Ingredient Intelligence

Heirloom Tomatoes Are Summer in a Bite — These Are the Best Ways to Enjoy Them

published Jul 25, 2022
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Credit: Photos: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Christine Buckley

For as long as I can remember, tomatoes have been my favorite thing to eat. One of my favorite childhood memories is of strolling through my dad’s garden and yanking a tomato off the vine before sinking my teeth in. In the summers, I’d walk down the block to the co-op to buy gnarly heirloom tomatoes to eat while slowly meandering back home. In middle school, I showed everyone exactly how cool I was by wearing a tomato T-shirt with persistent regularity, and for years, I proudly displayed this poster on the wall in my bedroom (yes, you could say I was an odd child). 

Among the 10,000 different varieties of tomatoes, around 3,000 are considered heirlooms, the most beloved and coveted of them all. These jewels of the soil have a special way of converting sunlight into sugars that signal peak summer in one bite. 

In general, tomatoes are classified by their shape — cherry, plum, globe, beefsteak, and oxheart. Heirlooms can include all of these shapes and a rainbow of colors, from the pale yellow Golden Beauty to the goth-y Black Krim. But what are heirloom tomatoes exactly? We’ve got a rundown of everything you need to know about these summer specialties.

What Are Heirloom Tomatoes?

Prized for their eye-catching kaleidoscope of colors and their range of unique flavors, heirloom tomatoes come from seeds that have been passed down for over 70 years (and up to 400 years!), due to their distinctly desirable characteristics. 

The plants are pollinated naturally, usually by insects, birds, or the wind, and not, like commercially developed varieties known as hybrids, by humans. Unlike hybrid tomatoes, which have been deliberately cross-pollinated for qualities that make them easier to sell, such as size, disease resistance, and uniformity, heirloom tomatoes are grown for taste, which is why people are willing to pay a premium for them.

Virginia-based farmer David Hunsaker grows over 300 varieties of tomatoes at Village Garden. His farm is located in Hanover County, which is largely believed to be one of the best tomato-growing regions in the world due to the quality of the soil and climate.

“There is no hard and fast definition of an heirloom in terms of its heritage,” Hunsaker explains, “But to be an heirloom, unlike modern hybrids, a tomato must be open pollinated, which means the seed can be saved and produce the same fruit.” 

Heirloom Tomatoes to Look for at Your Local Market

Of the over 10,000 varieties of tomatoes, around 3,000 are heirlooms. And because tomato varieties cross readily, Hunsaker notes, more are created every day. Heirloom varieties have been saved and shared for generations. Their names are often derived from the location where the variety was first popularized or from the person who first made them available.

Some of the best-known heirloom varieties include the following (look for them at your local farmers market):

German Pink: A meaty beefsteak that would feel right at home on a BLT, these bright pink tomatoes with thin skins are low in seeds and high in sweetness.

Cherokee Purple: A big ol’ husky tomato displaying a galaxy of color, from pink to violet to brick red. The flavor is smoky-sweet, and the flesh is meaty — ideal for sandwiches or burgers.

Beauty King: A burst of red shoots through a taxi yellow fruit, with a subtly sweet flavor that comes alive with a sprinkle of sea salt.

Aunt Ginny’s German Green: This massive green beefsteak gives off major Hulk vibes. Topping off at about a pound per tomato, these are sweet and fruity — lovely with a few glugs of your best olive oil.

Brandywine: Acidity meets sweetness is this well-balanced, rosy-hued beefsteak, the ideal specimen for your tomato & mayo sammies.

San Marzano: These Italian plum tomatoes are the Maseratis of canning tomatoes, thanks to their low seed count and rich, saucy flavor.

Blondkopfchen: German for “little blonde girl,” these yellow cherry tomatoes are pure sweetness — a gateway tomato for people who say they don’t like tomatoes.

How To Store Heirloom Tomatoes

Tomatoes, especially the pricier heirloom varieties, should be kept in a cool spot — around 50°F is ideal, but we know it’s summer, so that might not be possible. They’re also best kept away from direct sunlight, although placing them on the windowsill will help ripen up tomatoes that might not be ready to eat upon harvesting. Storing tomatoes stem-side-down will help them stay fresher a little longer. 

Credit: Joe Lingeman/Kitchn; Food Stylist: CC Buckley/Kitchn

Heirloom Tomato Recipes

Because heirloom tomatoes are so highly regarded for their flavor, it’s best not to do too much with them. A simple caprese or tomato & cucumber salad will let those flavors, textures, and colors shine. Depending on their size and shape, heirloom tomatoes can be the perfect touch on a crudité platter, or the essential “T” in a BLT. If you’re looking for some ways to cook with these beauties, here are a few of our favorite recipes.