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All About Heirloom Tomatoes: 5 Things You Need to Know

The last time you saw “heirloom tomatoes” on a menu next to an expensive dollar sign, you must have asked yourself: what are heirloom tomatoes and how are they different from other tomatoes?

Heirloom Tomatoes

The truth is they are very different from the average tomato you find at your local grocery store: from their appearance to their flavor, but most especially, in their genetics. Read on to learn all about heirloom tomatoes!

What are Heirloom Tomatoes?

Heirloom Tomatoes

Heirloom tomatoes are open-pollinated “true breeding” tomato plants. Let’s take a look at what that really means:

Open-pollination plants are plants whose pollination occurs naturally, meaning either self-pollination or through pollinators like bees and butterflies. Technically, hand-pollinating also counts as open-pollination, because you are simply taking the jobs of bees and butterflies, and doing it yourself. 

Open-pollination plants breed true, or grow “true to type.” That means that the seeds collected from an heirloom tomato will grow plants similar to their parent plants, the same way naturally born children are genetically similar to their birth parents. 

Farmers usually grow the same type of heirloom tomato across generations of tomato plants, selectively breeding for traits like color, size, and taste. For example, within a tomato variety, a farmer might only collect seeds from the plants that have the brightest colored tomato fruit. That means that each subsequent generation of that variety of tomatoes will have more and more brightly colored tomatoes. 

Get this: a tomato variety needs to have existed for more than half a century in order to be true heirloom tomatoes!

Why are they called heirlooms? Because oftentimes, these tomatoes are passed down not just through generations of tomato plants, but for generations of farmers, too. So they become true heirloom pieces to the family! 

You might wonder if this open-pollination true-breeding stuff really makes a difference in a tomato: the answer is yes. These tomatoes are loved for their wide variety of shapes, textures, consistencies, colors, and flavors. Many tomato aficionados agree that in general, these tomatoes taste better than hybrid and genetically modified tomatoes. Unfortunately, however, heirloom tomatoes also tend to be less pest resistant, produce less fruit, and not keep very well, three factors that make them generally more expensive than other tomatoes. 

Let’s go over some more heirloom tomato vocabulary:

  • Family Heirloom Tomatoes: Tomatoes that have been bred by generations of the same family. 
  • Created Heirloom Tomatoes: Tomatoes that result from the cross of either two heirloom tomatoes, or an heirloom tomato and a hybrid tomato. The latter would have to be followed by years of true breeding to get rid of unwanted characteristics from the hybrid tomato (called dehybridizing). 
  • Mystery Heirloom Tomatoes: heirloom tomatoes that naturally result from the cross-pollination between other heirloom tomatoes.

Heirloom Tomato Varieties

There are hundreds and hundreds of heirloom tomato varieties of all shapes, sizes, colors, flavor profiles, susceptibilities, and strengths, including Brandywine Sudduth (Brandywines are some of the better-known heirloom varieties), Banana Legs, Black Krim, Garden Peach, Three Sisters, Hawaiian Pineapple, Amana Orange, Sunset’s Red Horizon and more. This is not at all a comprehensive list, but it’s just meant to show you just how many different kinds there are!

Heirloom Tomatoes Vs Hybrid Tomatoes Vs Genetically Modified Tomatoes

Assorted tomatoes

In order to really understand how special these tomatoes are, you should also understand how they differ from hybrid tomatoes and genetically modified tomatoes.

Whereas heirloom tomatoes are selectively bred within their own variety by collecting the next generation of seeds from the plants with the best qualities, hybrid tomato seeds are cross-pollinated from two different tomato plants that each have desirable traits. For example, people believe that the popular Roma tomato resulted from the cross of a Pan American tomato and San Marzano tomato to make a tomato with qualities of both.

Another key difference between heirloom tomatoes and hybrid tomatoes is that the seeds of heirloom tomatoes can be planted, and will grow into plants that are similar to the plants the seeds were collected from. That doesn’t always work in hybrid tomatoes—the seeds could grow into a plant that is similar to one of the grandparent plants, or something different altogether if the seed isn’t sterile to begin with. 

Tomato plants have been continuously cross-bred to develop hybrids that produce a lot of fruit, are disease and pest-resistant, keep for as much time as possible (to make it easier to ship them across the world), and look the best. While this makes them easier to commercialize, and also avoids excess waste from rotten tomatoes, somewhere along the line, the breeders forgot the importance of flavor and nutrients. This is why heirlooms usually taste better than other varieties and also have better health benefits.

What about genetically modified (GM) tomatoes? A GM tomato is a tomato variety whose DNA was changed in a laboratory in order to create more of the same traits listed: disease resistance, aesthetic, ability to store, and even a lack of seeds. Thus it’s a shortcut to hybrid tomatoes, but certainly a step further away from what nature intended. 

It’s important to note, however, that the heirloom industry is not regulated, so you can’t always trust every variety with “heirloom” smacked onto the label to be the best quality and tasting tomato out there. Your best bet is to buy from a local tomato producer whom you trust, and perhaps even will let you taste the tomato ahead of time!

Health Benefits of Heirloom Tomatoes

Heirloom tomatoes don’t just look and taste fantastic, they are also great for your health because they haven’t been bred with a philosophy that prioritizes commercialization to nutrients and quality, and also because they have lycophene.

According to Healthline, lycophene has a variety of health benefits, from heart health to cancer prevention, along with some chronic disease prevention, and more. 

Heirloom Tomato Taste

Heirloom Assortment

Now that I’ve said how good heirloom tomatoes taste so many times, you might be wondering: what exactly do they taste like?

In general, heirloom tomatoes are sweeter than other tomato varieties. There is also an interesting association to be made between the color of heirloom tomatoes and their flavor—it isn’t an exact science and there are exceptions, but it is something to keep in mind next time you go heirloom tomato shopping!

  • Yellow Heirloom Tomatoes: they tend to have milder tastes with less acidity. 
  • Orange Heirloom Tomatoes: another sweeter variety with low acid content. 
  • Pink Heirloom Tomatoes: usually the sweetest tomato variety, with a good balance between acidity and sugar content. 
  • Black Heirloom Tomatoes: actually more of a maroon or purplish color, these tomatoes usually have an earthier taste that some people even refer to as smoky.
  • Red Heirloom Tomatoes: often mistaken for your average grocery store hybrid tomato, these guys have strong flavors that lean more towards acidity than sweetness.  
  • Striped Heirloom Tomatoes: not just eye-catching, but also tongue-catching with their very sweet and juicy taste. 

Ways to Use Heirloom Tomatoes

Heirlooms

Heirloom tomatoes can and should be used in anything that calls for any variety of tomatoes—it’s almost guaranteed that they’ll perform better than hybrid and GM tomatoes! That means all of your pasta and pizza sauces, your go-to salad, your dinner-party appetizer bruschetta, your summer Caprese, your BLT sandwiches, and more. You can even just eat them fresh as you would grapes or cherries! 

Here are some great recipes:

Now You Know All About Heirloom Tomatoes!

I hope this post has helped explain why heirloom tomatoes, which are so trendy these days, usually come with a more expensive price tag. Their natural breeding techniques and their significance to generations and generations of families guarantee better quality and taste. Eager for more tomato content? Next, learn about other kinds of tomatoes!