What Are Heirloom Tomatoes?

The secret is in the seeds. 

By now, you've probably heard the hype around heirloom tomatoes. These delightfully eccentric tomatoes are popping up at farmer's markets everywhere, but you're less likely to find them at the supermarket. Ever wondered the reason for this? And are they actually better than other tomatoes? We'll leave you to decide that. Here's everything you need to know about heirloom tomatoes.

Hybrid vs. Heirloom Tomatoes

To understand what makes heirloom tomatoes so distinct from what you can find at the grocery store, let's first go over a little plant breeding 101:

What Are Hybrid Tomatoes?

Hybrid tomatoes are the product of intentional cross-breeding — not to be confused with naturally occurring cross-pollination (the process in which two sexually compatible plants happen to cross when the pollen is carried by wind, water, etc., and fertilizes another member of the same plant species).

Cross-breeding, or cross-hybridization, occurs when plant breeders intentionally cross-pollinate two or more varieties of a plant to produce an offspring with the best traits of each parent. This process has been used for centuries, and it's how we get hybrid tomatoes, which make up the bulk of the tomatoes you'll find at the supermarket. Cross-breeding can create tomatoes that are more resistant to disease, have longer shelf-lives, better yields, bigger size, and more.

Hybrids are not to be confused with genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which involve greater precision and human intervention. According to Purdue University, GMOs are created by taking a single gene (or a set of genes), and inserting it into the DNA of a single cell of an organism. As the cell divides, that gene will be in every cell (though the majority of the organism's genetic code remains the same).

heirloom tomatoes on plate with water droplets on top
Greg Dupree/Meredith

So, What Are Heirloom Tomatoes Then?

According to Farmer's Almanac, heirloom plants come from saved seeds that have been handed down for generations, hence the name "heirloom." Or they may have been developed during the early years of commercial breeding (at least 50 years ago), and passed down. Farmers save the seeds from the best fruits, and use them to grow more. This means that heirloom varieties are nearly identical to their ancestors, which can date as far back as 100+ years.

To put it another way: Heirlooms are like the purebred dogs of the plant world, while hybrids are going to be your labradoodles, goldendoodles, and cockapoos.

Heirloom plants must be fertilized through a process known as open-pollination, in which pollen is carried by bees, other insects, birds, wind, water, or other means in order to self- or cross-pollinate. There is no human intervention in this process, and ensures that the seeds will produce seedlings with most of the characteristics of their parent plant.

But just because a plant is a product of open-pollination, that doesn't necessarily mean it's an heirloom. In other words, all heirlooms are open-pollinated, but not all open-pollinated plants are heirlooms.

What Makes Heirloom Tomatoes Different?

There's a reason heirloom tomatoes have a growing fan base. To put it simply, most people think they taste better. They were bred for local consumption, with farmers preserving the seeds that tasted the best, so it only makes sense that flavor is the number one priority when it comes to heirloom tomatoes.

But hybrid tomatoes were developed for a reason. They are generally more disease resistant, produce larger crops, longer-lasting, and are more durable for transport. However, for the home gardener, these factors might not carry as much weight.

Plant breeders are beginning to develop hybrid varieties of favorite heirloom varieties, such as the Brandy Boy Hybrid, an improved version of the classic Brandywine heirloom tomato. It has the flavor and gorgeous color of its heirloom counterpart, but with a more reliable crop that will ripen more evenly.

Heirloom Tomato Varieties

Heirloom tomatoes can be green, pale yellow, bright orange, deep red, purple, or even chocolate brown. They can vary in size and shape — some are small and smooth, while others are large, lumpy, and lopsided.

There are literally thousands of varieties of heirloom tomatoes, so this list is by no means comprehensive. These are the top 10 most popular heirloom tomato varieties according to a survey from TomatoFest:

heirloom tomato varieties on blue background
Allrecipes Illustration
  • Amana Orange: Named for the Amana Colonies in Iowa, these are light orange beefsteak tomatoes with a sweet, tropical flavor. They can grow to up to two pounds in size.
  • Azoychka: This is a Russian heirloom that produces an abundant crop of smooth, yellowish-orange tomatoes. Their flavor is described as sweet, fruity, and citrusy.
  • Sunset's Red Horizon: Native to southern Russia, these are red beefsteak tomatoes with a strong tomato flavor and a meaty flesh.
  • Black Krim: Named for the Crimean Peninsula of Ukraine, this heirloom beefsteak variety has a dark red hue with a salty taste.
  • Brandywine Sudduth: Brandywines are one of the most iconic heirloom varieties, and the Sudduth strain (name for Mrs. Sudduth of Tennessee, who kept these seeds in her family for 80+ years before she gave them to a tomato gardener), produces a large plant with a pinkish-red color. It is believed to be the original Brandywine strain.
  • Brandywine OTV: This strain of Brandywine has a vibrant red hue, and is an accidental cross between a Yellow Brandywine and an unknown male parent.
  • Chocolate Stripes: These deep mahogany tomatoes have an olive green striping. Its flavor is described as earthy, rich, and complex.
  • Black Cherry: These are mahogany-colored cherry tomatoes, that, similar to Chocolate Stripes, produce a rich, complex flavor.
  • Cherokee Chocolate: This is a stabilized version of another popular variety: Cherokee Purple. It has a sweet, rich flavor to match its chocolatey color.
  • Blondkopfchen: Hailing from eastern Germany, this yellow cherry tomato means "little blonde girl," in German. This is a disease-resistant variety that will grow well in many climates.

Ways to Use Heirloom Tomatoes

heirloom tomatoes on plate with cheese and basil
Heirloom Tomato Salad. Kim

We've established that heirloom tomatoes have incredible flavor, and they're just as visually stunning as they are delicious. For this reason, putting them on display in fresh form is best. Try them in salads like this Heirloom Tomato Salad with Rosemary or this Heirloom Tomato Salad with Mozzarella and Basil. Or use them in place of regular tomatoes in tomato pie or burrata salad. They shine in a BLT, or can be enjoyed simply sliced with a sprinkle of salt and pepper. Or best of all, bake them simply with a little olive oil, rosemary, and garlic, like in this Baked Tomato Slices recipe.


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