Are heirloom tomatoes the same as organic tomatoes?
When you stroll up to a farmer’s market stall on a late summer day, ready to spend some money on fresh-grown fruit, you’ll note that there’s no lack of in-season vegetables on display — anything from greens to herbs to squash to corn. Yet the top sales, the things that draw the most people and attention, will definitely be plump, juicy, colorful heirloom tomatoes.
During the summer, heirloom tomatoes appear on seasonal menus to widespread praise from reviewers and customers alike. So what makes this specific nightshade so unique? What distinguishes heirloom tomatoes from their mass-market counterparts? Our curiosity led us to consult both professional gardeners and chefs who frequently work with heirlooms to get the full scoop on what makes these tomatoes stand out and to learn the best ways to enjoy them before their all-too-brief season ends.
What is an heirloom tomato?
“ The term ‘heirloom’ means that the seed has been passed down from generation to generation, so that the plant can be grown year after year. “Some of these seeds are over 200 years old,” head chef Andy Clark of Napoli Pasta Bar in Washington, D.C., explains in a nutshell. While all heirloom tomatoes come from seeds harvested from the best tomato plants of past seasons, Clark does offer a few words of caution to anyone assuming that an ‘heirloom’ label automatically equals a great tomato: “If a heritage tomato is treated with pesticides to lengthen its shelf life and keep insects away, you have a completely different tomato. True heirlooms can only be purchased in a few select locations. I only buy from farms whose farming procedures I am familiar with. I’d recommend checking out farmer’s markets; they’re the ideal venues for non-chefs to get their hands on the same products we use.”
Gardening expert Derek Gaughan of Prince Gardening urges heirloom tomato purchasers to let go of “perfect” aesthetic expectations, noting that the greatest potential forms of these fruits may be found at reliable farmer’s markets and CSAs: “In general, heirloom tomatoes are seen as ‘ugly.’ Large bumps, well rooted stems, and a rainbow of hues are common. Heirloom tomatoes have considerably thinner skin than hybrid tomatoes, which means they deteriorate faster. These traits, however, are not necessarily indicative of a delicious heirloom. Try to discover a trustworthy farmer at your local farmer’s market. This is someone who will tell you all they know about how the tomato was cultivated and why it is considered an heirloom. I also highly suggest joining a local CSA – not only do you support local farmers, but you also get to cook with a broad array of unique foods from your area.”
What can you expect in terms of taste from a quality crop of heirlooms? “There are few things in the world that taste like summer like heirloom tomatoes. You can taste the rain that fell in April and May, causing those little blooms to grow like the water balloons you hurled at your neighbors. You can taste the scorching heat that browned the skin to various colours of red, green, and yellow. And mostly, you taste the sweet, savory, sour, umami flavors so primary [and] so essential that entire cuisines across the world from each other are based around them,” effuses executive sous chef Bradley Hoffman of L.A. Jackson in Nashville.
How do heirloom tomatoes differ from “regular” (hybrid) tomatoes?
“If the term ‘regular’ refers to grocery store tomatoes, [then] they are commercially grown,” explains horticulturist Stephanie Tittle of Barn8 Restaurant & Bourbon Bar in Goshen, Kentucky. “The majority of commercially cultivated — mass-produced — Tomatoes are hybrids that have been bred for a certain trait, such as thicker skin, making them easier to harvest and export. These tomatoes are often picked and exported in their green state. Heirloom tomatoes, on the other hand, have not been cross [bred] and will come true from seed season to season, if you take the time to save [the seeds]. These varieties are often thin-skinned, richer in flavor, and come in a wide variety of shapes and colors.”
Gardenerd founder Christy Wilhelmi offers the following tips to heirloom tomato newbies looking to obtain the finest varieties: “The term heirloom simply refers to anything passed down from generation to generation. Heirloom beefsteaks, heirloom plum, paste, salad-sized, and cherry tomatoes are available. Gardeners will recognize the word because it suggests that the seeds from an heirloom tomato may be kept and grown out again. As a consequence, the plant will bear fruit like its parent. Modern hybrids are bred to look like old fashioned heirlooms but the seeds will not breed true to type — they won’t grow out to look and taste like their parents. Shoppers often associate the term “heirloom” with a large, rainbow-colored beefsteak. Shoppers will likely be unable to detect the difference unless they know the names of the treasures they want to purchase. Just know that tomatoes grown for markets are bred to be shelf-stable, durable for transport, and weigh a lot to fetch a higher price. Homegrown heirlooms may not be as resistant to those three factors, but they are significantly better in taste.”
Are all heirloom tomatoes organic?
It’s easy to assume that all heirloom tomatoes meet the “organic” standard, especially since they’re frequently found at farmer’s markets and in specialty grocery stores like Whole Foods. Nevertheless, Stephanie Tittle adds that “it’s crucial to not mix heirloom with organic, and organic with zero pesticide use. Growing heritage cultivars does not imply that the grower follows organic techniques. Moreover, just because someone practices organic farming does not guarantee they do not use pesticides. Get to know your farmer and inquire about the types they are raising, as well as whether or not the variety is an heirloom. There are several tomato varieties available, and people’s taste preferences vary greatly. I recommend that you try them all! Note that “beautiful” does not automatically imply “tasty.”
Is it more difficult to grow heirloom tomatoes than regular ones?
If you’d like to give heirloom tomatoes a whirl during your next summer gardening season, it’s crucial to start your planning in the near future, since heirloom tomatoes rely on seeds harvested during peak tomato season (i.e. right now). Home gardener and recipe creator Laura Miner of Cook At Home Mom provided us with a basic guide to gathering heirloom seeds: “Simply press the seeds and juice of your finest tomatoes into a cup or bowl and place it on a sunny windowsill or even outdoors for a few days. Scrape off any mold that appears (it will be white and is not a reason for worry). After removing the mold, carefully fill the container with water, swirl, and put aside until the seeds settle to the bottom. Strain the liquid and carefully rinse the seeds several times. Let them to dry entirely (a few days) before storing in a cool, dry area until you’re ready to start fresh tomato plants!”
If you’re a first-time tomato grower looking to plant heirlooms, bear in mind that heirloom tomatoes have picky tendencies, according to Farminence: “Heirloom tomatoes are regarded as ‘picky.’ They may lack the disease, insect, and environmental resistance seen in many hybrid plants. You’ll need to be especially careful with your heritage tomato plants. Since many heritage tomatoes develop extremely thin skin, keep the soil moisture as steady as possible. Because of their thin skin, they are more prone to cracking, which happens when the tomato plant receives too much water at once. The excess water will also wet down the tomato, diminishing its taste.”
Gardener Jonathan Corey of Spork in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, also advises heritage fans to be meticulous about trimming their plants and establishing garden infrastructures that allow for optimal development. “The finest piece of advise I could provide is to trellis the plants and trim periodically. Tomato cages, although simple, do not give enough support. Also, because of restricted access, they might make pruning and sucker removal more difficult. The plant may be continuously supported along its stem where the weight of the fruit is held by a wire or string trellis. This also allows for simple trimming, which is essential for keeping plants healthy by keeping leaves off the ground and ensuring excellent ventilation around them,” he explains.
Peggy Cornett, the curator of plants at Monticello in Virginia, points out that heirloom tomatoes tend to be bountiful, and that you’ll want to prepare for large harvests: “Be cognizant of your space and capacity to eat, preserve, and/or share heirloom tomatoes with neighbors. Give the plants plenty of room to allow for proper air circulation.”
What’s the best way to serve heirloom tomatoes?
When we asked our sources for their opinions on the absolute best ways to prepare and serve heirloom tomatoes, they overwhelmingly agreed that simplicity is the ideal approach. “Keep things simple. You don’t need anything more than fresh tomatoes and good sea salt,” insists chef Rob Guimond of Public Display of Affection in Brooklyn, New York.
Chef Joe Natoli of Sawgrass Marriott Golf Resort & Spa in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, tells us that “nothing beats quartering an heirloom plum — such as the tiger blush — baking in the sun until it virtually caramelizes its own sugars, holding it in olive oil, and spreading it over everything!”
Heirloom Tomatoes with Portuguese Sardines, Olive Oil and Bread
Try this version by Chef David Santos for a serving strategy that allows heirloom tomatoes to take center stage while also incorporating engaging flavors that complement the tomatoes’ natural sweetness and hearty texture. “I am an advocate of serving the summer bounty of heirloom tomatoes quite simply with a couple of supporting actors to make it a meal,” he says.
- 2 large heirloom tomatoes
- 4-6 slices good bread, toasted
- 1 tin of high-quality Portuguese sardines (Santos recommends Nuri sardines)
- .5 cup pickled summer squash or your favorite local pickle
- Several sprigs of parsley
- Sea salt, to taste
- To taste, extra virgin olive oil (Santos recommends Esporao extra virgin olive oil)
- Cut the tomatoes in half and remove the core using a V cut. To form, slice the tomatoes from the center outward. Wedge lengths of 25 inches.
- Place the tomatoes on a cutting board or wide platter and season generously with sea salt and olive oil.
- Serve with bread and pickles and canned Portuguese sardines.
Gazpacho is a fantastic late-summer meal for a variety of reasons, and this version, cooked with yellow heirloom tomatoes and served cold, is both refreshing and tasty.
- 5 big washed, stemmed, and quartered yellow heritage tomatoes
- 2 medium sized English cucumbers, peeled and diced
- 1 small red onion, thinly sliced
- 1 big seeded and coarsely diced yellow bell pepper
- 1 cup tomato water (or regular water)
- .25 cup olive oil
- .25 cup plus 3 tbsp Champagne vinegar
- 4 garlic cloves, crushed
- 3 tbsp salt
- .25 tsp cumin
- 2 tbsp plain yogurt
- 1 tbsp mayonnaise
- 12 grape tomatoes, washed and halved (for garnish)
- Thinly sliced scallions (for garnish)
- Avocado “melon balls” (for garnish)
- In a large non-reactive container, add heirloom tomatoes, cucumbers, red onion, yellow bell pepper, tomato water, olive oil, Champagne vinegar, garlic cloves, salt, and cumin. Let to sit overnight, covered securely.
- Stir the vegetables well, then add to a blender with plain yogurt and blend until smooth. Pour the liquid through a chinois or strainer (not a very fine mesh one).
- Add the strained contents to the blender, along with the mayonnaise, and puree until smooth. Season with salt and vinegar to taste. Pour into a non-reactive container with a lid and store in the fridge until ready to serve.
- When ready to serve, spoon the gazpacho into a bowl and top with grape tomatoes, scallions, avocado melon balls, and olive oil.
Heirloom Tomatoes With Salted Plum Broth, Tomato Honey, And Riesling Gelée
“At Luthun, we are trying to make our dish taste like summer, so the heirloom tomatoes we use are a component of the dish and not necessarily the main ingredient. Our recipe calls for heirloom cherry tomatoes marinated in a tomato ‘honey’ made from tomato trimmings, sugar, and lemon juice. To get the honey feel, use glucose, which can be found in the baking department of most supermarkets. After that, we add some freeze-dried raspberries. We freeze them in liquid nitrogen to get the desired texture and temperature. You may get a similar look by freezing them at home and smashing them. Riesling gelée (Riesling, gelatin, sugar, and lemon juice) is used. This is somewhat lowered to lessen the alcohol content, which lends a lovely texture and sweetness. Riesling is a flowery wine that pairs beautifully with the rose petals in the sauce. Fresh heirloom tomatoes, salty plums, and rose petals are combined together to make the sauce. “[The meal is] then topped with raw onions, bush basil, and Serrano pepper,” explain Chefs Nahid Ahmed and Arjuna Bull of their more ambitious but equally tomato-forward version.
Salted Plum Broth:
- 15 fresh plums
- 15 heirloom tomatoes
- 3 tbsp rice wine vinegar
- 4 oz of dried rose petals
- 2 tbsp sugar
- Salt, to taste
- xanthum gum (.01%) (check box instructions, because a little goes a long way)
- 2 tsp of rose water
- 2 tbsp rose syrup
- 1 pinch Kashmiri chili
- 1 lb of fresh raspberries
- 1 tbsp sugar
- 1 pinch of Kashmiri chili
- Salt, to taste
Riesling G elée:
- 1 Riesling bottle (Ahmed and Bull prefer a Kabinett Riesling)
- 1 orange, juiced
- 1 cup simple syrup
- Salt, to taste
- 6 sheets gelatin
- 10 medium-sized blanched heirloom tomatoes, peels and seeds removed
- The zest and juice of 2 lemons
- 4 tbsp sugar
- Salt, to taste
- 6 tbsp glucose
- Heirloom cherry tomatoes, as many as you’d like
- Other summer fruits, like strawberries (optional)
- To make the freeze-dried raspberries, add the raspberries to a large bowl with sugar, chili, and salt. Stir the berries until uniformly coated.
- Place the bowl in the freezer for 6 hours.
- In a food processor, pulse the frozen berries until they are split up.
- To make the salted plum broth, put the plums in a large bowl and add salt. Let it rest for several hours, or until the plums have completely absorbed the salt.
- Bring the plums, heirloom tomatoes, rice wine vinegar, rose petals, sugar, salt, and xanthum gum to a boil in a saucepot.
- Strain the liquid and add rose water, rose syrup and Kashmiri chili. Let at least 4 hours to chill.
- Boil the blanched, peeled, and seeded tomatoes with the lemon zest, lemon juice, sugar, salt, and glucose until the tomatoes are tender.
- Strain and chill in an ice bath. Within a few minutes, it will get that honey texture.
- To prepare the Riesling gelée, dissolve the gelatin in the liquid (Riesling or water) and let aside for several minutes to “bloom” (fully dissolve).
- Add the bloomed gelatin to a bowl with Riesling, orange juice, simple syrup, and salt. Refrigerate the bowl to allow it to completely set.
- Marinate as many cherry tomatoes as you want in the tomato honey, along with any other fruits you want (strawberries work well), for at least several minutes. Season with salt to taste.
- While waiting for the tomatoes to marinate, pour 4 ounces of the salted plum broth into a bowl. Mix in 1 tablespoon Riesling gelée and 1 tablespoon freeze-dried raspberries.
- Garnish with sliced sweet onions, Serrano pepper slices, bush basil, and baby radish slices after adding marinated tomatoes and fruit.
What is the difference between heirloom tomatoes and regular tomatoes?
Heirloom tomatoes are types that have been produced for 40 years or more without crossbreeding. In contrast, ordinary store tomatoes are hybrids that have been purposefully crossbred to have certain qualities. Flavor is not always at the top of the priority list.
What is another name for heirloom tomatoes?
An heirloom tomato (also called heritage tomato in the UK) is an open-pollinated, non-hybrid heirloom cultivar of tomato. They are divided into four categories: family heirlooms, commercial heirlooms, mystery heirlooms, and invented heirlooms.
Are all heirloom tomatoes non GMO?
Heritage tomato seeds are never GMOs, nor are they hybrids. The plants are often hardier than non heirlooms, and the tomatoes tend to taste better.
Are heirloom tomatoes healthier?
Lycopene, one of the most potent natural antioxidants, is found in heirloom tomatoes. Lycopene has also been demonstrated to protect skin against UV radiation. Lycopene may also assist persons with diabetes reduce their oxidative stress.