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Heirloom tomato question [moved from Home Cooking board]

  • k

I have a question to throw out there. It's pretty obvious that "heirloom" is the new buzzword for tomatoes. Seems you're not able to serve just-regular tomatoes anymore - j/k. My understanding is that the term "heirloom," strictly speaking, refers to tomatoes grown from seed that is "saved" from past generations. The varieties are usually not commonly available in commercial catalogs, and may not have the typical red color or "beefsteak" shape. Good enough. But I'm starting to wonder if people are selling (and buying) tomatoes that are naturally green -- I grew a green striped variety this year called Zebra -- and then calling them heirloom, when in fact, they are simply a new hybrid with a new color.

For one thing, I have some doubts that all the photos and recipes for heirloom tomatoes that I've seen this summer could have come from true heirloom seed. Unless someone is now commercially selling "heirloom" seed ... which seems like a contradiction in terms .. but I suppose that is possible. Then, this morning, on Tastespotting, I noticed that someone had posted a photo of a very pretty dish and captioned it "heirloom tomatillos"!! Well, heck. Tomatillos are always green, and I wasn't aware that someone had found a store of old seed not recently grown!

Is it just me? Or are we overusing and perhaps misusing the term "heirloom tomatoes"? And are some of us being taken for a ride when we're told we're buying (usually at a premium) "heirloom" tomatoes? Maybe someone who knows more about the topic can chime in with words of wisdom.

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  1. Yes to everything you said, basically. The term "heirloom" is definitely being overused. Originally it referred to older breeds of vegetables that are not commercially grown and have, therefore, been only passed along by individual seed savers. Of course these heirloom veggies are now being commercially grown both for sale and seed production. There's nothing wrong with that, but that very exclusive aura of the unattainable heirloom tomato grown by an old Italian gardener who got the seeds from his grandmother in Sicily no longer reflects the reality.

    Heirloom tomatoes tend to be difficult to ship and less productive, therefore unsuitable for large-scale commercial farming. But if you're hand-picking and selling to local markets, they do command a higher price - reflecting the lower yield and higher labour. I grow an assortment of heirloom tomatoes in my garden - including those green zebras you mentioned, plus a mess of other crazy multicoloured, misshapen weirdos. They're delicious and beautiful. Each variety has a different flavour and they make a killer salad. Because I grow them myself, I have no inclination to spend big bucks for these tomatoes at the market or order an heirloom tomato salad at a fancy restaurant. Of course, that's just me and I realize not everyone can do that.

    There are heirloom varieties of all kinds of vegetables. There are seed-saver organizations that allow people to exchange seeds from their own veggies with those from others. Eventually, you'll be seeing heirloom beans, peppers, carrots, potatoes, etc. They're already selling them at my local farmers market.

    Regular supermarket veggies are generally hybrid varieties that have been specifically developed to withstand the rigours of shipping and mechanical picking. They do not breed "true" which means that if you save one of those seeds you will not get the same thing again. They have been produced using controlled pollination to ensure that the seeds pass along the exact same traits as the parent plant, but the amateur grower can't reproduce the results. Not that you'd want to. What you gain in productivity and hardiness, you tend to lose in flavour.

    Oh and yes, the green zebras are an old variety, not a new hybrid.

    5 Replies
    1. re: Nyleve

      Yes you are right, I save seeds from my Green Zebras and they produce the exact same tomato, they are very flavorful too.

      1. re: Nyleve

        Are heirloom homegrown tomatoes far superior to homegrown regular ones? I want to grow some next year and would consider them if so. More effort? Thanks! Which types do you grow?

        1. re: chowser

          >>Are heirloom homegrown tomatoes far superior to homegrown regular ones?<<

          I think it depends upon the variety you grow, chowser. My best homegrown heirloom was a variety called the "black krim." It was UGLY -- mottled purple and green, but had the perfect tomato flavor when ripe. Other varieties I've grown I've had less luck with. Heirloom varieties tend to be more prone to disease and insects, so you have to be vigilant when growing them, especially if you are growing them organically. I have also had some very tasty homegrown non-heirloom tomatoes, especially grape and cherry varieties.

          I think your best bet to decide which ones to grow would be to spend some time perusing the tomato forums at Gardenweb.com -- many of the people posting there are avid heirloom tomato gardeners and you will find a lot of information on which heirlooms are the tastiest and best-to-grow in your region.


          1. re: DanaB

            That's good to know. I don't want to spend a lot of time taking care of them, especially as I just get started and learn the ropes. I might stick with regular tomatoes and see how that goes first. When you come right down to it, fresh off the vines are always good, regardless of type. If I want heirloom, I'll just have to pay for it at farmers markets.

        2. re: Nyleve

          Nyleve puts it very well. I just want to add that there are plenty of non-red hybrids: lemon boys, tiny red or yellow "lightbulbs," orange tomatoes, etc. Perhaps some people are mistaking these for heirlooms. Heirlooms, as Nyleve said, tend to be more odd-shaped.

          I would never grow ONLY heirlooms in my summer garden because they can be difficult (if delicious). I usually grow some early girls or other hybrid tomatoes as a back up. They're still pretty good.

        3. My understanding is that "heirloom" refers to any kind of "vintage" fruit or vegetable variety, from as recently as the early 20th century and back to late 18th century or so, as opposed to modern hybridized strains. Some tomatoes are green, such as Zebra; some are pink or blackish or yellow or even red. There's no reason that there couldn't be an heirloom variety of tomatillo, although I'd kind of think that most varieties of a specialized crop like that would be more heirloom than modern. I could easily be wrong on that point, though!

          However, it's certainly true that the seed companies have been picking up on the heirloom trend, and are offering such seeds for sale. The seed itself isn't supposed to be "vintage" (in fact, if it were it probably wouldn't be viable!) just the plant strain.

          1. My only two cents on this is that when I buy heirloom tomatoes, they have great flavor - most non-heirlooms that I buy do not.

            1. Heirloom is pretty meaningless these days, being applied to everything from 1)truly old, rare, open-pollinated varieties 2)old-fashioned hybrids 3)anything locally grown & hand picked on a small farm and 4)not-so-old hybrids bred for taste & not appearance. To me, the best tomatoes are local, and old-fashioned, open pollinated varieties simply do not grow well in my very wet 9B climate zone. So I'll put my hybrid Celebrities & Better Boys up against anybody's Brandywines, Cherokee Purples, or German Striped (all three of which barely even set any fruit in my garden).

              1. I've been planting heirlooms for 18 years. I've grown probably sixty varieties, but year after year, always bemoan my dearth of brandywines. Now I plant brandwines almost exclusively. The yield is not great -- no more than 6-10 tomatoes per plant, and they are not ready until mid-August, but nothing beats the flavor. Now all of my local farmer markets are growing these, and selling them for $4 per pound. It would cost me $16 per day to feed my tomato habit! This year I also planted an heirloom tomatillo plant -- the fruits are purple.

                1. I recently sampled a Roman Candle tomato. Apparently, this type of tomato falls into the category of an heirloom variety. I will admit that it certainly doesn't have that traditional heirloom look that I've been accustomed to seeing at Farmer's Markets, but yet it's classified as 'heirloom'. Regardless of classification or category, the Roman Candle is an excellent tasting tomato - I highly recommend trying it. Don't be frightened by its devilish look.
                  There are red and yellow varieties. I prefer the yellow.

                  Roman Candle Tomato ---> http://www.kokopelli-seed-foundation....

                  1. I started buying heirloom tomatoes at the Farmers' Markets about 10 years ago, and on the whole they always tasted better to me than the nonheirloom varieties, and always better than anything I could buy at the store. 10 years ago, though I was paying about $1/lb, and now it is $4-5/lb, which makes it a pricey habit, particularly since some of those monsters can weigh in at over a pound.

                    I had the great luck for a couple of years to grow my own in the garden (2 years of owning a house between apt stints), and our favorite eating ones were green zebras, cherokee purple, brandywine, pineapple, and sungold cherry. The ones that worked less well were the Radiator Charlie Mortgage Lifters(!) and a french derivation whose name I can't recall that were about the size of a roma (but round), a thick orange skin, and a pale red interior.

                    I was occasionally puzzled about the heirlooms I tasted at the Farmers Markets that were beautiful but tasted rather bland, until I read somewhere that it is recommended to harvest tomatoes after a drier spell rather than soon after rain or heavy watering. The first concentrates the tomato flavor and the second dilutes it. Interesting!

                    The 2 varieties with which we had the best experience at the FM that were not heirlooms were "celebrity" reds, and Japanese tomatoes (from LA) that were small, red almost with a blue undertone.

                    1. There is nothing wrong or contradictory about heirloom seeds being sold commercially. And there is nothing wrong with farmers growing and selling heirloom tomatoes.

                      Whether you find any tomato better or not is a matter of taste. At the farmers market I go to, there is only one vendor who consistently produces better tasting tomatoes, and I've learned to avoid the others, no matter how authentically heirloom their tomatoes might be. Often, it is not simply a question of better, but different. Variety being something like the spice of life.

                      Of all the qualities a tomato can have, flavor is generally the least prized. Supermarket tomatoes, more than anything, must keep their shape and color in the store. Nobody, not even the resolutely clueless, will pay for a bruised looking tomato in the supermarket.

                      Another type of tomato is the Food Service tomato. Like they have at Subway, etc. The top quality these tomatoes must possess is firmness to be sliced up by a machine. Since the consumer never sees these things whole, a nice tomato shape doesn't matter, nor does color. Most consumers do not pay extra if they get the tomatoes on their sandwich, so these have to be also the cheapest tomatoes available.

                      So what are you left with anymore?

                      7 Replies
                      1. re: Steve

                        You're absolutely right. I generally do without tomatoes outside of their season. The only tomatoes I will occasionally buy are the cherry or grape tomatoes which seem to have a bit of flavour. But in any case, it'll be a few months before I find myself driven to buying those.

                        1. re: Nyleve

                          I grew 3 varieties of heirloom tomatoes organically this summer in my garden. I did not find the flavor to be better than my beefsteak or big girl tomatoes. They make for a lovely presentation, but are not very hardy tomatoes. I'll probably try a few again next year. But I am a tomato snob. Juicy and flavorful is what I am looking for, not looks alone. Like Nyleve, I avoid tomatoes all other times of the year. Why bother? Nothing makes me crazier than seeing tomatoes and mozzarella on a menu in Feb or Dec. If I do buy tomatoes not during the summer, it is always the cherrys I purchase. At least they have some flavor and I can imagine I am eating one of my own.

                          1. re: mschow

                            Campari brand tomatoes - they are larger than the usual cherry-size tomatoes - often are the best bet in the colder months. They are not quite the same as summer, but they usually have a good fruity/acid balance - about 1/4 of the time they are more acidic than I care for (funny for a brand named Campari!!), but they otherwise the best bet.

                            1. re: Karl S

                              The same company also markets Tomatoes-On-The-Vine that I bought last winter in a pinch and because they looked and felt surprisingly decent. They were amazingly good for out of season tomatoes. Both types are raised hydroponically, in greenhouses, with no sprays, etc., like a lot of produce is in Europe in winter. http://www.eurofresh.com/products/pro...
                              They don't compare to Summer tomatoes but with these, Santa Sweets and UglyRipes, I can actually make it through the Winter now. Not like I'll feature them in meals, but for sandwiches or things where they're not the marquee attraction, they'll do fine.

                              1. re: Karl S

                                I've found something similar called Amorosa "cocktail" tomatoes. Wonderful option in the winter, often good enough for a BLT!

                                1. re: meatn3

                                  Amorosa are OK, but more variable in quality than the Campari I find. S&S carries Campari, and Shaw's carries Amorosa.

                                  1. re: meatn3

                                    Amorosas are another variety of trademarked, hydroponically-raised, hothouse tomatoes, like Campari and Tomatoes-On-The-Vine and some of the others.
                                    There are some trademarked field-grown heirlooms in supermarkets as well. Others that aren't trademarked. Some heirlooms, some not.
                                    Pretty soon you'll need a printed guide just to buy your tomatoes.

                          2. "Heirloom" has no quality assurance whatsover.

                            A virus-resistent hybrid tomato can have far more flavor and a better texture than an heirloom variety. What matters is the specific variety and how well it responded to the actual growing conditions in a given season - quite variable.

                            1. Sorry for the interruption, but we've removed some posts that are about gardening. While we understand that the OP's original query could lend itself to that discussion, gardening, even of delicious heirloom or other tomatoes, is too far afield for Chowhound. Please help us keep the discussion here focused on heirloom tomatoes versus other tomatoes, their taste, etc.

                              Thank you!

                              1. From the Clemson U. ag extension:
                                "Heirloom vegetables are defined in several ways. Some consider heirlooms to be any vegetable cultivars that have been grown for a certain length of time. Other people consider vegetables to be truly heirlooms only if being passed down by a family or group has preserved them. Heirlooms are always open-pollinated, since hybrid seed can not be maintained by ordinary means."

                                I like that some posts have pointed out that heirloom tomatoes do have different flavors. I think it's important that we all keep in mind that "tomato flavor," especially of the "good" variety, isn't just one thing. Sometimes when I buy a new kind of heirloom tomato I'm disappointed by the flavor or texture, because it doesn't conform to my ideal tomato taste: rich, sweet, with some acidity, meaty, dense, and juicy. But not all heirlooms were bred to be eaten the way I'm eating them, and not all were intended to have that specific flavor and feel. So if you're buying or growing heirlooms, you should choose varieties that supply the characteristics you're looking for in your salad, sauce, preserve, or pickle.

                                1. I think the term is overused. There are many varieties of heirloom tomatoes, and each has its own characteristics. If I grow tomatoes, I'll pick ones that have characteristics that I like.

                                  But to see "heirloom tomatoes" on a restaurant menu, upsets me. That salad is going to be different if its made with brandywines or with purple cherokees. Not all heirlooms taste the same.