Are Heirloom Tomatoes Really Worth the Price?

Ingredient Intelligence

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It's that time of year again. The time when heirloom tomatoes, in their rainbow of colored skins, scarred bodies and hefty price tags blanket the tables at the farmers market.

Why are these heirloom tomatoes so special, and are they worth the premium cost?

I let myself splurge on heirlooms once or twice a summer, and I go through the same cycle year after year. Despite eyeing the price tag that hangs above the table (around $4.50/lb. this year), the sticker shock always hits me hard when it comes time to pay. Like clockwork, the same question runs through my head — did I really just pay $15 for a few pounds of tomatoes?!? It feels like a slight punch to the gut, and I teeter on the edge of buyer's remorse every time.

So what's the deal with these tomatoes, and are they really more special than the tomatoes you find in the grocery store?

What Are Heirloom Tomatoes?

Heirloom tomatoes, sometimes referred to as heritage, come from seeds that have been passed down through generations because of desired traits and characteristics. They're breeds that are typically (but not always) at least 50 years old, and are desired for their superior flavor, texture and uniqueness.

Heirloom tomatoes are open pollinated, meaning that they're non-hybrid plants and pollination happens naturally, generally by insects, birds or wind, and without human intervention.

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You might notice that heirloom tomatoes look nothing like the commercial tomatoes you buy at the grocery store. In fact, they're kind of ugly. These tomatoes lack uniform shape and are covered with bumps, cracks and scars.

Heirloom tomatoes come in a rainbow of variegated colors, from green to yellow, orange, pink and a red so dark and deep it almost looks brown, making them quite eye-catching. In terms of flavor, they're quite juicy and can range from sweet-tart to deeply complex and sweet.

These tomatoes are also more delicate than your standard red tomato. The skins are thinner and the flesh is more prone to bruising. So, be sure to handle them with care. Heirloom tomatoes have a short shelf life — it's best to use them within 1 to 2 days. And whatever you do, don't store these beauties in the refrigerator.

Are They Worth the Price?

While heirloom tomatoes are delicious and beautiful, their high prices can make me feel slightly irresponsible, and I question my judgement when I buy them. Are they really that good to justify the high cost?

I'd like to say I thought long and hard about this, but I didn't. The answer was easy for me. Heirloom tomatoes are absolutely worth the price. The amazing and unique flavors that come from heirloom tomatoes are like no other tomatoes I eat during the other eleven months of the year.

Now, with that said, do I buy them all the time? No. But, I will undoubtedly buy a few pounds every August. The price tag might be hefty, but I'm sure there are worse ways I could be spending $15.

Do you buy heirloom tomatoes? Are they worth the price?

(Image credits: Kelli Dunn)

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