Few vegetables epitomize summer like the tomato! Fresh red, ripe tomatoes adorning grilled burgers, or made into cool salads or a fresh spicy salsa are just a few seasonal favorite things to do with tomatoes. Of course, heirloom tomatoes are a particular favorite and are really special. Varying widely in size, shape, color and taste, heirloom tomatoes are quite different in appearance from common tomatoes. Most are fragile, with few seeds, and a thin skin. It is this thin skin, however, that gives the tomato a higher sugar content and excellent flavor.

Heirloom plants are the original open-pollinated varieties that have been in circulation for at least 50 years and can reproduce from seed. The exact characteristics of an heirloom is the topic of some debate, such as how old a cultivar must be to be branded a true heirloom. But all agree that an heirloom must be open-pollinated, which means that pollination has occurred via natural forces such as wind, birds or insects. In the past 40 years we have lost many of our heirloom varieties, along with the many smaller family farms that supported them. The multitude of heirlooms that had adapted to survive well for hundreds of years were lost or replaced by fewer hybrid tomatoes, bred for their commercially attractive characteristics such as keeping well during transport or resistance to cracking. Of course, the other characteristic that commercially-bred tomatoes have is a serious lack of flavor!

Heirloom tomatoes come in many sizes, assorted colors, and different flavors, which greatly adds to their appeal. Dishes that contain several types of heirlooms provide an interesting array for our senses, mixing the varied colors and tastes of the different types. Let me tell you a little bit about the varieties we have this year at Stearns, which include Striped German, Jubilee, Brandywine, Green Zebra and Black Prince. Striped German are the ones that are shaded yellow and red on the outside and have a marbled flesh inside that looks beautiful sliced! Jubilee is the very productive yellow heirloom variety. Brandywine is considered one of the best tasting tomatoes around, with a luscious flavor that has been described as “very rich and loud.” Green Zebra is the green striped salad tomato with a tangy flavor. It is ripe just as the green fruit develops a yellow blush, accentuating the darker green stripes. Black Prince is mahogany brown color, becoming a more orange-red at the blossom end. These tomatoes have a very distinctive, rich and fruity tomato flavor.

Don’t forget that tomatoes have great nutritional value. They are rich in vitamins C and A and provide folate, potassium and fiber. They also contain lycopene, which is thought to be protective against cancers and an inhibitor to heart disease. They are also cholesterol free and low in calories–a six ounce tomato is only about 26 calories.

Heirloom tomatoes are best enjoyed fresh, when their true flavor can be appreciated. They can be used in salads and sauces, as well as cooked into jams or purees. Keep them out of the fridge as they are best stored at room temperature. Be sure to experiment with all of our different heirlooms to see which ones you like best!