It’s only when I can dig my teeth into that very first slice of thick, juicy beefsteak tomato that I know summer is really in full swing. Beefsteak tomatoes are the greatest gift of this season; I love to savor their sweet, intense flavor with nothing more than a sprinkle of salt and a drizzle of olive oil. When you have truly good tomatoes, you don’t need much else.
What’s in a name
I can’t think of a better word than “beefsteak” to describe these meaty, succulent tomatoes when they’re sliced. But beefsteak isn’t a botanical term. Any of several varieties of large tomatoes with thick, plump flesh can be called beefsteaks. And not all beefsteak varieties are huge. Although many produce fruit weighing well over 1 lb. (I’ve grown some that weighed more than 4 lb. apiece), there are some varieties that weigh less. A beefsteak has smaller seed cavities and therefore a greater ratio of flesh to juice and seeds than other kinds of tomatoes. Then there’s shape. Beefsteak varieties are typically—though not always—slightly flattened (oblate, in botanical terms) and sometimes lumpy, with a slightly irregular shape. We’re so used to perfectly shaped supermarket tomatoes that many of us consider an imperfect shape undesirable. That couldn’t be less true. The tomatoes that look the ugliest, including beefsteaks, are often the best tasting.
Leave tomatoes at room temperature until you’re ready to use them. Refrigeration causes loss of flavor and a mealy texture.
Where to get great beefsteaks
As a gardener, I’m a firm believer that the most flavorful tomatoes are homegrown, but I realize not everyone can manage that. The next best place to get great tomatoes is at a farm stand or a farmers’ market, while the supermarket is where you’re least likely to find a tasty tomato—although some grocery stores do carry beefsteaks now. (Supermarket tomatoes are usually picked too soon and never achieve the full flavor and texture of vine-ripened fruits.) When shopping for tomatoes, I go for those with intact skins and no bruises, firm but yielding under gentle pressure, and with a deep color. Of course, color is a useful indicator only if you already know what color the variety should be when it’s ripe.
Grow the best beefsteak varieties
There are loads of beefsteak varieties, some hybrids and some heirlooms. Beefsteaks offer a great diversity of color when ripe: from red and pink to orange, yellow, purple, green—even white. You won’t find this kind of selection at regular grocery stores, so try growing some of the following varieties. (Tomato Growers Supply is a good source for seeds).
If I could grow only one plant, it would be a Big Beef tomato. Besides having wonderful rich flavor, these globe-shaped red fruits lack the deeply set stem and large core you often find in beefsteaks, which means they’re prettier when sliced and there’s less waste.
Meaty, great-tasting, and disease-resistant, this was my favorite tomato until the Big Beef was introduced. Its bright red fruits weigh up to 2 lb.
There’s a whole family of heirloom varieties named German this or that. The one that’s performed best for me is German Stripe (or Striped German). It has large orange and red fruits and a luscious, old-fashioned tomato flavor.
The classic Brandywine is a pink tomato, but there are also black, yellow, and red Brandywines. They have creamy flesh and rich flavor, but be warned: The plants don’t produce many fruits.
Aunt Ruby’s German Green
This is a popular heirloom variety with sweet, spicy flavor. When ripe, its moderately large, round fruits are striped green and yellow.
What to do with all those tomatoes
Here are some ideas for using fresh beefsteak tomatoes:
Add a twist to the classic BLT by replacing lettuce with arugula, bacon with prosciutto, and plain mayonnaise with green mayonnaise. To make green mayonnaise, stir some puréed herbs, like basil, cilantro, chives, and parsley and some grated garlic into homemade or your favorite store-bought mayonnaise.
Other simple sandwich combinations include Cheddar, tomato, and a thin slice of red onion on rye; or tomato, watercress, mayonnaise, and black pepper in a pita pocket.
For a beautiful salad platter, lay out slices from various colors of beefsteak tomatoes and drizzle with a tasty vinaigrette. This could be as simple as balsamic vinegar and good-quality extra-virgin olive oil, or a thick Dijon-spiked emulsion of olive oil and red-wine vinegar speckled with minced herbs, or even a dollop of pesto thinned to pouring consistency with olive oil and a touch of vinegar.
For a quick, fresh pasta sauce, roughly chop a large beefsteak tomato and toss with hot pasta, plenty of grated cheese, pitted olives, and lots of herbs.
For a late-summer breakfast treat, add fat slices of fried tomato to a plate of eggs and bacon. Fry the tomatoes briefly on both sides in a little olive oil just until they blister and color slightly.
And for a terrific tomato and bread salad, see the recipe for Grilled Sourdough Panzanella.