If I had to name the quintessential pleasure of high summer, it would be tomatoes—fresh, ripe, and brimming with flavor. At farmers’ markets, you’ll see all sorts of varieties in a range of rich colors to enjoy in the kitchen and at the table, from red Roma plum tomatoes for sauces to dappled Big Rainbows for salads and sandwiches, to Yellow Pear cherry tomatoes for just eating out of hand.
From candy-sized cherries to fist-sized globes
Tomato sizes range from tiny cherries to giant beefsteaks almost the size of a grapefruit. As for shapes, you’ll see smooth globes, lobed scallops, oblongs, and clusters of tiny round or pear shapes. Flavors go from the big, spicy punch that comes from the concentrated sugar-to-acid ratio of a Brandywine to more subtle creamy-smooth varieties with floral, fruity, or earthy overtones, such as a Persimmon.
Choose glossy, heavy fruit
At the market, look for plump, glossy fruit that feel heavy for their size. A ripe tomato should feel pliant but not mushy, with no soft spots or cracks. Stem calyxes, if they’re still attached, should be fresh and green, never shriveled or tired-looking.
Older and heirloom varieties often ripen from the bottom (the blossom end) to the top (the shoulders), so don’t be put off if the shoulders still show a little green. If the body feels heavy, is fully colored and smooth with just a little give to it, the tomato is ripe. Don’t shy away from pleated or multi-shouldered tomatoes like the Persimmon, either—these irregular shapes are what make many old- fashioned varieties distinctive.
Beefsteaks, cherries, sauce tomatoes, and slicers There’s luscious flavor in every tomato variety that grows in summer. The hundreds of varieties can be roughly grouped into four categories. Beefsteaks are very large, juicy tomatoes that can be either globe-shaped or lobed. They’re delicious fresh-eating tomatoes, and they’re great for sandwiches and grilling. Cherry tomatoes are small (up to an inch in diameter) and they grow in clusters. They’re great for snacks and salads. Sauce tomatoes can be oblong, oval, or sausage-shaped. Sauce tomatoes earn their name because they’re meatier, less juicy tomatoes wellsuited to cooking down into sauces and soups. Slicers are multipurpose, fresh-eating tomatoes, great for just about anything. Many slicers are globe shaped, although you will run across shouldered, irregularly shaped examples, too.
Heirlooms, old favorites, and hybrids
Heirlooms are varieties lovingly passed on by gardeners and saved for the next growing season. This process has helped maintain older varieties, especially those that grow well in a certain region or that have great flavor. Heirlooms are open-pollinated varieties that don’t need human intervention to reproduce their varietal qualities. They’re not in commercial production, and they’re at least forty years old.
Old varieties are often old favorites or home garden varieties that were once sold by seed companies but are often hard to find today because they’re no longer in commercial production.
Hybrids are varieties that have been crossbred by hand for traits such as productivity and resistance to disease.
While many of us were taught to store ripe tomatoes in the refrigerator, cold really mutes their sweetness and flavor. I like to keep different colored ripe tomatoes in a big bowl on my kitchen counter, where their tempting beauty shows off summer’s bounty. Buy a few different kinds for a good mix of colors and flavors. If you must store tomatoes in the fridge, be sure to bring them back to room temperature before you eat them.