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Disappointed by heirloom tomatoes

Every summer I get sucked in by the heirloom shtick, and always regret it. I live in a place that is made for wonderful seasonal produce, including tomatoes, but my experience with the heirlooms is that they are mealy, over-ripe, fruit-fly ridden and tasteless. Am I missing something? (I'm talking about buying from well established organic farms who otherwise have amazing produce.)

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  1. Don't blame the tomato for being over-ripe or fruit-fly ridden. Blame yourself for buying such a bad product. I buy (selectively) heirlooms during the months of July, August, and September. I occasionally get a dud, but blame myself for poor selection.

    1. I've found heirlooms to be a hit or miss where some varieties are flavorful while others are just bland. I'm starting to think heirlooms are just a food fad.

      4 Replies
      1. re: dave_c

        A fad that has lasted 100 years? San Marzano's are heirlooms.

        1. re: Jerseygirl111

          One cultivar out of 100's of heirloom varieties.

          1. re: dave_c

            Well, I just wanted to give an example of a very familiar tomato that many may not realize was an heirloom. But the point is I disagree with your statement. Heirlooms are not a fad.

        2. re: dave_c

          Without heirlooms we would be stuck with basic supermarket tomatoes which have been developed with an interest in shippability rather than taste. Like apples the varieties seem endless with different maturity times, different tastes and textures. I am all for variety in all fruits and veggies.

        3. I've been buying mine from a couple of vendors at the Pasadena Farmer's Market or at Whole Foods; though the FM tomatoes are about $1.50/lb less, there's usually a much better selection at WF. Our Ralphs has some at the same price ($3.99/lb), and once in a while they'll have a couple of good ones. The Cherokee Blacks and red Brandywines are my favorites, along with the big orange guys I don't know the names of. You have to remember these need special treatment to travel at all, and I frequently have to remove a part that got bumped and is sort of melting. They also need to be used immediately or at least very soon, and kept at room temperature, NEVER refrigerated.

          1 Reply
          1. re: Will Owen

            Right! Refrigeration = death of a good tomato.

          2. not sure where you live but I buY tomatoes that look and smell good regardless of whether they heirloom or not. The ratio of "duds" on heirloom vs non is undetectable.

            1. You've described my experience with heirlooms perfectly. Despite my best efforts at selection, they are often mealy and tasteless. Give me a good old Maryland 'mater anytime.

              2 Replies
              1. re: Christina D

                I've grown heirloom varietals in Maryland soil. What would one call those? I remember Brandywine's being a pretty standard tomato for Eastern Shore home growers in the 80s. In fact, although there are some "Jersey" tomato varietals (including the Ramapo which was a big commercial hybrid in the 70s), I don't know of any particular hybrids that carried a "Maryland" monicker.

                As to the OP, for those interested in growing heirlooms next summer, here's a decent site for seeds: http://marylandtomatolady.com

                As suggested below, the Summer climate and sandy soil of the Mid-Atlantic coast of the US helps produce some outstanding tomatoes of all kinds. I'm partial to planting a couple kinds that I've been happy with in the past and a single plant of a few different kinds to experiment. So far this year, the Pink Oxharts have been my favorite "new" tomatoes. Last year, it was the Paul Robesons.

                1. re: MGZ

                  I grow the Rutgers Heirloom in my dark, deep black Iowa topsoil with great success ...

              2. It depends on so very much. The seeds might have been "heirloom," but the produce might be anywhere in a very broad spectrum.

                I like the "heirloom tomatoes" at Blackberry Farm, but then, when away from there, know that the quality can vary.

                Sorry that you have not been impressed.


                1. what you're describing is far more typical of overripe produce than of anything to do with the type of plant.

                  1. I've never been very impressed with heirlooms that I've purchased. But the last couple years I've been growing Brandywine tomatoes in my garden and they are wonderful. I've got one that I've been using to make cucumber tomato salad for three days now because it's huge. I've been refrigerating it since I've already cut it and honestly the flavor and texture don't seem to have suffered for it. But I know that's usually not the case.

                    1. Have you ever attempted to grow them yourself? All you need is one plant, in a pot if need be. It will be a revelation.

                      1. There are hundreds of heirloom varieties. Each one has its own particular characteristics - some are juicy and sweet and meant to be eaten fresh, others are dry and meaty and are for making sauce. And then there is everything in between - all kinds of flavours, colours, shapes, sizes. Just because a tomato is called "heirloom" it doesn't mean you're going to like it for eating in a salad. Then there's the whole business of how it was grown, when it was picked and how it was shipped. Was it picked green and ripened afterwards? Or was it picked ripe and allowed to become overripe in transit? All of this matters. I have a bazillion types of heirloom tomatoes in my garden and they are all delicious in their own way. But I pick them when they're ripe and eat them within a few hours of picking. Some would rot instantly if I tried to keep them longer than that. Some are best for cooking and don't go in my salad (unless I'm desperate).

                        To be fair to the OP, vendors can be persuasive and deceptive. Just last week I bought a few tomatoes that were supposed to have been home grown in someone's garden and they are rubbery and tasteless. I suspect they were picked green and the alleged home garden is, in fact, a large commercial farm.

                        11 Replies
                        1. re: Nyleve

                          Where do you live ?
                          Please post your six best tomato types, two per season.

                          1. re: Vinnie Vidimangi

                            for what region? For what use?

                            Re-read the post, then set out to actual producers in *your* area to find *your* favorites.

                            1. re: sunshine842

                              I will be growing them in Auckland New Zealand. I would discount "terroir" on Nyleve's suggestions. I don't think that I can find someone as experienced as Nyleve. I have to start somewhere.

                              1. re: Vinnie Vidimangi

                                I posted a link, upthread, to a US website where you could purchase heirloom seeds before your summer season. You might even want to send them an e-mail explaining what you are looking to do and describing the basic conditions of your soil and general climate patterns during your proposed growing season.

                                I am of the mindset, however, that terror should never be discounted with any fruit. The tomatoes you grow in NZ will differ in taste, in some ways, from those I grow here on the Atlantic Coast of the US. Even if we started with seeds from the same plant/tomato.

                                1. re: MGZ

                                  You're absolutely right MGZ, terror fruits should never be discounted - they can bring a country to its knees ;-)

                                2. re: Vinnie Vidimangi

                                  find yourself a garden centre in Auckland -- not the garden section of a big store -- a real garden center.

                                  Ask their advice -- they'll know what grows well in the climate/soil, and what varieties have great flavor.

                                  1. re: sunshine842

                                    Come visit Auckland and I will take you to a real garden centre.

                                    Nice green NZ? I am on a clay slope.
                                    I don't mean clay -loam. I mean yellow. Scraped. 30 meters of dirt brought in so far; moved by hand.. Tomatoes were grown last year as a "ground cover" on new beds. Anyone have a good recipe for escargot? In a tomato sauce would be great.

                                    It was the best summer in 70 years, so I am being unaccepting of success in looking for not so sturdy heirloom tomatoes.

                                    I grow citrus, camellias, feijoas, passionfruit, a couple plums and pears and one quince. Can you tell that I used to live in South Dakota? Where I was, the topsoil was 20 feet deep, but.......

                                    May I be planted in the perfect terroir. Finally.

                              2. re: Vinnie Vidimangi

                                Central Ontario - and my favourites are purple Cherokee, black krim, brandywine, green zebra, sungold (cherry) and black cherry. This year I grew something called Dr. Wyches yellow and it's good too. I don't think you can discount the environment - soil, heat, rain, etc., all of which will have an effect on the flavour. Some years are just better than others, but in any year a home grown tomato will taste better than one from a store.

                                1. re: Nyleve

                                  Thank you.

                                  I know, I know about terroir, but I gotta start somewhere. and tomatoes don't depend on a winter.

                                  Niagara grapes are a nothing in Auckland. The best Gala apples - a NZ introduction- have been from Ruthven (Lake Erie) Ontario.
                                  If the only apples that I knew came from Washington state I would switch to potatoes.

                                  1. re: Vinnie Vidimangi

                                    The Cherokees, Brandywines, and green zebras, nyleve mentions are all varietals we have had repeated success with in NJ.

                                    1. re: MGZ

                                      Another big Green Zebra fan. I am saving seeds this year and hope to have some luck next season.

                            2. I was going to say "That's ok, the more for the rest of us", but that's too glib and not going to help your problem, which seems to be that your organic farmers are not selling good heirloom tomatoes.

                              I have been raising and enjoying my own heirlooms for over 15 years, and every year I try a few new varieties, and usually only add one of those to the ones I grow the next year. So I don't like all heirlooms, but most of them are better tasting than those pretty round hybrids sold in most groceries.

                              (I must admit though, that I always raise at least one hybrid variety, just to give away to my friends, many of whom mistakenly think that the "ugly" oddly shaped heirlooms can't be as good as those spheroidal hybrids!)

                              2 Replies
                              1. re: DonShirer

                                I think a good way to judge a special tomato is by how it smells when you pick it fully ripe. Keep them on your counter at room temperature and that aroma fills up the room!

                                1. re: Tripeler

                                  That, pretty much, is a fine approach for selecting any fruit.

                              2. If you live in an area with a very wet summer, like I do, most of the tomatoes taste like water. So do the figs this year. They all tasted better in the drought, but then we had to water all the time.

                                1. I am with Christina D on the good old Maryland 'mater. I spent a lot of my youth in that area and always thought the tomatoes spectacular. You need that perfect combination of enough sun, enough rain water, and good soil. Here in Texas there is plenty of sun but soil is being charitable. This side of the Balcones Escarpment is almost solid limestone. Of course nothing seems to thrive on chlorinated tap water.

                                  1. When you get them home, how are you storing them? Here are some tips that may help:

                                    NEVER refrigerate a tomato! It KILLS their flavor, and you'll never get it back.

                                    Never store a ripe tomato stem up! Once they reach the degree of ripeness you prefer, turn them over STEM DOWN! They will keep for at least a couple of weeks and I have some in my kitchen right now that are nearly a month old and still fresh and ripe and firm AND room temperature!

                                    Now, that said -- and if you're already doing all of that -- dozens of things come into play on a tomato's texture and flavor, especially with heirloom tomatoes. How they're grown, where they are grown (eg Kansas or Florida, high mountains or valley) as well as how long the days are, how much sunshine they get and even what kind of fertilizer is used all impact on their flavor.

                                    "Heirloom" seems to be some sort of catchword today. A naturally grown heirloom tomato raised in it's "native" environment in good rich soil and well tended by a loving gardener stands a very high chance of being delicious! The very same tomato seedling will not taste the same when grown hydroponically in a hot house by a commercial grower who then labels the product "organic heirloom" and ships it off to market. My current disappointment is in Kumato's. I've given up on them because out of three different purchases, only ONE tasted good! On the other hand, on-the-vine Compari have NEVER let me down! They're the ones stored stem down in my kitchen right now.

                                    Sounds to me as if your problem is either drought or something similar if your organic source is producing dry, mealy tomatoes. Maybe try another organic farmer?

                                    1. I find the same as the OP.
                                      The heirlooms are more expensive and just aren't all that. I go for the good old "field tomato" that are just plump, round and red (sometimes yellow), and this year, they've been terrific!
                                      Just like my beloved Jersey tomatoes growing up.

                                      1. I've had a few dud tomatoes from farmers I don't know this year, but the farmers I do know consistently give me mouthwatering Green Zebras, Brandywines and Genovese tomatoes. Know your farmers; know your tomatoes and know how to pick them and you're sure to fare better.

                                        1. my local supermarket now has "heirloom" tomatoes. they are displayed 3 wrapped in plastic on a foam tray. when there in the morning I notice they are ice cold from overnight in the fridge. and at $5.99/Lb they could keep them.

                                          my home grown heirlooms are the finest examples of tomatoes this side of the atlantic.

                                          1 Reply
                                          1. re: Gastronomos

                                            give me a few months - we can have a throwdown. :)

                                            Down here where it's hot and humid, garden season is just starting to roll.

                                          2. Thanks everyone for the responses. I grew up with home-grown tomatoes, so certainly know how they should taste (un-refridgerated of course!) and that an ugly tomato doesn't mean a nasty tomato. It just seems that where I live the ones sold as heirlooms are often at the same time both half-underripe and half-overripe. I have great access to delicious non-heirlooms so I think I'll just stop trying. Unfortunately, my current living situation doesn't allow me to grow them myself or I would definitely use your suggestions. Thanks again.

                                            1 Reply
                                            1. re: Chatsworth

                                              One of the biggest problems with heirloom tomatoes is that they were not bred so they could survive harvesting and shipping. This one reason why non-heirloom tomatoes are harvested while unripe--they'll survive the process. I've grown heirlooms that would bruise simply by sitting on the counter.