries with very few possessions; if they had seeds, they were often treated as precious jewels – sewed into skirt hems and luggage linings – because those seeds represented the start of a new food source and a new life. We obviously don’t treat seeds nearly as well today, but there still exists a small subset of gardeners who save seeds with the express purpose of keeping certain obscure plants alive. An heirloom by its very definition is not hybridized and non-GMO.

The ‘Indigo Rose’ tomatoes above aren’t a true heirloom, although they will be eventually. This tomato was developed by Dr. Jim Myers at Oregon State University (go Beavs!) as part of a breeding program searching for higher anthocyanins in fruit. That gorgeous, glossy dark purple color means the tomato has more antioxidants; it’s open-pollinated, so while not old enough for heirloom classification yet, the seeds will breed true if saved.

(For clarity’s sake, know that in plant breeding, hybrid does not necessarily mean GMO; there are no GMO tomatoes available commercially as of this writing. That is subject to change in the not-too-distant future.)

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The uniformity makes these hybrids perfect for grocery store displays.

Hybrids, on the other hand, have been developed through years and years of plant breeding for very specific reasons, and flavor is rarely a consideration. Ripe tomatoes are dangerously perishable, so commercial tomato growers want to pick hard, unripe, green tomatoes and let them ripen en route to market or at the store, courtesy of ethylene gas treatments. Grocery stores and food-service outlets demand symmetrical, uniform tomatoes of identical shape and size, both for shipping and displays. And consumers have long demonstrated by their consistent purchases of tasteless grocery store tomatoes that they don’t care about flavor, either – they just want perfect red tomatoes. This has obviously created an ideal market for bland, mealy ‘tomato-like fruits’ seen everywhere from fast-food hamburgers to caprese salads in January. What is the point, really, of eating something that looks like a tomato, but tastes like nothing? If we want better, we should ask for it.

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Not at all uniform. Delicate and easily damaged. Not traditionally attractive. But the flavor? Unreal.

When it comes to heirloom tomatoes, we have actually started asking for better. Certain high-end grocery stores now stock heirlooms seasonally, and small-scale growers do a roaring trade at farmers’ markets. These precious delights usually can’t be shipped far; they have thin skins and are picked as close to ripeness as possible, which means that they’re subject to damage. They’re also wildly inconsistent in size and shape and color, and they often show seams and cracks that may deter standard perfection-focused shoppers. For people doggedly in pursuit of flavor, however, there is simply no comparison. Heirloom tomatoes, depending on the variety, might be sweet or acidic or spicy or tangy or smoky and absolutely dripping with sultry juice. They taste like the past, in the best possible way. They taste like a tomato should taste.

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Eaten for supper at our house three to four times a week, when available.

If you are lucky enough to grow or buy heirloom tomatoes, I beg you to do nothing more than slice thickly, place on a deep platter, drizzle with good olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Sliced basil or red onion slivers can be added but are entirely optional. Let the tomatoes sit for a few minutes so the salt sinks in. Everyone serves themselves, with a few grinds of black pepper, if desired, and then the cook gets all the delicious juices that have accumulated at the bottom of the platter; bonus points if you’ve got homemade bread to soak those up. Heirloom tomatoes aren’t for cooking or canning or anything but eating raw and fresh, at room temperature, for as long as the season will allow. (And never, ever, ever refrigerate fresh tomatoes. It makes them mealy and horrible – not that you’d notice, if they came from the grocery store initially.)

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Saving tomato seeds is easier than you think.

Heirlooms are expensive because they are so fragile and so perishable, and because they generally don’t have disease- or insect-resistance bred in, so they’re more susceptible to loss. In my opinion, they’re worth all the effort and expense. There’s a time and a place for hybrids, too, even in the home garden – I buy hundreds of pounds of field-grown hybrid tomato seconds from local farms primarily for canning and preserving; in these applications, their consistency, productivity and yield makes up for the heirlooms’ fickle, prickly behavior. For sheer deliciousness, though, heirloom tomatoes cannot be beat.

If you’ve grown some spectacular heirlooms this year, save your seeds. Hybrid crops typically won’t breed true to type – such is the nature of hybridization – so it’s only worth saving seeds from tomatoes you know to be unhybridized. Place the seeds in a clean jar and add a little water. After a few days, the seeds will start to ferment – this mold actually helps protect the seed until it’s time to grow again next season. Once the seeds have fermented, rinse and separate them gently and store in labeled bags or jars in a dark, cool, dry place. You can even start a seed swap and trade with other gardeners for unique, hard-to-find varieties.

Do you have any favorite tomatoes you’ve grown or sampled? Please share in the comments below. (And then send us some seeds.)

P.S. Want to learn more about heirloom vs. hybrid tomatoes? Try this, this or this.