Farmer’s Guide to Choosing The Best Heirloom Tomato

Which Color is Best?

By Georgie Smith,

It’s a veritable RAINBOW of heirloom tomato colors in the farm stand this time of year.

So how do you know which heirloom tomato color is the best? Well, you had better get taste-testing. Because in the end it all depends on what YOU like best.

Heirloom Tomatoes Versus Grocery Store Tomatoes

First of all, what, exactly is an ‘heirloom’ tomato?

Well, depending on who you ask, an ‘heirloom’ tomato (or any heirloom vegetable) is generally considered a variety that has been around at least 50 years. Or maybe 100. Or, some split the difference and say before WWII.

And it has to be open-pollinated (aka breeds true to seed). Or, some argue that doesn’t matter (there are hybridized varieties that have been around for 100 years!).

Essentially, what I’m getting at is what ‘heirloom’ actually means – especially when it comes to tomatoes – is a completely unsettled and a hotly debated topic in the pack-sheds and farm fields of small vegetable farms worldwide.

Ha! Not really. Most farmers don’t really care that much as long as they… TASTE GOOD!

So that gets us back to supposed ‘heirloom’ tomatoes sold at the markets, farm stores and even in grocery stores. Essentially, the only true ‘defining’ characteristics of a heirloom tomato variety are: Interesting colors, strange shapes (probably not completely perfect) and (this is the most important one) they taste AMAZING. Essentially not a perfectly boring and bland red slicer tomato.

But this still brings us back to the pressing question. Out of all those crazy, wackadoodle colors and shapes, which one should you choose?

Purple Heirloom Tomatoes

Purple, or oftentimes called black or “chocolate” tomatoes have a rich, savory, smoky flavor. They skip the pucker-factor of some of the more typically ‘tart’ colors.

Gorgeous, luscious Cherokee Purple tomatoes

Purple tomatoes (and also all purple vegetables and fruit) are arguably the ‘healthiest’ tomato. That purple color is caused by a phytonutrient called ‘anthocyanin’ and eases inflammation and mops up free radicals. It improves memory, all-over brain function and fortifies the immune system!

Our Favorite purple varieties – Cherokee Purple, Pruden’s Purple, Black Krim, Black from Tula, Black Prince, Ananas Noire, Indigo Blue Beauty, Black Sea Man, Cherokee Chocolate and Japanese Black Trifele.

Yellow Heirloom Tomatoes

Yellow (and white, which are just very pale yellow) tomatoes are the least acidic color and are typically sweet, mild and pleasant.

Pork Chop Yellow Tomato

They aren’t the sort of tomato (those are coming up later) that will make you sit up straight and go ‘wow.’ But they are pleasant, blend well in most applications and you can’t deny the color is a conversation starter!

Our Favorite Yellow Varieties – Pork Chop, Carolina Gold, Green Gage Yellow, Lemon

Green Heirloom Tomatoes

Some tomatoes are green because they are unripe and… there are tomatoes that ARE ripe when green! Confusing, no?

A truss of ripening Green Zebra tomatoes

The most ubiquitous green (ripe) tomato is the “Green Zebra.” This is a medium-size, tangy, tart green tomato that will ripen to bright green with yellow ‘stripes’ (hence the name).

The ‘Zebra’ seems to have passed its genes on well because almost all ‘green’ varieties boast that tart, tangy zip with a lot of juiciness. Some folks prefer green tomatoes over all others!

Our Favorite Green Tomatoes – Green Zebra, Aunt Ruby’s Green and Green Tiger

Orange Heirloom Tomatoes

Orange tomatoes tend to be fruity, tangy and flavorful. Tomatoes are a ‘fruit’ and the orange varieties reinforce that point.

They have the low-acid sweetness of the yellow tomatoes but add in just enough of the ‘tart’ of the red to make a truly pleasurable tomato.

Ananas Orange Tomato

Our Favorite Orange Tomatoes – Persimmon, Jaunne Flamme, Chef’s Choice and BeOrange

Pink Heirloom Tomatoes

Pink tomatoes are often what we think of when we think ‘heirloom tomato’ and for good measure. Pink heirloom tomatoes balance that perfect cross between acid, sweet and tangy that create a flavor ‘explosion’ in your mouth.

Pretty Caspian Pink Tomatoes

And of course, the tomato that started the ‘heirloom’ tomato craze was none other than a large, bulbous and PINK variety called the “Brandywine.”

Our Favorite Pink Tomatoes – Brandywine, Mortgage Lifter, Caspian Pink, Pink Berkeley and Damsel

Red Tomatoes

So, what about the red heirloom tomatoes? Bright, fire-truck red is what automatically comes to mind when we think ‘tomato.’ Yet the ‘grocery store slicer’ red tomato is typically hard, insipid and uninspiring.

Gorgeous, bright red heirloom tomatoes

Luckily heirloom red tomatoes are a lot better than that! They tend to be tangy with a light, zesty bite and unlike the grocery store ‘reds,’ red heirlooms have thin skins.

Our Favorite Red Tomatoes – Costoluto, Siletz, Genuwine, Solar Flare, San Marzano ‘Redorta’, Moskovich, Beefmaster, Beef Steak and Red Brandywine

Texture, Skin and Mouthfeel

It’s not just ‘flavor’ that makes a difference when it comes to heirlooms, it’s the thickness of the skin, the texture of the fruit and how all that ‘feels’ when you experience it on your taste buds.

In general, heirloom tomatoes are ‘thinner-skinned’ than the grocery store variety, or what would typically be considered sauce tomatoes. This also means they are more perishable and easily bruised. 

Juicy, yet firm and not mealy… Perfect!

Sometimes a variety will feel ‘mealy’ in your mouth which is generally considered not as pleasant. This can be related to ripeness (being overly ripe) and sometimes growing conditions which means a variety that is amazing grown in one location may not be in another. 

But in the end, these small differences come down to personal preference. For instance, one of my all-time favorite tomatoes is a ‘romano’ variety called ‘San Marzano Redorta’ which tends to have thicker skin than some heirlooms but for whatever reason, it just hits all the right ‘tomato heaven points’ for me!

Heirloom Tomato Myths

#1 – Tomatoes grown ‘outside’ – versus in a greenhouse – aren’t necessarily better. 

In the Pacific Northwest, if you grow tomatoes outside, that tends to mean you don’t get ripe tomatoes until September (or not at all, as many Pacific NW gardeners have discovered).

Tomatoes ripen by ‘heat units’ meaning they need so much heat to ripen. Cool summer temps (including night-time temps) often delay ripening. Hence why most tomatoes in the PacNW are grown in greenhouses.

The main trick for finding fantastic ‘greenhouse’ grown tomatoes that are just as good as any other is making sure they are planted in ‘the dirt’ versus hydroponically-grown tomatoes which ripen in a slurry of chemically-fortified water.

#2 – Don’t let them get ‘perfectly ripe’ on the vine before picking them.

Gorgeous batch of ripening tomatoes!

This is a misnomer that grew out of the grocery biz’s ‘vine-ripened’ marketing campaign (which essentially means they didn’t pick the tomato totally green, refrigerate it until time to go on store shelves, then spray with a chemical to artificially introduce a uniform ‘ripening’).

With heirloom tomatoes – unless you plan to eat the tomato the minute you pick it, standing in your garden – waiting to pick until they are perfectly ripe often means by the time you get around to eating you have a tomato that has gone to mush. 

Heirloom tomatoes are, by nature, more perishable than ‘grocery store’ varieties. The best bet is to pick them slightly under-ripe then store them, single layer with stems removed (because the stems will poke a hole in the thin-skinned tomato next to them!) at room temperature.

This doesn’t sacrifice any of the great flavor and allows the tomatoes to be used at their perfect ‘moment’ of ripeness and when you happen to be ready for them. 

It is PRIME heirloom tomato season at Snohomish County’s premiere organic farm and nursery. Check out Garden Treasure’s nearly 50 varieties of tomatoes! See us at the farm store (open every day but Monday!) or farmers markets on Saturday and Sunday. Locations can be found on our website.

Interested in Keeping Up With Garden Treasures Nursery and Organic Farm latest farm news? Sign Up for our Newsletter right HERE


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