Celebrating Heirloom Tomatoes

By James Parker, July 31, 2012  |  Meet the Blogger  |  More Posts by James Parker

I can remember a time, as a kid in Mississippi, when tomatoes were not the common grocery store commodity they are today. They were also far from the uniformly sized, blemish-free, picture-perfect specimens most of us see in our local stores year-round. The tomatoes of my youth were scarred, irregular and transit-weary. They were also almost non-existent in the fall, winter and spring. Then they would flood the grocery stores, farmers markets and family gardens in the summer. I remember looking forward to the breakneck pace of peak season, when everyone scrambled to consume or preserve the seemingly endless supply of summer tomatoes. These days the domestic heirloom tomato season is similarly feast or famine and August marks the start of a very brief and wonderfully unpredictable season.

Consistent is never a word I would use to describe heirloom tomatoes. Harvest dates and fruit maturity are always a moving target. Even estimating yield can frustrate the most seasoned grower who will go into a field expecting to harvest a hundred boxes and come out with a thousand (or only ten). Inconsistencies in size and ripening rate requires heirloom tomatoes to be harvested and packed by hand, which make them a more labor intensive and time consuming crop. But when the stars align and the weather is perfect there is nothing more satisfying than delivering a perfect heirloom tomato to market.

Like most row crops, heirloom tomatoes are planted in stages to extend the harvest season. This means the fruit harvested in July was actually planted in March and April. There’s a varietal element to the season as well, with faster growing varieties like the Cherokee Purple and Vintage Wine maturing earlier than the larger, slower to mature varieties like the Marvel Stripe and Brandywine. Another factor is geography. Here in California for example, the warmer Central Valley growing areas harvest sooner than farms located closer to the coast.

There are endless varieties of heirlooms that come from all over the world but only a few are commercially produced these days. Most of them fall into three broad types:

  • Purple: Dark red varieties like the Black Krim and Purple Cherokee are early and prolific producers but they’ll also be the first to finish. They are usually smaller in size and the purple varieties tend to have slightly higher acidity.
  • Brandywine: Hailed by experts as the tomato with the best overall flavor and texture, Brandywine tomatoes can be dark red, pink (or lighter red), and yellow. The come in a range of sizes depending on where we are in the season but they can get quite large.
  • Yellow blush varieties: Yellow blush varieties like Marvel Stripe, Mr. Stripy and Georgia Streak have mostly yellow exterior color with a beautiful red blush on the inside. These are also among the largest of commercial heirloom varieties with single specimens sometimes weighing in at over two pounds!

When selecting heirloom tomatoes it is important to note the very thing that makes them taste so great also makes them more fragile than most tomatoes. Heirlooms ripen faster than modern commercial varieties so you should only buy enough for a few days. One of the best characteristics of heirlooms is their texture and like all tomatoes, prolonged exposure to temperatures below 41 degrees will soften tomatoes and make them mushy so you should never store tomatoes in your refrigerator. Pick heirlooms that are somewhat firm to the touch. This is more important with the larger varieties but if you buy a soft heirloom of any size, chances are it’s overripe. You should avoid tomatoes with open splits and cracks. A tomato with a large surface area where the stem was attached will likely have a hard area inside that is unusable.

The business of growing, packing, buying and selling tomatoes has advanced enormously over the years. From January through December when we can’t grow enough tomatoes out in the open, greenhouse production takes over and the steady supply continues uninterrupted. And while these advances have given us far greater supply that reaches more households, part of me feels like anticipation is the best spice and part of the price we pay is that we no longer look forward to the late summer tomato season as much. Then August rolls around and with it the heirloom tomatoes and I’m magically transported back to Mississippi and the varieties and flavors I remember as a youth. And while growing and selling heirlooms can be frustrating, it’s worth it. I will always make time to celebrate the heirloom tomato season.

Do you have a favorite heirloom tomato variety? What do you love to make with heirloom tomatoes?

Category: Produce




Nancy says ...
I have come into the Garden City store quite frequently looking for real, heirloom tomatoes - and no one knows what I'm talking about - they give me the hothouse ones which are tasteless and just what the other markets have.....??
08/01/2012 4:31:12 PM CDT
Ira Cohen says ...
your article on heirloom tomatoes was very interesting. I never have tried any heirlooms, I am originally from Massachusetts & always had grown Beefsteak tomatoes amoung other New England varieties; one slice of my prize 1 Lb. Beefsteaks would cover a piece of bread & were out of this world in taste! Unfortunately now I live in S.E. Florida & have NEVER had a tomato with any flavor! Does your Boca Raton store carry heirloom or beefsteak tomatoes? Thank You, Ira S. Cohen
08/01/2012 4:36:43 PM CDT
Sissy ashby says ...
I bought an Heirloom tomato at the Mordecai lawn sale this spring called Paul Robeson....very dark color,high acid like Cherokee
08/01/2012 4:50:21 PM CDT
Sissy ashby says ...
Planted a tomato called Paul Robeson, gotten from the Mordecai Lawn sale back in April. High acid like Cherokee Purple, and so delicious. I'm fighting the squirrels for every one.
08/01/2012 4:53:47 PM CDT
Marilyn Robeson says ...
Are you familiar with the Paul Robeson tomato?
08/01/2012 6:00:43 PM CDT
KarenHoward says ...
Black Cherry Tomatoes. I got this Heirloom plant at 7 Arrows a few years ago with some Pepper plants. The Tomatoes were Divine. Unfortunatley, I didn't save any of the seeds though. : ( A friend gave me some Italian Ice Tomato seeds-I don't know if they are Heirloom or not-but I hear they are good-( White Cherry Tomatoes-for those of you who don't know ) I didn't know either until I saw them in the Burpee Catalog. I'll plant them next yr.
08/01/2012 7:12:32 PM CDT
Chris Sallee says ...
How are the tomatoes shipped to the stores? I'm curious what temperatures they are exposed to - since it is mighty hot outside is the temperature in the truck regulated to 70F or?
08/01/2012 7:13:49 PM CDT
David P. Telenko says ...
I got turned on to heirloom tomatoes about 4 years at our Torrance, Ca Farmers market. They are just divine, but they are pricey at $5.00 a pound & even more in the regular markets. I decided to try & grow them, but my first experience was a real flop as I only got a couple after waiting for 5 months. Two years ago there was a article in the Daily Breeze on how to prepare the seeds for planting, very cool indeed & ever since we have enjoyed them. Like you mentioned that they are very unpredictable as how long they take & for sure they are worth the time. Hey thanks for tip about NOT putting them in the refrigerator. Happy growing Dave (AKA) Snoopy
08/01/2012 8:45:00 PM CDT
Penny says ...
Loved your article about heirloom tomatoes. I would like to know are they grown only in Mexico? I do not trust produce grown there and wonder if they are grown in USA. Thank you
08/01/2012 8:54:18 PM CDT
Mark says ...
Hi I've found from shopping your Route 4 New Jersey store is that when I purchase your "heirloom" tomatoes, I pay TOP dollar and when I sink my teeth into them, ho hum, nothing special except the Whole Foods high price! Mark
08/01/2012 10:05:44 PM CDT
sondra says ...
Love Heirlooms! My counter is full of them right now all sizes and colors. My Summer "candy" which one should I eat first !?
08/02/2012 8:07:16 AM CDT
Nikolai says ...
I'm just beginning to harvest my mini organge tomatoes. They are slightly larger than a cherry tomato but smaller than your other varieties. Perfect for salads or just snacking. They have a gorgeous orange color and the taste is much brighter than a red tomato.
08/02/2012 8:47:00 AM CDT
Ria says ...
How can I grow (handle the seeds etc.) in my garden? What soil do heirlooms need?
08/02/2012 10:18:35 AM CDT
Jackie says ...
Trying many different heirloom tomatoes this year in the garden. So far, I have Matina, Stupice, Black Cherry and Sungella's coming in, but am really excited on trying the Indigo Rose, Michael Pollan, and Russian 117. Still have some waiting to do :)
08/02/2012 1:59:17 PM CDT
parkerj says ...
Wow- lots of questions... Hi Nancy- east coast heirloom production starts slightly later than west coast. Keep checking in they should be there soon Hi Ira- I have had some of the New England Beefsteaks and they are spectacular. Brandywine would be closest to them - you should see them in our Florida this week. Hi Sissy and Marlyn- Paul Robeson is a wonderful variety. Unfortunately most commercial producers will not plant them because approximately 50% of the fruit they harvest is indistinguishable from standard slicing tomatoes. If you can find the seed the variety is a very prolific backyard tomato. Hi Chris- we try not to ship heirlooms too far but when we do they are put on what we call "warm trucks". These are truck that run at 48-50 degrees. We can also cold wrap tomatoes with insulated covers to protect them from cold. Tomatoes can handle very warm temps
08/03/2012 12:11:33 PM CDT
parkerj says ...
Hi Penny- we see limited greenhouse production in the off season from Mexico. Right now through early October (weather permitting) all our heirlooms will be produced domestically. Hi Mark- sorry your heirloom experience was a bad one. I suggest you take this feedback back to the store and get a refund or replacement product. Heirlooms are expensive and I hate the idea that you had a bad (or unimpressive) one Hi Sondra- the purple varieties are generally best early season but ripeness is the main factor in deciding which to eat first- remember, soft but not too soft and full color from top to bottom. Enjoy! Hi Ria- I can't say I am an expert but heirlooms grow in a surprisingly wide range of growing conditions. I suggest you check in with a local nursery to see which varieties are best for your area. For what I can grow I find I get better results with plant starts rather than seeds- the plant is more mature and the root system better developed.
08/03/2012 12:23:55 PM CDT
Maire L. says ...
Great advice about only buying tomatoes for a few days, heirloom will god bad fast. at my home they get eaten quickly.. And the family loves simple recipes like this one that I found. http://www.chefmorgan.com/fresh-stuffed-heirloom-tomatoes-with-tuna-cannellini-beans-and-tarragon thanks
08/03/2012 12:37:02 PM CDT
Duncan says ...
Growing up, my grandfather used to raise these "ugly tomatoes"... that's what I used to call them. It wasn't until I moved to Dallas and heard my friends going on about these "wonderful heirloom tomatoes" did I understand what my grandfather had been growing all my life. Big, light rose-coloured, over a pound each, these were the BEST tomatoes. My grandmother and mother would make wonderful meals utilizing these wonderful tomatoes and would always can them so we had their amazing flavours during the winter months. Such wonderful memories. Living in the city, it is a little harder to grow such wonderfully large tomatoes, but not impossible. I have had success in growing a few of them, but have had more success with several smaller "cherry-type" variatals. I enjoy these smaller tomatoes very much and purchase larger tomatoes at my Whole Foods Market. Even though the Heirloom tomatoes from my Whole Foods Market are wonderful in flavour and colour, nothing will ever compare to the "ugly tomatoes" from my grandfather's garden. These are some of the "food memories" I cherish! -Duncan
08/03/2012 12:41:55 PM CDT
Jennifer says ...
Thanks for the helpful information about heirlooms, particularly how to choose a ripe but not overripe one, and flavor differences between the different categories you listed. Cherokee purple are my favorite -- they taste like such a wonderful manifestation of exactly how a tomato should taste. I like that they have a slightly meatier darker flavor, and my favorite ways to enjoy them are very simple. On toast with best foods mayo (as I wrote about here: http://jenniferduque.com/2012/08/06/heirloom-tomatoes-beauty-is-more-than-skin-deep-3/), and classical caprese-style in gorgeous slices with whole-milk buffalo mozzarella, extra virgin olive oil, basil chiffonade, sea salt, and cracked black pepper. I'm going to have to go attack the ones in my kitchen now -- writing about it is making me hungry! Cheers! Jennifer
08/06/2012 8:06:57 PM CDT
Kat says ...
Pico/salsa! And pizza! We've been growing our own heirloom tomatoes here in Austin, and they are as big and beautiful as those in the store. We're so proud. This week, we're having black bean tacos with homemade pico. We've also been making pizza, with the Vicolo corn meal crust, feta and mozzarella, sausage, home grown basil and heirloom tomatoes, and olives. Instead of sauce, we chop up garlic, mix it with olive oil, spread that on, then lay down a layer of tomatoes, cheeses, sausage, olives. Best pizza ever!
08/07/2012 11:25:43 AM CDT
Sandra says ...
I am so glad Heirloom tomatoes are being produced and brought to market. They are what a tomato used to be, with tomato TASTE. My grandfather had a garden, and he would always eat sliced tomatoes with sugar on them:). Thanks for the info!
08/07/2012 12:50:35 PM CDT
Barb says ...
Yellow Pear are my favorite. I like to eat them right off the vine. They are like candy.
08/07/2012 5:21:58 PM CDT
Karen Howard says ...
When is the best time to pick Green Tomatoes-for making Fried Green or Healthier-(Baked) Tomatoes? I have some growing & only 2 are starting to turn barely orange.So there are plenty of Green ones there. Thank you for any help in advance.
08/10/2012 12:13:24 PM CDT
nikki.newman says ...
@KAREN - It might be the perfect time to pick your tomatoes! You want the tomato to be mature with a little red, in your case orange, color coming through on the flesh. They will feel firm with a great minimal tomato flavor...perfect for your healthy alternative recipe!
08/16/2012 12:38:04 PM CDT
Deb Reams says ...
I love tomato sandwiches with Kraft Miracle Whip on the fresh bread. Slice the tomatoes and pile on the bread. Then you cut the bread into wedges and eat them with the juice of the tomato slices dripping down.
08/31/2012 8:12:32 PM CDT