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Sep 25, 2007 07:22 AM

Heirloom tomato question [moved from Home Cooking board]

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 -- 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.