Tomatoes — Heirloom or Hybrid?

It is Tomato Central at our house right now due to the proliferation of what is growing in my husband’s garden. (If you live in my area and want buy some, let me know.) I find the number of tomatoes he grows humorous as neither one of us is a fan of fresh store-bought tomatoes. I love a good pasta sauce or using them in other ways but not to just eat them fresh. However, as he has branched out to grow heirloom varieties, I can now enjoy a caprese salad or a tomato tart. All these types of fresh tomatoes and what to do with them is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

There are two main types of tomatoes – Hybrid and Heirloom. Hybrids are intentionally cross-bred by the plant breeders. This produces tomatoes that are more disease-resistant, have longer shelf lives, better yields, uniform appearance and so forth. Like so much fruit (and veggies), they are bred to give the consumer what “looks” good, not necessarily what tastes good. They are the main type of tomato that you will see in the supermarket.

Heirloom tomatoes are grown from seeds that have been saved and passed down through the generations. Farmers would save the seeds from the best fruits and then use them to grow more. It is said that some varieties can date back 100 years or more.

The reason that many people rave about heirloom tomatoes is that they think they have superior taste. I can personally attest to that but I suppose it depends on your taste buds. They can look unusual, both in color and shape. Note that the term “heirloom” is unregulated. It is one of those terms that has become popular and growers want to jump on the bandwagon. So, try to buy from someone you trust or grow your own.

If you are a gardener, here are a few pros/cons to help you decide what to grow.

Heirloom Pros

  • Flavor—many think it is superior to hybrids
  • Variety – more variety in color, size, texture
  • Tradition – continuing to propagate heirlooms contributes to greater genetic diversity in tomato plants
  • Replanting – the seeds can be reused season after season with the fruit being identical to the parents

Heirloom Cons

  • Appearance – although some people love how different they look, others do not
  • Yield – they have a lower yield than hybrids (You would never know that by looking at my husband’s garden!)

Hybrid Pros

  • Growing conditions – they are more disease- and heat-resistant and manage harsh weather better than heirlooms
  • Yield – these produce more fruits per plant than heirlooms
  • Consistency – with hybrids, you are going to get a more consistent and dependable harvest

Hybrid Cons

  • Replanting – the seeds cannot be replanted as they have been cross bred and the next season, they will not be like the parent and could be very undesirable.
  • Flavor – as the growers try to make better growing fruit, it often loses in the flavor department.

There are thousands of heirloom varieties. One gardening site listed almost 300 varieties with interesting names such as Aunt Ginny, Banana Legs, Black Sea Man, Cosmonaut Volkov, Cream Sausage, Hillbilly, Potato Leaf, Nebraska Wedding, Pink Ping Pong, Sugar Lump and Ten Fingers of Naples.

Every list of “favorites” you look at is different. Therefore, let me just list those my husband is currently growing in Colorado.

Amish Paste – this heirloom is thought to have originated in the 1870s with the Amish people in Wisconsin and later in Pennsylvania. It is fairly large and known for its juicy flesh. Although they can be eaten fresh, they are a superb sauce tomato.

Beefsteak – the most common heirloom with several varieties. There is also a type of hybrid by the same name. The tomatoes are large, about a pound or more.

Black Krim – named for the Crimean Peninsula of Ukraine, it is another beefsteak type tomato that is dark red and salty.

Brandywine – relatively large tomatoes with an excellent flavor and a pink hue. We grow both a red and yellow variety.

Cherokee Purple – a beefsteak tomato with a green shoulder and purplish/blackish interior.

Mr. Stripey – these huge, beefsteak-type tomatoes are very pretty due to their red and yellow coloring. The background color is yellow to light orange, with red spots/stripes radiating out from the stem. They have a high sugar content, making them particularly delicious.

Old German – this tomato was a favorite of Mennonite families from the Shenandoah Valley area of Virginia, and dates back to the mid-1800s. It is in the beefsteak family and can grow to a size of almost 2 pounds. It is bi-colored, featuring golden yellow and reddish stripes.

There is another way to categorize tomatoes apart from heirloom vs hybrid.

  • Cherry tomatoes – these are round, bite-sized and juicy tomatoes. They are great for salads, snacks or kebabs.
  • Grape tomatoes – sources say they should be half the size of cherry tomatoes but I must say this doesn’t appear so when you look at the boxes in the supermarket. They are more oblong in shape, are less sweet than cherry tomatoes, contain less water and a thicker skin. You may use as you would cherry tomatoes.
  • Roma tomatoes – these are larger than either grape or cherry and are also known as plum tomatoes. Due to their sweetness and juiciness, they are good for canning or sauces.
  • Beefsteak tomatoes – large and firm enough to hold their shape when sliced. They are often preferred for sandwiches or burgers although they can also be canned or used in making a sauce.
  • Tomatoes on the vine – sold still attached to the vine, which prolongs their shelf life. Good for sandwiches, canning and sauces.

So, what’s the deal with San Marzano tomatoes? This is probably one of the best known tomato varieties and is a type of plum tomato. The authentic San Marzano is grown in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius in volcanic soil, leading to a lower acidity and a sweeter flavor As with so many things, there are fakes out there. In the supermarket, you will mostly find them canned. Look for the D.O.P label Pomodoro San Marzano dell’Agro Sarnese Nocerino.

Chefs will claim that this is the preferred tomato for making sauce due to its sweet taste and thick flesh. When put under taste tests, neither Cooks Illustrated nor Serious Eats found it necessarily lived up to its hype.

Most of us in the cooking world have been taught that you should never refrigerate tomatoes. It turns out that this is one more of the culinary myths that has been perpetuated through the years. (For more culinary myths, see the two Cooking Tips I wrote on this subject. Find Part 1 here and Part 2 here.)

Taste testers have found that tomatoes do fine in the refrigerator and the shelf life is prolonged by up to 5 days. If they have been cut, put them in an airtight container to prevent them from picking up odors.

Another myth is that you need to remove the seeds. You do not. They do not affect the flavor but if you want them removed for aesthetic reasons, then go right ahead.

What is the best use for heirloom tomatoes? Use them in a way that they can shine such as caprese salads or tomato tarts. Here are two great recipes. The first is a Tomato & Basil Tart, which is like a caprese salad baked in a pie crust. The second is an Heirloom Tomato Tart with a custard filling. Both are excellent.

What about you? Are you a tomato lover? Have you tried heirlooms? What is your favorite?