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Heirloom Tomatoes

They’re everything supermarket tomatoes wish they could be—juicy, intense, and full of flavor

by Eric Rupert

fromFine Cooking
Issue 94

There’s nothing quite like a tomato for unlocking memories. We all have a recollection of the best tomato we’ve ever tasted. I remember following my great-grandfather, salt shaker in hand, between the towering staked tomato plants in his backyard garden in northern Indiana. He would break open a ripe ruby globe, salt it, and hand me half. Nothing has ever tasted better.

Heirlooms are the tomatoes of memories like these. They’re grown from seeds that are pollinated naturally and handed down from year to year. Unlike commercial hybrid tomatoes, which are engineered for durability and uniform color and shape at the expense of taste, heirlooms are all about variety and richness of flavor, color, shape, and texture. They offer a way back to that time when tomatoes were seen only a few months of the year, were rarely perfectly round or red—and tasted of summer itself.

Good to know: The heirlooms available in supermarkets aren’t necessarily grown locally. Check their origin—the farther they travel, the less flavor they’ll have. It’s worth going out of your way for the taste of a just-picked tomato from a farmstand or farmers’ market.

Tomato how-tos


  • Never mind their looks: Heirlooms are often misshapen and mottled, but this has no bearing on taste. And don’t be put off by cracked skins, as long as they aren’t leaking juice.
  • Go for heft: Pick one up—it should feel heavy for its size.
  • Take a whiff: Ripe heirlooms will have an earthy, green scent; avoid those that smell musty.


  • Treat gently: Don’t pile them in a bag; the weight of one will squash another.
  • Don’t refrigerate: Temperatures colder than 50ºF will destroy their flavor and texture.

Flavor: A Color Key

With heirlooms, the color is an indicator of flavor, be it sweet or tart. Here’s a guide to taste and texture, by color:

Red or pink varieties offer a balance of acid and sweetness that is closest to what is thought of as the classic tomato flavor. The Brandywine variety is the most common because it's hardy and travels well. Roma-shaped varieties, such as Opalka, are meaty, with low seed counts, making them good for sauces or pastes. Yellow and orange varieties, such as Lemon Boy, are the lowest in acid of the heirloom tomatoes, with a mild, sweet flavor. The Garden Peach has an unusual fuzzy skin and a sweet, fruity flavor. Purple or black heirlooms usually appear more deep maroon or brown, like Cherokee Purple (pictured) and Carbon. Most have a smoky-sweet flavor and are more acidic than the yellow or green varieties. White varieties, like White Beauty, tend to have a yellow tinge and a slightly lower acid content than red heirlooms. Their much higher sugar content makes them the sweetest of the heirlooms. Green varieties, such as Green Zebra, are lower in acid than red ones, with a flavor both sweet and tart. Cherry tomato heirlooms, such as Sugary (pictured), Fond Mini, Red Currant, and Mirabel (next slide), are very sweet and juicy. They add nice textural variety when used whole in salads or dishes alongside sliced larger heirlooms.



Easy ways to showcase heirlooms

Caprese salad: Slice different color heirlooms and alternate with slices of fresh mozzarella. Sprinkle with extra-virgin olive oil and torn fresh basil.

No-cook pasta sauce: Seed and dice a variety of heirlooms and mix with extra-virgin olive oil, chopped fresh thyme, parsley, minced garlic, salt, and freshly ground black pepper. Let sit at room temperature for at least 30 minutes and then toss with just-cooked pasta.

Chunky salsa: Seed and dice an assortment of heirlooms and mix with fi nely chopped red onion, chopped cilantro, extra-virgin olive oil, a squeeze of fresh lime juice, minced garlic, finely chopped jalapeño or serrano chile, salt, and freshly ground black pepper.

Bread salad: Dice an assortment of heirlooms and toss with diced English cucumber, diced red bell pepper, and cubes of stale country bread. Dress with a vinaigrette of red-wine vinegar, extra-virgin olive oil, salt, freshly ground pepper, and torn fresh basil.

Photos: Scott Phillips


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