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What to Look For in an Heirloom Tomato

Follow your nose. And follow it to the farmers' market.

Published Aug. 16, 2022.

Heirloom tomatoes define ugly delicious. They look scraggly and deformed, but they’re the sweetest, tastiest, and most prized tomato on the market.

I’ll be the first to admit I’ve bought what I call “heirloom posers.” They look like the real deal, but one bite in, they're bland enough to put you to sleep.

Heirloom tomatoes are also expensive. So if you buy them, they better be good.

Here's a quick rundown on some heirloom tomato FAQs.

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What are heirloom tomatoes and what makes them so special?

Think of these tomatoes like a family heirloom. It’s not the tomatoes themselves that are passed down from generation to generation but the seeds. Farmers hold onto the tomato seeds that produce the best fruit, which later gets shared amongst other farmers. 

What makes heirloom tomato seeds so special is their DNA. They haven’t been tinkered with for mass production. If heirloom tomatoes were an animal, they’d be purebred. 

Because these delicate tomatoes generally can’t withstand the rigors of long-distance shipping, most are locally grown and can be readily found at farmers’ markets.

Where should I shop for heirloom tomatoes?

The answer here is not the grocery store. Unfortunately the word “heirloom” is used as loosely as “artisan” or “light.” It doesn’t technically have to mean anything. 

For true heirlooms, find a farmers' market. You’ll get great tomatoes (and probably hear a great story behind them).

Does it matter that the heirloom tomato is misshapen and ugly?

With heirloom tomatoes, the uglier the better. Heirlooms aren’t bred for consistency and uniformity. Heirloom tomatoes are often open-pollinated (or naturally pollinated). This allows the tomatoes to grow however they want, pesticide free.

Can I refrigerate heirloom tomatoes?

The short answer is yes. My colleagues from Cook's Illustrated tested this theory and found that refrigeration prolonged the tomato’s shelf life and did not affect the flavor. Just be sure to keep them in an airtight container to keep out odors.

Heirloom tomatoes are great just sliced and salted. But here's another option.

How will I know if an heirloom tomato is ripe?

To determine if an heirloom tomato is ripe, follow your nose!

That’s right. Heirloom tomatoes have nothing to hide. If they smell sweet and, well, tomato-ey, they’re going to taste good. Really good.

Anything else I need to know about heirloom tomatoes?

Tomato expert Craig LeHouiller said it best. “Heirloom tomatoes are like a box of chocolates. There is no correlation between color and flavor. Some will be sweet, some will be tart, some mild, some intense.” 

So buy a bunch of them and enjoy the ride.

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