Everything You Need To Know About Heirloom Tomatoes—Including What Makes Them So Special

They may not have come from Grandma's attic, but these tomato seeds are verifiable heirlooms.

We Southerners have a special kinship with heirloom tomatoes. They star in so many of our favorite seasonal dishes, from stunning tomato pies to humble tomato sandwiches. One of the many beautiful things about heirloom tomatoes is that you don't need to do much for them to taste great. A dash of salt, a crank of fresh pepper, and a drizzle of olive oil or vinegar will accentuate the rich, vibrant flavor of the tomato.

Heirloom tomatoes are undoubtedly the crown jewel of Southern summer produce. We wait all year to find these prized picks at our local farmers' market—the mere sight of the wicker baskets overflowing with plump, ridged tomatoes in an ombre of reds and yellows is enough to make our hearts beat faster. But what exactly makes these special tomatoes different from standard supermarket varieties? We're here to break down everything you need to know about heirloom tomatoes—from heirloom tomato varieties to our favorite recipes that highlight this seasonal star.

Heirloom Tomatoes
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What are Heirloom Tomatoes?

So what exactly makes an heirloom tomato different from the hybrid tomatoes you'll find year-round at the grocery store? To start, heirloom tomatoes are seasonal; they can be found at your local farmers' market from late summer into the early fall. But the real secret's in the name: Much like grandma's china collection, the seeds of these "heirloom" tomatoes are passed down from season to season through generations of farmers.

"They are direct descendants of the plants that produced the best fruit, meaning farmers had the ability to select for everything from juiciness and size to shape and color," writes Megan Overdeep for Southern Living. Heirloom tomato seeds will produce identical products to their parent plants, year after year. That's right: You'll want to save those seeds.

Another distinguishing factor between heirloom tomatoes and hybrid varieties is that heirlooms have not been cross-pollinated or hybridized. If you've ever picked out those plump, red supermarket tomatoes that look great but end up tasting watery, that's because most mass-market tomatoes have been genetically modified to prize look and consistency over flavor. Heirloom tomatoes, on the other hand, are open-pollinated, which means that these plants are pollinated naturally—no genetic modification here.

Standard hybrid tomatoes often have a thicker skin than heirloom tomatoes, which are known for their thin, tender skin and juicy flesh. Given their more delicate nature, heirloom tomatoes have a shorter shelf life than hybrids. You'll want to use your heirloom tomatoes within a couple days of purchasing.

Heirloom Tomato Varieties

One of the beauties of heirloom tomatoes is that each one is utterly unique—you'll be hard-pressed to find two heirloom tomatoes that look just alike. Heirloom tomatoes are known for their unique, ridged exteriors; there are myriad varieties of heirloom tomatoes, ranging in color from vibrant green to deep purple.

Here are a few of our favorite varieties you're likely to come across at the local farmers' market:

  • Azoychka. A yellow-orange beefsteak tomato with a robust, citrusy flavor.
  • Black Cherry. These smaller, bite-sized heirlooms boast a deep black-purple color and sweet flavor.
  • Black Krim. A hearty, beefsteak variety, these heirlooms pack plenty of nutrients into a purple-red package.
  • Brandywine. Popular for slicing, the Brandwine heirloom comes in a variety of colors.

Find more information on how to grow heirlooms here.

Heirloom Tomato Recipes

You'll pay a pretty penny for good heirloom tomatoes, so when preparing them, it's key to let the robust, complex flavors of the tomatoes shine. We love to use our most colorful tomatoes in Heirloom Tomato Pie, throw together an easy Heirloom Tomato Salad with Herbs, or toss them in Pasta with Marinated Tomatoes. Find more of our best tomato recipes for summertime here.

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