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Everything You Need to Know About Heirloom Tomatoes

Not all tomatoes are created equal
What Is an Heirloom Tomato?
Photo: Gomez David

Whether you're browsing the farmers' market or strolling through the produce aisle, you're likely to come across heirloom tomatoes. But what exactly makes a tomato heirloom, and why are they so much more expensive? The simple answer is they are a variety grown from seeds that have been passed down through generations (of farmers) and, some experts claim, taste better. Here's what you need to know.

What Is an Heirloom Tomato?

Unlike commercially grown tomatoes found at the supermarket, gardeners who grow heirloom tomatoes are using seeds that have been passed down for many years. According to tomato experts Craig LeHoullier and Carolyn Male, heirloom tomatoes can be broken down into four categories based on how they are grown: commercial, family, created and mystery. For example, created heirlooms are tomatoes crossed between two heirlooms, while family heirlooms come from seeds that have been kept within a family. Commercial heirlooms can be described as cultivars that were introduced many generations ago and mystery heirloom varieties are products that are created accidentally from natural cross-pollination.

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Heirloom tomatoes are also open-pollinated, meaning pollination occurs naturally through insects and the wind, rather than outside assistance. Hybrid tomatoes found in the grocery store are pollinated by hand.

Is It Better To Buy Heirloom Tomatoes?

Hybrid tomatoes are often crossbred to have particular characteristics, such as color, skin thickness and resistance to pests, and can be mass-produced, which is why they're less expensive. While you might end up with a perfectly shiny red tomato, it often lacks flavor, because they are often picked before they are ready and shipped across the country. There is no evidence to prove heirloom tomatoes are necessarily healthier than hybrids, but if taste is your number one priority, heirlooms are your best choice.

How Should I Store Heirloom Tomatoes?

Tomatoes of all kinds should never be stored in the fridge. Heirloom tomatoes won't last as long as hybrids and continue to ripen at room temperature, so make sure to use them right away.

Check out our favorite tomato recipes.

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