What's an heirloom tomato anyway? / JillHough.com

What’s an heirloom tomato anyway?

It’s getting towards the end of tomato season, but farmer’s markets, supermarkets, and back yards are still brimming with “heirloom” varieties. So you might be wondering, what the heck is an heirloom tomato anyway?

Well, here’s how it’s been explained to me by the various garden experts at Copia, where I used to work as a culinary instructor.

An heirloom is basically an “old seed” – and by that I don’t mean a seed that has been rolling around someone’s pocket for a long time. I mean a plant that hasn’t been hybridized for 25, 50, or 100 years, depending on who you ask, making it an un-messed-around-with representation of that particular plant variety.

To which you might reply, what’s so great about that?

Well, hybridization in and of itself isn’t horrible. It’s simply crossing one plant with another and coming up with something that combines characteristics of the two.

The problem is that most hybridization of the last 25, 50, or even 100 years has been for the benefit of the grower and/or retailer. Tomatoes, for example, have been hybridized to ripen all at the same time, making them easier to pick. They’ve been hybridized to grow to the same size and shape, making them easier to pack, store, and ship. They’ve been hybridized for a longer shelf life. For more even color. Etc, etc, etc.

But for the most part, they haven’t been hybridized to taste better. In fact, you could argue that the flavor has been hybridized right out of them.

Heirlooms tomatoes, on the other hand, may have been hybridized, but not during the more recent era of hybridization to benefit the producer. So they come in different shapes, sizes, and colors. Sometimes they crack or otherwise look funny. They have to be sold soon after picking, because they don’t have a long shelf life. Etc, etc, etc.

But for the most part, they taste – awesome.

I currently have eight tomato plants growing in my garden – waaay too many for two people. Between eating them for pretty much every meal (see some of my favorite recipes, which I developed for Bon Appetit, below), I’m also oven-drying them (here’s a recipe for that) and pureeing them, so we can enjoy them even when heirloom tomato season is long, long gone.


Tricolor Tomato Fettuccini

Roasted Tomato and Herb Tart

Rosemary Trout with Cherry Tomato Sauce

Gazpacho Salsa

Grilled Tomatoes Stuffed with Goat Cheese

Green Tomato and Red Onions Relish (for canning)

Fresh Tomato Sauce (for canning)

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