What’s the Deal with Heirloom Tomatoes?

If you ask, "What are heirloom tomatoes?" you're not alone! Here's your guide to all things heirloom.

Misshapen and sporting wild, vibrant colors are the hallmark of heirloom tomatoes. This category of tomatoes varies widely. Some are much lower in acid, others have different flavors. But what makes them so special?

What Are Heirloom Tomatoes?

Heirloom tomatoes are simply varieties that have been passed down between gardeners, true from seed, making them easy to share. It’s confusing because there’s not just one type. Many different varieties qualify as heirloom tomatoes because “heirloom” refers to the way the seeds have been preserved and sustained, not the particular varieties of seeds themselves. There’s not even just one flavor or shape within each variety,

Benefits of Heirloom Tomatoes

As with all tomatoes, these heirloom tomatoes are high in antioxidants, Vitamins A and D, and potassium, while low in sugar. A perfect reason to make more heirloom tomato recipes.

Heirloom Tomato Varieties

There are hundreds of heirloom tomato varieties out there, but these are more common.

Brandywine Tomato

Possibly the most popular variety of heirloom tomato, the Brandywine has an intense flavor and is comparable in size to a beefsteak tomato. They’re juicy, meaty and flavorful and not highly acidic, making them ideal for just eating fresh or in an heirloom tomato salad. Try Brandywines in sandwiches (talk about the perfect BLT). These tomatoes pair beautifully with dairy, so sliced and served with cheese or a spoonful of cottage cheese, they’re just the thing. Brandywines are in season all throughout the summer months.

Galina Tomato

One of the earliest known heirloom tomato varieties, these golden-yellow beauties have their roots in Siberia, so they’re hardy and tolerant of cooler climates. Look for these from summer well into fall—some plants even keep producing fruit until the first frosts. Galinas look like large, yellow cherry tomatoes, and while they’re not as sweet as modern hybrids, the payoff is the full tomato flavor. Looking for something deep yet sharp? These are for you. They’d taste magnificent on a tomato galette.

Gold Rush Currant Tomato

These adorable heirloom tomatoes are tiny—just about 1/2 inch in size—making them a great addition to salads, or as a garnish. But their diminutive size makes the explosion of flavor all the more surprising and delightful. With their juicy tart-sweet flavor and tender texture, they might just be best eaten plain, as a healthy snack!

Black Cherry Tomato

These dark little tomatoes look like you guessed it, black cherries. They’re ideal for eating fresh, either on their own or combined with other summer fruits and vegetables in a salad. However, they do very well roasted or grilled—and their perfectly round shape and dramatic color mean they make an amazing addition to a shish-kabob. They can also easily replace traditional tomatoes in salsa recipes, their sweet and smoky notes going particularly well with chipotle flavors. Look for these visually striking tomatoes from late summer into fall.

Lucky Cross Tomato

Juicy, and almost fruity in flavors, these multi-ribbed tomatoes are the perfect swirl of red and yellow. Other bi-colored tomatoes show their colors in distinct stripes or ribs—the Lucky Cross shows off a swirled, ombre effect that makes it appear to be blushing. The World Tomato Society classifies this heirloom tomato variety as a “slicer,” meaning that it’s perfect for just slicing and eating plain, and it would be hard to argue… all the better to show off the colors! Brighten up a classic fish taco with these colorful heirloom tomatoes.

Beam’s Yellow Pear Tomato

Bright yellow, flavorful, and obviously pear-shaped, these tender and juicy heirloom tomatoes are a medium-sized cherry tomato, running around 1-1/2 inches in length. The distinctive shape and bright color make them a great salad tomato, but they also work well in sauces and canning due to their strong tomato flavor. The plants produce fruit from mid-summer all the way until the frost, so look for them later in the season.

Golden Jubilee Tomato

Low in acid, mild in flavor, yet thick and meaty in size, the Golden Jubilee slices and dices up easily thanks to a thick-walled interior. So of course they’re perfect for any recipe that calls for nice chunks of tomato, from bruschetta to chopped salads, fresh pastas and more. Due to their low acidity, Golen Jubilee heirloom tomatoes are also a great choice for sauces and tomato juice.

Goldie Tomato

Similar in size to a classic beefsteak, these are often bi-lobed, but in a bright orange hue. Their standout characteristic is their sweetness, though; this is another heirloom tomato variety that is prized as a slicing tomato, to be sliced or diced and eaten fresh. Pick them up for a rich and velvety flavor.

Costoluto Genovese Tomato

These deeply ribbed and flat tomatoes are intensely flavorful and deep red. This is an all-around performer—good both raw and cooked, perfect for sauces and particularly well-suited for canning and preserving. When pairing this tomato, think all things Italian: olive oil, garlic, Parmesan, and classic Italian herbs like basil, parsley and oregano. The flavor of Costoluto Genovese is perfect for heirloom tomato soup. The plants grow early in the growing season, but produce fully ripe fruit in mid-summer through the fall.

Green Zebra Tomato

These bright green tomatoes really pop and have a sweet yet slightly sharp flavor when ripe. No surprise that they get their name from the distinctive outer stripes—those stripes will fade from pale green to yellow as they ripen. Young tomatoes are quite tart and are a great candidate for breading and frying, sauteeing or slow roasting—even when mature, Green Zebras will keep a pleasant tartness, making the variety a good choice for pickling and canning. You’ll see these tomatoes in farmers markets starting in late spring.

Where Can I Find Heirloom Tomatoes?

Heirloom tomatoes are typically grown by smaller farmers or at home instead of large producers since they take more specialized attention and are passed down from the seed. While some grocery stores may carry the more popular heirloom tomato varieties, your best bet to discover more unique flavors is to head to your local farmers market.

However you decide to use them, whether it’s in a sauce, on a pizza, or tossed into a salad, they’re all perfectly delicious!

Our Favorite Heirloom Tomato Recipes
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Jacqueline Weiss
Jacqueline is a blogger and writer, passionate about sharing the latest in helpful tips and trends in food and cooking. In her spare time, you’ll find her trying new restaurants and experimenting in the kitchen.
Hazel Wheaton
Hazel is a writer and editor who has worked in the publishing industry for over 25 years in the fields of travel, jewelry arts and food. As the editor of the Taste of Home Christmas Annual (among other titles), she's in the holiday spirit all year round. An enthusiastic baker, she's known for her cookies, cakes and other baked goods. And she still wishes she could cook like her mother.