What To Consider When Buying Heirloom Tomatoes

Tomato season is upon us, and what better way to celebrate than by stocking up on some heirlooms? Available in a kaleidoscope of colors, shapes, and flavors, these tomatoes are highly esteemed for their aesthetic value and their vibrant taste. While a higher-than-usual price point is typical of heirlooms, this doesn't always equate to quality, which is why you should consider a few things before buying.

According to MasterClass, 15,000 types of heirloom tomato varieties exist worldwide. Whether you're enamored by the chartreuse-hued Aunt Ruby's German Green, intrigued by the smoky and salty Black Krim, or a devoted fan of the teardrop-shaped Yellow Pear, there's bound to be a variety that'll catch your attention. But what exactly makes heirlooms different from other tomatoes? 

The answer lies in the seeds. By saving the seeds of the most desirable tomatoes, Allrecipes notes that farmers have been able to cultivate heirloom varieties for generations. Unlike hybrid varieties, these "purebred" tomatoes haven't been cross-bred for favorable traits; rather, farmers save the seeds of the best 'maters each year to plant next season. Since there is a focus on flavor rather than durability, shopping for these fruits can be a bit tricky.

Look, but don't touch

The first thing to consider when buying heirloom tomatoes is appearance. When it comes to heirlooms, the more unique, the better. Selecting a variety of differently shaped and intensely hued fruits is wise if you want to experience a range of textures and flavors. But how do you know that the tomatoes you're selecting are actually tasty?

Putting your trust in your local farmers' market vendor is one of the smartest things you can do, notes America's Test Kitchen. Not only will the selection be fresher and handled with care, there's likely a backstory surrounding the crop, too. While giving tomatoes a sniff for sweet and fragrant aromas can also be wise, you should touch tomatoes sparingly. Given that heirlooms tend to have thinner skins, Oh My Veggies recommends inspecting skins and avoiding tomatoes with splits, oozing juices, or heavy bruising.

Contrary to the idea that refrigeration could reduce flavor and damage texture, Cook's Illustrated actually recommends refrigerating whole tomatoes (heirloom or otherwise) to extend shelf life by 5 days. However, if you're going to be making an heirloom-inspired panzanella in the near future and feel that your beautiful beefsteaks deserve to be on display, keeping them on the countertop definitely works.