What Exactly is an Heirloom Tomato?

Brooke Newberry
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Coveted for their simple indication of summer and their kaleidoscopic colors, heirloom tomatoes are busy pollinating our markets and wooing Caprese salads.  “Heirloom” actually means two things:  the variety is at least 50 years old and is also “open-pollinated.”

Heirloom tomatoes are naturally pollinated by bees and are of a variety that’s at least half a century old, meaning the seeds been saved and passed down – usually because of the plant’s valued characteristics (flavor, texture, growing power).  If seeds are saved and planted from heirloom plants, they will grow into the exact same plant as the parent that produced the seeds.  Heirlooms are grown for a variety of reasons: historical interest, variety access, and people simply making the choice to custom seed-save.  Heirlooms do tend to have a shorter shelf life and are less disease resistant than most commercial tomatoes.

Perhaps the best thing about heirloom varieties is that they all look like they were grown in Rainbow Brite’s backyard and have charming little names like Early Girl, Big Mama, Sunmaster, Box Car Willie, and Mortgage Lifter.  Their taste profiles range from sweet to tart and textures tend to be on the richer and meatier side.

What’s up with those veiny looking scars you see on summer heirlooms?  In the tomato grower’s world, that’s called catfacing.  Unlike than the ever so popular cat-bearding, recognize catface as brownish scars and scabs at the blossom end of a tomato. Catfacing is common in heirlooms because they haven’t been bred for commercial uniformity. The good news is that most tomatoes with catface are perfectly acceptable to eat.  If the scarring looks to be just upon the surface of the fruit, just eat as is.  If the cracks appear to be deep, simply cut away at that area of the tomato.

Buying Tips:

Look for intense color and go by feel and weight.  The skin should be taut and smooth and the tomato’s mass should feel full and juicy.  Non-red tomatoes are said to contain less acid – so if you are dealing with reflux, check out the yellowy “Hughs” and “Great White” varieties.

Note: Hybrid tomatoes often look the same as heirloom varieties (and are often sold as such).  Hybrids are just a cross between two varieties of tomatoes – usually to reproduce the best qualities in each parent tomato.

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