A Beginner’s Guide to Heirloom Tomatoes

August 19, 2016

Green Zebras, Brandywines, Cherokee Purples, and Striped Caverns are just a few of the heirloom tomato varieties you'll find at farmers' markets. Photos: Katie Kosaya

Summer means something different to everyone—the salty ocean breeze, sand in your toes, sticky heat on the back of your neck, cool nights marked by the sound of cicadas. For those of us who mark the seasons with food, summer usually means an abundance of corn, zucchini, and tomatoes, in particular heirlooms—those grown from seeds that haven’t been hybridized for commercial qualities like shelf life, color, and uniform appearance.

According to Amy Goldman, author of The Heirloom Tomato: From Garden to Table, there are close to 6,000 varieties of cultivated tomatoes. Their names sound like something from an old storybook—Cherokee Purples, Green Giants, Brandywines, Great Whites, German Pinks, Banana Legs, Paul Robesons, and Green Zebras.

Heirlooms not only have funny names, they can be kind of funny looking, too. In fact, they’re quirky in many ways, from color—red, orange, green, purple, yellow, black, striped; to texture—smooth, ridged, wavy, dented, lumpy; and shape—oval, round, egg, plum. But what they lack in looks they make up for in big, bold flavors—sweet, juicy, acidic, smoky, and zingy—making them ideal for eating on their own like an apple, or sprinkled with some coarse sea salt and a drizzle of green olive oil. All good.

“It’s been a great year so far for heirloom tomatoes,” says Bill Telepan, the chef and longtime farm-to-table Greenmarket advocate whose beloved eponymous Upper West Side restaurant recently closed. “I don’t know whether it’s the heat or the drier summer, but the ones I have tasted so far have been terrific.”

For his restaurant and his home kitchen, Telepan favors those from heirloom tomato rock star Tim Stark of Eckerton Hill Farm, one of the most prolific and well-known heirloom tomato farmers at New York City’s Union Square Greenmarket. Stark has been growing over 100 varieties (both heirloom and hybrid) since the mid-90s. “I still remember my first chef job at Ansonia and getting a call from a friend telling me I had to go to the market and check out Tim’s tomatoes,” said Telepan. “They were amazing. And still are.”

With summer tomato season at its peak, use our guide to choose, eat, and enjoy heirlooms until the dog days are behind us. For a handy printable cheat sheet, download our Heirloom Tomato Guide pdf.

While heirlooms generally refer to a category of tomatoes whose seeds are passed down through several generations of a family, tomato experts have classified them into four categories:

Commercial Heirlooms: Open-pollinated varieties introduced before 1940, or tomato varieties more than 50 years in circulation.

Family Heirlooms: Seeds that have been passed down for several generations through a family.

Created Heirlooms: Crossing two known parents (either two heirlooms or an heirloom and a hybrid) and dehybridizing the resulting seeds for however many years or generations it takes to eliminate the undesirable characteristics and stabilize the desired characteristics; perhaps as many as eight years or more.

Mystery Heirlooms: Varieties that are a product of natural cross-pollination of other heirloom varieties.

While farmers’ markets used to be the main place to find heirloom tomatoes, they are now wildly popular and sold at most grocery stores, including Fairway, Safeway, Whole Foods, and Trader Joes.

Keep in mind that heirlooms are more fragile than ordinary tomatoes; their skin is very thin, so handle with care. No squeezing! Give them a once-over and make sure the skin is not broken—cracks are okay, but avoid those seeping juice. Telepan says he feels them by weight. “If a tomato feels heavy that means it’s going to be juicy.” Also, better to get a tomato that’s a bit underripe than one that’s overly ripe and might spoil before you can use it.

To keep your tomatoes in peak condition, Telepan has one strict rule: never put them in the fridge. “It’s a golden rule. They get kind of spongy and Styrofoam-y when they get cold.”

Heirloom tomatoes are delicious and best eaten raw; most are not suitable to cooking. Slice them thick for a BLT, or a simple Julia Child special—tomato and mayo between bread. Their color palate makes them ideal for a striking summer salad, with olive oil, sea salt, and torn basil. Telepan says he takes heirloom cherry tomatoes and marinates them in red wine vinegar and garlic and tosses the mixture over a penne with pesto. He says they are also great tossed in spaghetti, with sautéed garlic, basil and pecorino.

Common Heirloom Varieties
When you’re browsing the farmers’ market, the sheer number of heirlooms can be a bit intimidating. Here are some of the most common (and delicious) ones you’re likely to find.

White Tomesol
These are alabaster tomatoes; super sweet and juicy.
White Tomesol Tomato


Cherokee Purple
Sometimes included in the “black” category—a tomato with a deep purple or black skin—this variety is known for its complex flavor: sweet and a bit smoky.
Cherokee Purple Tomato


Green Zebra
These bright green tomatoes are sometimes striped with yellow and have a signature super-popular zippy tang of acidity.
Green Zebra Tomato


These are large heavy tomatoes with a nice balance between sweetness and acidity.
Brandywine Tomatoes


Black Brandywine
These beefsteak-style tomatoes, blackish to purplish in color, are among the most popular heirlooms. They’re extra large and juicy, with an earthy, sweet flavor that makes them ideal for just about anything from sandwiches to salads.
Black Brandywine Tomato


Mortgage Lifter
Known for its mild sweet flavor and meaty texture, this pink-fleshed beefsteak can tip the scale at two pounds. Telepan explained the name this way: “The story goes that these tomatoes were such a great variety that the guy who started selling them paid off his mortgage,” he said. “They are really good.”
Mortgage Lifter Tomatoes


Amish Paste
This is a good cooking tomato. Telepan says it would give a San Marzano a run for its money.
Amish Paste Tomato


Striped Cavern
Shaped more like a pepper than a tomato, these heirlooms are beautiful with bright cherry red skins and sunny yellow stripes. Like peppers, they actually have large open cavities and are terrific stuffed and baked.
Striped Cavern Tomato


Andrea Strong’s writing chronicles the world of food—from farm to fork, and all the stops along the way. Her work has appeared in The New York TimesNew York Magazine, and a host of other publications, including The Strong Buzz, her blog devoted to New York City’s food scene. She lives in Queens with her husband, her two kids, and her big appetite.

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