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.
- 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.