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Why Heirloom Tomatoes? Flavor, Quality, Nutrition, and More

Updated on July 27, 2007
heirloom tomato varieties from our home garden
heirloom tomato varieties from our home garden

What Is an Heirloom Tomato?

"heir-loom [air-loom] -noun 1. A valued possession passed down in a family through succeeding generations. [...] 3. A cultivar of a vegetable or fruit that is open-pollinated and is not grown widely for commercial purposes. An heirloom often exhibits a distinctive characteristic such as superior flavor or unusual coloration." --American Heritage Dictionary

I still remember my first experience of an heirloom tomato. It didn't look like any tomato I had ever seen before. It wasn't round or monotonously medium red. Instead, it was bulbous and lumpy with a few scarred splits in the skin. The dark green on its shoulders faded to a bruised-looking purple-red, though it wasn't damaged. The skin was thin and delicate; it offered very little resistance to my teeth, instantly melting away.

It was a Cherokee Purple tomato, and it was unlike anything I had ever tasted before--sweet and rich with a hint of smoky flavor. The juice dribbled down my chin. I was astounded. A lifetime of mealy, tasteless supermarket tomatoes stretched behind me, and I hoped I would never be forced to return to that bland existence.

What Makes Heirloom Tomatoes Better?

With a little research, I learned that not only are heirloom tomatoes far more flavorful, juicy, and rich than supermarket tomatoes, they are also more nutritious, packed full of vitamins and antioxidants that the more common hybrid supermarket varieties lack. They are fresher, too, almost always allowed to ripen on the vine instead of picked green.

Why would anyone want to grow your average supermarket variety when heirlooms not only taste better but have more nutrition to them too? Well, that question is easily answered when the factors of economics and commercial farming come into play. Large-scale tomato farming needs tomatoes bred for maximum yield, transportability, disease resistance, and consistency of product. So their hybrid varieties are used for these ends, and often things like flavor and nutrition are lost to convenience.

Commercial hybrids have a thicker skin so that they are more resistant to bugs and can be bumped and tossed in their processing without bruising. The plants mature their fruit at the same rate so that they can all be harvested at the same time. They are picked green so that they can be shipped long distances. They are all the same size and color for product reliability and so that they fit consistently in sorting machines. A little ways down this page there is a great pictorial essay that illustrates commercial tomato farming and why these breeding characteristics are valued for large scale production.

Heirloom tomatoes avoid all of these negative effects, because they are usually only produced by small-scale farmers and home-growers on a local level. They are grown for flavor and ripeness and nutritional value rather than productivity and transportability. Granted, they have to be used faster, and they are much harder to grow, but the benefits far outweigh the downsides. Taste one. You'll see. You'll wish heirloom tomatoes were in season all year long.

Where Can You Get Heirloom Tomatoes?

Heirloom varieties of tomatoes can usually be found at farmers markets and natural food stores that sell locally grown produce during the summer months. If you have garden space, you can also grow your own! Seeds are available from many organic and heirloom farming catalogs and websites.

How Do You Use Heirloom Tomatoes?

Use heirloom tomatoes in any recipe where fresh tomatoes are used, especially if tomatoes are especially prominent in the dish or provide the main flavor of the dish. There are many dishes where heirloom tomatoes could make or break the meal. Some examples would be fire-roasted salsa, tomato parmesan salad, Insalata Caprese (tomato salad), or Panzanella (bread and tomato salad). (Recipes for those coming soon). They are also wonderful topping a fresh leaf salad or completing a hamburger. Experiment and enjoy!

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To learn more about heirloom tomatoes, here's an informative Wikipedia article.

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    • ecogranny profile image

      Kathryn Grace 

      3 years ago from San Francisco

      Thank you for writing about one of my all-time favorite foods! The heirloom tomatoes that most make my taste buds jump are the big, irregularly-shaped yellow-gold ones. They have fabulous flavor when they are picked ripe.

      I find my local organic grocers sometimes get highly flavorful heirloom tomatoes. Other times, the tomatoes taste more like fetid water, as do so many hydroponically-grown hothouse tomatoes, so I try to find tomatoes grown on small farms, as you so wisely recommend.

      Best and most flavorful are the sun-ripened, soil-grown organic tomatoes.

    • profile image

      Jimsproduce 

      5 years ago

      Heirloom tomatoes grow better if they are next to a building so the heat can reflect off the building. I use powdered lime on mine,especially after each rainfall. Good for the plant and ground

    • profile image

      Emily  

      7 years ago

      As a tomato grower for local markets I can agree with Calvin Tran on some points.. It is much easier to grow the hybrids and they can taste good ..growing organicley increases the flavor and also the nutritional value..left to ripen on the vine naturally of course!!No chemical fert.no bug sprays...Heirlooms are more difficult but worth the effort..we love them..Angels Walk Farm

    • profile image

      Calvin Tran 

      9 years ago

      I disagree. Modern hybrids bred for the home gardener are just as delicious. The key is the fact that commercial hybrids are picked GREEN. 'Sun Gold' is a perfect example of a delicious hybrid. Many hybrids are in fact a pairing of two heirloom tomatoes!

    • Marye Audet profile image

      Marye Audet 

      10 years ago from Lancaster, Texas

      great introduction to heirloom vegetables. Sadly, over the last century we have lost hundreds of types of heirloom vegetables, as well as heritage breeds of livestock, to hybrid, tastless, commercially produced stuff..and we are forgetting what real food tastes like.

    • livelonger profile image

      Jason Menayan 

      10 years ago from San Francisco

      Agree with all of this - heirloom tomatoes are absolutely delicious; they actually taste like *tomatoes*! You can buy them at Trader Joe's - a mix of a few bizarre-looking but delicious ones.

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