HOME > Chowhound > Home Cooking >


Heirloom Tomatoes

In my local supermarket they have a big display of amazingly colorful heirloom tomatoes. I keep hearing about how good they are but have never tried one.
My questions are: is this a good time of year to buy them, or will I be getting substandard ones? (I live in North Texas)
Any recipe ideas? Is it best to keep preparation to a minimum and just have them in a simple salad?
Are they worth the fuss in general - will I notice the difference from a standard tomato?
Thanks in advance

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  1. Well, our Los Angeles farmers' markets are now out of heirlooms, so I don't know where they are growing them. Heirlooms are just wonderful simply prepared, with EVOO and good vinegar. During their best time of year, they taste like the essence of tomato, without a hint of the mushy cardboard-ness of store tomatoes. Looks don't seem to matter.

    1. realize what heirloom tomato means - it just means a variety of tomato that is not mainstream. kind of like saying is "indi" music good? Indi just means that its NOT mainstream, yknow? so, you can treat an heirloom just like you would treat any other tomato. i would say slice it raw and serve with fresh buffalo mozz and a little basil (or any other mild green) all drizzled well with olive oil. extra virgin.

      4 Replies
      1. re: ben61820

        Heirloom means it is an old-time variety from saved seed stock before Monsanto, ADM and the rest got there grubby little paws on seeds and started messing around with the genes. Heirlooms are generally regarded as better tasting as they are not bred to withstand 2000 miles of shipment. I would be very wary of buying heirlooms in a supermarket as they can be much harder to grow....seeing them in a supermarket in February makes me think the heirloom designation is a bit of a gimmick. Tomato season, in general (as another poster mentioned), is June to September. Get a good canned variety in February.

        1. re: gourmanda

          You shoiuld learn the differences among heirloom designation, F1 hybrid and GM tomatoes, specifically which are used for commercial growing and which non-heirloom are used for home gardening or small scale farming.
          Not all gardeners and small farmers regard the heirlooms as the best tasting. Most have their own particular favorites, not all of which are heirlooms. I prefer several non-determinate varieties which I've grown for years.

          1. re: MakingSense

            Yes, there are *plenty* of heirloom tomatoes that are inferior to hybrids in terms of taste. Some I like, and I grow again, but many are underwhelming. "Heirloom" is a marketing designation designed to beguile people into losing critical faculties.

            1. re: Karl S

              Actually there was a time when "heirloom" varieties meant something specific and was not just a marketing designation as it is now. apparently any odd looking tomato is now an "heirloom" tomato. Originally it was a term that covered open pollinated varieties (not just tomato btw) that had been around for a while. Some people used a cutoff of 50 years old and up, others used the 100 year mark etc.

              The heirloom designation has nothing to do with taste just age.

              There are actually a lot of old hybrid tomato varieties that are still popular and I see them designated as heirloom varieties sometimes. In a way I can understand the heirloom designation actually.

      2. I've had some wonderfully flavourful heirloom tomatoes, but I've also had some duds. My guess is that the more prevalent they become, the greater the likelihood of their having been grown in unfavourable conditions, and by more and more mass-market producers.

        Probably our best bet is to buy them at farmer's markets, where we can question their origins. At the prices charged here in Toronto for heirloom tomatoes, it's quite irritating to bite into a mealy, flavourless batch.

        1. Why not wait until summertime, when you will be a lot more likely to get a good one? Go to the farmers market, try the samples, talk to the farmers/patrons around you.
          The wait will be worth it, tomatoes in February are not.

          1. Unfortunately, it seems that all regular varieties of tomatoes regardless of whether they're in season have essentially no taste and to get any flavor you've got to get heirlooms,

            3 Replies
            1. re: Den

              Not a fair comment, as far as I'm concerned. I've eaten wonderful, in-season tomatoes that are not heirloom varieties.

              1. re: FlavoursGal

                Agreed, we grew up on Early Girls warm from the garden, they rivaled any heirloom.
                In season and grown/stored with care is key.

              2. re: Den

                There are several old threads on heirloom vs. nonheirloom tomatoes on CH, and I've got to weigh in on the side of well-ripened as the determining factor in taste. Grown side by side in my garden, many of the heirloom open pollinated varieties (like cherokee purple, german striped, etc) taste no better than ther more recent hybrids (like celebrity & beefmaster). An out of season tomato, poorly handled, will taste bad no matter what. Of course, if you can find hothouse tomatoes grown at a relatively high temp, they're pretty good, even in winter.

              3. In order to get a superior tomato it needs to be in season. Tomatoe season can run @ june to september in the states. If you purchase fruit that has spent enough time on the vine to mature and ripen it will be a very worthwhile piece of fruit.

                At this time of year you will pay a premium price for inferior tomatoes.

                1. I'm a big fan of heirloom tomatoes. My view is that, first off, the variety of colors make them a fun produce to create a dish with. Second, because there are so many varieties of heirlooms, you're going to have to test which ones are your favorites. And finally, like any other tomatoes, they're best during the summer when it's peak tomato-growing season. Tomatoes are always best ripe from the vine, so if you don't get them at farmers markets, then they're probably picked early for shipping, even if they're called heirlooms.

                  When heirlooms are in season in the Bay Area (summer and late summer), I usually make a rosemary-infused risotto and then just place slices of heirloom tomates on top with parmesan cheese. But like others have mentioned, I also like to just eat them fresh in slices. What I do is sprinkle it with sea salt or some other specialty coarse salt, and add a drizzle of good extra virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar and parmesan cheese. It's just fantastic!

                  1. The only variety of winter tomatoes that I've found which have decent flavor and texture are cherry or grape tomatoes -- the larger tomatoes, whether heirloom or not, always have less flavor and bad texture in my experience -- save them for summer when you can get them locally grown and in season. In the past couple of weeks, I've been buying the cherry tomatoes that come on the vine and are wrapped in netting (they carry them at Gelson's for those who live in Los Angeles), and they've been surpisingly decent in salads. For cooking I always use canned in the winter.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: DanaB

                      Absolutely. Off-season, cherry tomatoes taste the most like the garden variety. Grapes are great when you don't want to bother with peeling them.

                    2. No, they are not in season anywhere in US. Wait to try them until they are in season this summer.

                      1. When they are in season, try to get a green zebra I think it's called. It's green in color with yellowish stripes when ripe. They are delicious. I had them for the first time this summer and can't wait for July!

                        1. Great article from the Washington Post on the UglyRipe tomato, derived from the French heirloom Marmonde, and grown in Florida. It's popular in US markets, selling for about $4/lb but had problems with regulations until the grower hired a bunch of lobbyists to get it through the maze of government regulations. All for a good heirloom tomato in winter...

                          3 Replies
                          1. re: MakingSense

                            the article incorrectly spelled the french variety "Marmande". I've heard from the grapevine that there's very little difference between one of the strains of the original Marmande variety and this so-called UglyRipe tomato.

                            what's interesting is this is the same company that marketed that grape tomato "santa" that was all the rage. they have a really good marketing program, that's for sure.

                            1. re: choctastic

                              I wondered about UglyRipe being a true Heirloom since the company apparently crossed the Marmande with some other varieties. Does that make it a hybrid? This is all so confusing. I haven't tasted UglyRipe as I am leary of winter tomatoes in general.
                              That little Santa is good however. It's a true miniature tomato, not a cherry variety and the difference in taste is amazing. Not as good as Sweet 100 in the middle of summer but in February, I'll take it.

                              1. re: MakingSense

                                supposedly that would make it a hybrid. However, that grape tomato i mentioned is well known to be quite stable so it's quite possible in my mind that this UglyRipe is no hybrid at all but just another strain of Marmande, (with a really good marketing team). In fact, UglyRipe is a dead ringer for Marmande in the looks category. I dunno about taste since I haven't had UglyRipe (but I've had Marmande, decent tomato)

                                i've had the grape tomato (santa sweets) that this company sells and i've had other grape tomatoes. to be honest, i can't really tell much of a difference except there were certain varieties that had really tough skins (didn't like those). i know there are people who save seeds from the santa sweets and grow them in their gardens.

                          2. except for grape and cherry tomatoes, i never buy tomatoes out of season, no matter what they're labelled. wait till summer, and go to a farmer's market. this time of year, whatever you're getting is a variety grown to best withstand the stress of shipping, rather than maximum flavor.

                            3 Replies
                            1. re: hotoynoodle

                              This time of year, the best bet (at least for eating raw, not for cooking) are the tomatoes that go under the names of Tasty Tom or Campari and the like. They have a genuine tomato flavor - at least as much as many run of the mill tomatoes in the summer (not every tomato in the summer is superlative, lest we forget).

                              1. re: Karl S

                                i'm not sure where you are, but i've never seen those in boston supermarkets.

                                1. re: hotoynoodle

                                  Campari brand tomatoes are carried by Stop & Shop; the analogue at Shaw's is Amore (IIRC). Tasty Tom's are sold at Wilson Farm in East Lexington and Russo's in Watertown.

                            2. I don't know if they're in season, but if you buy them and are at a loss what to do with them...
                              I buy a big batch every year and make a bruschetta. I make sure I get heirlooms from across the entire spectrum. Green, pink, striped, purply black, orange, yellow, etc... I chop them up into reasonably small pieces, get rid of seeds and excess juice. Add good EVOO, some minced garlic, and fresh basil. A touch of balsamic vinegar, too. I get good crusty bread for the rounds and broil the slices lightly with butter and an italian cheese (parm, asiago, whatever).

                              Everyone seems to love it because it is so pretty with all the colors and because each bite has such a distinctive flavor depending on what types of the tomatoes you get in it. Truth be told though, I love bruschetta best in hot weather--the juicyness of the tomatoes is very refreshing.

                              1 Reply
                              1. re: Heatherb

                                Thank you all for your advice. I am not from the States so I was not sure what the true tomato season is! I will wait till summer when I am sure I will enjoy Heatherb's delicious sounding idea for bruschetta ... yum.

                              2. Heirloom tomatoes reminds you that the tomato is a fruit. For me, a good heirloom needs no adornment. I cut them up and eat them as is. I like buying several varieties so I can enjoy all the delicious differences. But I'll only buy them from farmers markets, never from the supermarket.

                                1. In L.A. Heirlooms were called uglies until some marketing genius re named them. That said, however, the heirlooms here are fabulous. They are only available a few months out of the year. (The popularity of heirlooms has made some farmers market vendors and some local produce stands re-think tomatoes. This year I was able to find beefsteaks that tasted like beefsteaks as opposed to the inside of an old wallet) They are very fragile, you need to eat them within a day or 2 3 at the most of picking. They rot really fast. They are great just plain with a little kosher salt. Eat it like an apple. sliced on sandwiches, with oil and vinegar. The dark purple ones are delish over vanilla ice cream with a balsamic reduction.