The popularity of heirloom tomatoes is based around two characteristics – their stunning array of colors and the unique flavor profiles of each variety. The sheer number of heirloom varieties with unique flavors can be overwhelming however. Fortunately there are a few generalizations that can be made with regards to the relationship between flavor and color.
Taste Tests across the Country:
Many gardeners, chefs and seed companies have performed taste tests on the most popular heirloom tomatoes, resulting in a wide range of opinions. Because the flavor of heirloom tomatoes is so dependent on climate and growing conditions, the most reliable taste tests are those that were trialed as close to your home and garden as possible. We do taste tests at HeathGlen Farm in Minnesota every year, both at the farm and at the farmers’ market in St. Paul. The list of flavor profiles below are based on our farm’s taste tests. Some notable taste tests that I have reviewed around the country include:
- New York Greenmarket
- Louisiana State UAg Center
- Mother Earth News
- Santa Clara County Master Gardener’s Guide
Six Keys to Selecting Heirloom Tomatoes for their Flavor:
- Flavor profiles are based on the most fully flavored fresh-eating tomatoes, not on which heirloom tomatoes are best to cook with.
- When a review notes that the tomato has a “classic” or “old-fashioned flavor”, it is referring to a balance of acid and sugar in the tomato, getting as close to 50/50 as possible;
- An important characteristic that plays into a tomato’s flavor is texture (aka “mouthfeel”). Generally, if a tomato is said to be mealy, the texture is enough to detract from the flavor
- The flavor profiles based on heirloom tomato color are generalizations only. For example, pale yellow tomatoes tend to be mild and low-acid. Limmony, however is a yellow tomato that has a very strong acid background, giving it a robust “lemon-like” flavor.
- I have not included cherry tomatoes or plum & paste tomatoes, as they cannot be as easily grouped into color-taste profiles. In general the cherry tomatoes are sweet, the paste tomatoes are meaty and higher acid, and the plum tomatoes are juicy and mild. I will put together a separate post on the pros and cons of various cherry and paste tomatoes later this season.
- Finally, flavor profiles of each variety are not only subjective to an individual’s taste buds, but are highly variable depending on growing conditions (heat, water, type & rate of fertilizer, number of growing days, etc.)
The Big Pink Heirloom Tomatoes:
The large pink tomatoes offer up what most of us think of as a classic tomato flavor — a balance of acid and sweetness. The most well-known (not necessarily the best tasting) of the pink heirloom tomatoes is the Brandywine. It has become the standard-bearer for the pinks, as it is a good size for slicing and typically has that bursting blast of tomato flavor most people want in a tomato.
- Brandywine — a sweet tomato, offset by a notable acidity that achieves a balanced rich, succulent, old-fashioned home-grown tomato taste. Depending on growing conditions, it can also be low-sugar, low-acid and fairly bland.
- Mortgage Lifter — known for its mild sweet flavor and meaty texture, this pink-fleshed beefsteak can tip the scale at two pounds.
- Caspian Pink — similar flavor profile to Brandywine, and frequently beats Brandywine in taste tests. Pro is that it is earlier than Brandywine
- Prudens Purple — another early Brandywine type. Considered sweet, juicy and meaty; doing well in short-season areas
- Cherokee Purple — sometimes included in the “black” category, Cherokee Purple has a complex flavor with an initial smokiness followed by a slightly sweet aftertaste. Often compared to a zinfandel wine.
The Black (or Purple) Heirloom Tomatoes
While often referred to as “black” heirloom tomatoes, most of these varieties are more of a maroon or purple-brown color. Black tomatoes tend to have an earthy, almost smoky sweetness to them, with a bit less acid than red tomatoes. The flavor profile is often referred to as “smoky, complex and wine-like”.
- Paul Robeson — of fairly recent popularity, Paul Robeson is getting good marks all around the country for its “smoky,” “complex” distinctive flavor.
- Purple Calabash — often compared to red wines such as Cabernet. The taste is rich and full of old-fashioned tomato flavor with just the right blend of sweetness and acidity. The flesh is smooth and meaty with evenly distributed seeds.
- Japanese Black Trifele — a pear shaped variety. Flavor is deep, chocolatey, smoky, and rich.
- Carbon — among the darkest of the black tomatoes. Exceptionally rich and sweet flavor. My favorite black.
- Black Krim — intense, slightly salty taste.
- Black from Tula — perceived by many as the “best-tasting black”, with thin skin and a sweet, complex flavor.
- Vorlon — cross between Prudens Purple and Cherokee Purple resulting in meaty, rich, sweet taste. Lynne Rosetto Kasper’s favorite black in 2011.
- Purple Russian — the best black tomato in a plum variety. Meaty, sweet and excellent for salads and sauces.
The Red Heirloom Tomatoes:
Bright red heirlooms are often mistaken as hybrid tomatoes at market, as they look very similar. Red heirlooms however, are more varied in their flavor profiles than hybrids, tending toward the robust, higher acid flavors. The reds and the pinks are often what people are thinking of when they ask for that “old-fashioned flavor”. Red heirlooms also tend to have thinner skin than hybrids, making them less amenable to shipping.
- Costoluto — “old-fashioned tomato flavor”; performs well when skinned and used in slow simmered sauces. The flesh is meaty with an abundance of juice and tart tomato flavor.
- Druzba — smooth, juicy fruits with robust sweet-tart flavor; meaty and great for canning.
- Legend — Introduced at Oregon State University as highly disease resistant variety. Nice blend of sugar and acid.
- Aussie — big, impressive beefsteak variety. Old fashioned, big robust tomato taste.
- Stupice — best flavor I can find in an early tomato (early tomatoes tend to lack flavor); small
- Thessaloniki — prolific crack-free heirloom with a meaty, classic flavor; sometimes considered “earthy flavor”
- Carmello — considered by the French to have the “perfect acid-sugar balance” . Productive, with juicy texture. Dona is a smaller version of Carmello.
The Striped Heirloom Tomatoes:
Striped heirlooms (sometimes called marbled), are beautiful and they tend to have a rich, juicy, super-sweet flavor that is low in acid.
Striped German — almost candy-like flavor. Sometimes a soft tomato. Beautiful.
- Big Rainbow – considered one of the prettiest and most unique heirloom tomatoes. This meaty beefsteak tomato is known for its sweet and flavorful taste. The golden orange color with artful swirls of red and yellow are seen throughout the tomato
- Gold Medal – popular for its appealing sweet taste and marbled beauty, originating from the Black Forest region of Germany.
- Flavor Profile: rich, juicy, super sweet flavor that is low in acid.
- Pineapple- Orange and red on the outside, and yellow with blushes of red on the inside. Very sweet, low acidity and nice flavor.
The Orange Heirloom Tomatoes:
Orange tomatoes (not yellow), are mild, sweet, and are low-acid. They are the varieties that will most remind you that tomatoes are, botanically speaking, fruits.
- Persimmon — One of the best flavors of all the orange tomatoes. Meaty with few seeds. Creamy meaty, texture. .
- Juane Flamme — small (large plum size), sweet and low-acid, bursting with juice. Almost a tropical flavor. My favorite small orange.
- Kellogg’s Breakfast — vibrant sweet taste, meaty with few seeds.
The Green Heirloom Tomatoes:
The commonality of green tomatoes is a bright acidity, but the degree of sweetness tends to vary quite a bit.
- Aunt Ruby’s Green — bright with acidity, but well-balanced with sugar. Incredible juiciness.
- Green Zebra — tangy and zingy are adjectives often attached to Green Zebra. Very popular for taste and eye appeal.
The Yellow (or White) Tomatoes:
White tomatoes aren’t really white. They’re more of a pale yellow. Yellow and white tomatoes are noticeably less acidic than red tomatoes. Some consider them the sweetest tomatoes and some consider them the blandest tomatoes. The common factor is low-acidity.
Great White- yellow on the outside, and pale yellow on the inside. A very mild flavor with low acidity, and a hint of sweetness.
- Limmony — a yellow beefsteak with a strong, zesty, sweet citrusy flavor. It is also sometimes spelled Lemony.