An Intro to Heirloom Tomatoes

Tomatoes are among the most common vegetables, or fruits, on the planet. There are countless varieties of tomatoes and numerous ways to distinguish those varieties. One way to distinguish them is to separate the hybrids, or more common mass-farmed varieties, from heirlooms.

Like any other heirloom vegetable, an heirloom tomato is one that has been passed down, via the seeds, through multiple generations because of its appealing shape, size, color, taste, or other characteristics. Though some people have debated over what qualifies as an heirloom, most agree that the cultivar (specific seed family) must be at least 50 years old or from before 1940, or have been passed through several family generations.

Because heirloom tomatoes are usually unique and saved for a reason, their interesting and exotic tastes can add a lot of great flavor into your dishes. But because plant breeders want to preserve certain characteristics, they haven't genetically altered heirloom tomatoes, which make them less resistant to diseases. Unfortunately this can make them slightly more difficult to grow, meaning they may have higher price tags than the hybrid varieties you'll find in the supermarket.

Independent or smaller-scale producers often grow heirloom tomatoes, so you'll have the best luck finding the most varieties at your local farmer's market where you can buy directly from the growers and learn more about what the different cultivars taste like.

Heirloom tomatoes come in many varieties-over 230, in fact. Some of these are quite rare, but others can usually be found more easily. Some heirloom varieties include the "Church," "Dr. Neal," and "Magnum" Beefsteak tomatoes, "Black Plum," "Golden Egg," and "Golden Roma Italian" plum tomatoes, and the "Riesentraube Grape," "Black Cherry," and "Matts Wild Cherry" grape and cherry tomatoes. But these are only a small few of the many different varieties of cultivars. Because of the sheer number of cultivars within each general variety, it would be best to ask your grower if he or she has any advice as to what cultivar might work best with what.

Next time you go to the farmers' market, look around for something new and experiment with heirlooms in different tomato dishes. Different heirloom cultivars can put a whole new spin on dishes like a simple tomato and basil soup, some easy goat cheese-stuffed tomato appetizers, a clean ravioli with ramps, tomatoes and walnuts, or a hearty polenta with roasted tomatoes, mozzarella and pesto.

Do you buy heirloom tomatoes?

Photo: advencap on flickr