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Get the Deets on Heirloom vs Hybrid
It’s heirloom tomato season! That’s right! It’s that special time of the year when you can expect to find these garden darlings in abundance. If you’re wondering what these fruit-based gems are all about, then you’re in the right place. Let’s talk heirloom tomatoes!
So… What is an Heirloom Tomato?
Much like painting that’s been passed on from one generation to the next, heirloom tomatoes are grown from seeds that have been cultivated for generations. At the close of every heirloom tomato season, farmers harvest the seeds from their most successful fruits and save them to plant again the following year.
This differs from hybrid tomatoes, which are commercially cultivated by crossing different tomato species to encourage disease resistance; produce maximum yields; and conform fruit size, shape and color.
Heirloom tomatoes are unique in size, shape and they come in a variety of colors. They’re not always pretty, with perfect symmetry or flawless skin, but that’s because they’re grown the way that nature intended. Don’t worry, it’s easy to overlook their appearance once you get a taste. And with names like Big Rainbow, Cherokee Purple, Chocolate Cherry, Green Zebra and Mr. Stripey who would be able to resist taking a bite.
Preparing for Heirloom Tomato Season: All Your Questions Answered
As mid-July approaches, start sharpening your best knife and shopping for some really good extra virgin olive oil because the heirloom tomato season is short. Here’s what you need to know as you prepare for it.
Are heirloom tomatoes available year round?
Heirloom tomatoes are a seasonal fruit, with the season being the collection of frost-free days from mid summer to early fall. So, if you’re into eating locally, then the answer is no.
Of course, climates vary dramatically around the globe, so it’s always tomato season somewhere. As you’ll read though, heirloom tomatoes don’t travel well, so it’s best to buy them locally when they’re in season.
What months are heirloom tomatoes in season?
The answer to this question depends a bit on where you live. Tomatoes take 60-100 days from planting to produce a ripened fruit, but they don’t survive a frost, so planting is delayed until the weather is cooperative.
What is so special about heirloom tomatoes?
Unlike hybrid tomatoes, heirlooms aren’t bred to produce a thicker skin or last longer in the grocery store. As a result, they are more temperamental, bruising easily and having a shorter shelf life. The additional care required to bring them to the market results in a higher price tag, but it also means a more flavorful fruit.
Heirloom tomatoes come in all shapes, sizes and colors, like red, purple, yellow and green. Purple and red heirloom tomatoes tend to be softer and more acidic, while yellow heirloom tomatoes are sweeter and more mild. Green heirlooms are firmer and have a zesty flavor.
How long do heirloom tomatoes last?
As mentioned above, heirloom tomatoes are not bred for longevity or durability, so they should be consumed when ripe. This is usually when you bring them home from the farmer’s market or a day or two later.
How do you know when a tomato is ripe? Give it a careful squeeze. It should be mostly firm, with just a slight amount of give to pressure.
What is the difference between heirloom and hybrid?
Hybrid tomatoes are what they sound like – they’re a cross between different tomato varieties. Hybrids are an effort to produce similar size, shape and color fruits capable and withstanding the transfer from vine to produce section. Unfortunately, flavor and consistency tend to get lost, producing the pale, mealy specimens that adorn the top of an iceberg diner salad.
By contrast, heirloom tomatoes are grown from saved seeds that are 50 years or older. They’re also open-pollinated, which means that they are grown without intervention. Just the birds and the bees, folks.
Which is better heirloom or hybrid?
Given what you’ve learned so far, you might expect that an heirloom tomato is always going to outperform a hybrid tomato. But, as with words like “natural” and “organic,” the “heirloom” designation isn’t regulated.
Which means, if you want the best in heirloom tomatoes, your best bet is to try the local farmer’s market or community supported agriculture. In most cases, you’ll know where the heirloom tomato you’re buying came from and how long it took to get to you.
When shopping for heirloom tomatoes, pick the ones that yield only slightly when squeezed. If you get one that is still too firm, let it sit on the counter for a day or two to ripen.
According to Serious Eats, the best way to do this is to remove the stem and place the heirloom tomato upside-down. Placing them stem-side down helps to reduce moisture loss, keeping your heirloom tomatoes plump and juicy until you’re ready to consume them.
Most important though: eat your heirloom tomatoes when they’re ripe. Trust me, they don’t get better with age. But, if you must, you can refrigerate a fully ripened heirloom tomato to buy yourself a few extra days. This will preserve it a few days longer, but both flavor and the consistency will decline, even in the refrigerator.
How do you cut heirloom tomatoes for a salad?
Believe it or not, there is definitely a right way to cut a tomato. Do it the wrong way and the seeds will detach from the flesh, leaving you with an inconsistent mess. Do it the right way and you’ll have gorgeous wedges and spectacular slices adorning your summer salads.
So, what’s the right way to cut an heirloom tomato?
If you’re looking for tomato slices:
- Use a serrated knife. Tomatoes have a tough skin a straight blade can bruise the tomato before the blade breaks the skin.
- Turn the tomato on its side so that the stem is facing out.
- Slice the tomato into evenly spaced slices.
If you want wedges for your summer salads:
- Again, use a serrated knife to cut through the tough skin of the tomato.
- Place the tomato stem side up and cut directly down the middle, slicing the tomato in half.
- Place each half with the cut side up and slice the tomato again down through the middle, cutting each half into quarters.
How Do You Eat Heirloom Tomatoes?
Now that you know what an heirloom tomato is, let’s talk about the best ways to capitalize on heirloom tomato season: how to eat heirloom tomatoes.
When you’ve snagged a truly gorgeous heirloom tomato, it’s hard to want to do anything but slice it and eat it – with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and a little sea salt of course. What better way to appreciate the quality of an heirloom tomato than with a simple heirloom tomato salad?
Simple Heirloom Tomato Salad
A simple heirloom tomato salad is exactly what it sounds like – heirloom tomato slices with just a touch of a really good extra virgin olive oil, a sprinkle of sea salt and some cracked pepper. If you want to add some extra flavor, consider a drizzle of balsamic vinegar and some fresh basil leaves.
Heirloom Tomato Caprese Salad
Unlike a traditional caprese salad, this plant-based version swaps out the cheese with creamy slices of fresh avocado. Add some sea salt, cracked pepper, balsamic reduction and extra virgin olive oil and you’ll never miss the dairy!
Peach & Heirloom Tomato Salad
As I am sure you’ve experienced, a trip to the farmer’s market for heirloom tomatoes often has a way of turning into a more… productive, shall we say?… experience. So, if you find yourself eyeing fresh peaches and a bunch of fragrant basil, don’t be afraid to combine them all into this outstanding summer salad.
Heirloom tomatoes make an incredible summer soup as well. Blend them with cucumber, Anaheim pepper and white beans for a taste of summer in a bowl.
Nothing beats thick slices of heirloom tomatoes on a sandwich, especially when accompanied with homemade sourdough, creamy vegan mayonnaise and the savory, salty sweetness of mushroom bacon.
Southerners got it right when they created the tomato pie. Usually made with cheese & heavy cream or mayonnaise, this plant-based version features my creamy cashew sauce and plenty of heirloom tomato slices!
About Herbivore’s Kitchen
Herbivore’s Kitchen is a plant-based food blog started by me, a vegan home chef, cookbook author, aspiring food photographer and how-to-be-a-better-food-blogger junkie. You’ll mostly find creative and tasty vegan recipes and detailed deep dives into vegan ingredients (check out my Vegucation section) on my blog.