The crown jewel in any summer garden, the tomato boasts a flavor that is both instantly recognizable and mysteriously indefinable. Each heirloom variety boasts a signature proportion of sweet, acidic and earthy flavors, as well as its own color, size, shape, and texture.

SEASONAL in Southern California

History

Cultivated since 700 A.D. in the coastal highlands of Mexico and Central and South America, tomato seeds were carried back to Europe in the 1500s and quickly spread throughout the continent. The “heirloom” distinction refers to seeds that have been in existence at least 50 years.

Nutrition

Tomatoes are an excellent source of vitamins A and C, and a good source of vitamin K and potassium. Heirloom tomatoes are particularly high in lycopene, a carotenoid that helps prevent cancer.

Storage

Heirloom tomatoes typically have a high juice content and a thin skin, making them delicious but also delicate. Avoid refrigeration; instead, store in a single layer at room temperature, out of direct sunlight, until ready to eat. Large varieties should be stored stem-down to minimize softening at the base; cherry tomatoes can be stored together in a basket.

Preparation

A perfectly ripe summer tomato needs nothing more than a sprinkle of salt to bring out its amazing flavors. They are also natural pairings with fresh or cooked salads, sandwiches, and dips such as hummus or guacamole.

Cooking

Fill a basic pie shell with a mix of your favorite roasted summer vegetables, then top with thick slices of heirloom tomato (or halved cherry tomatoes). Bake until crust is set and the edges of the tomatoes are charred. Serve room temperature or cold, with a sprinkle of fresh herbs, a drizzle of olive oil and a dusting of flaky salt.

Pro Tips

Since heirloom varieties tend to have a shorter shelf life, make sure to consume them within 5 days or less.

Brandywine Tomato

Perhaps the best known of all heirloom tomatoes, the first Brandywine seeds were sold in 1886. This large and heavy “beefsteak” variety is as sweet, juicy and seedy as a watermelon, and pairs perfectly with other summer staples such as fresh corn or zucchini. It’s also a natural in favorite dishes like salsa, bruschetta or Caprese salad.

Early Girl Tomato

A true showstopper, the Early Girl boasts brilliant color, smooth skin, and a firm texture perfect for slicing. Developed from a French varietal, it is often “dry-farmed” to amplify its concentrated sweetness. The Early Girl is a favorite of legendary chef Alice Waters, who uses them in a simple but sublime tomato soup at her famous Bay Area restaurant Chez Panisse.

Green Zebra Tomato

Bred in Washington State specifically as a “ready-to-eat” green tomato, the Green Zebra’s sweetness is balanced by an assertive tartness that adds extra zing to salsa, gazpacho, and tomato relish. Adventurous cooks can even try pickling or smoking this special heirloom variety. And yes, the Green Zebra is a perfect candidate for the iconic Southern dish, fried green tomatoes.

San Marzano Tomato

First grown in the volcanic soil below Italy’s Mount Vesuvius, San Marzano tomatoes are the gold standard for tomato sauce. They are also the only type of tomato used in authentic Neapolitan pizza. Their deep sweetness is paired with an unusually thick skin that can be peeled o by hand, making these tomatoes a perfect choice for canning.

Striped German Tomato

This Appalachian cultivar, a favorite of Mennonite communities, is not the most cosmetically perfect tomato, with its squatty irregular shape and lumpy surface. However, slicing reveals a beautifully marbled interior that looks gorgeous on the plate. Its complex flavor is best enjoyed fresh, sliced onto a sandwich or salad and paired with plenty of chopped herbs.

Sungold Tomato

Developed by Japanese seed breeders, this cherry tomato was introduced to Western audiences in 1992 as the “sweetest tomato ever.” With an appearance like little nuggets of sunshine, the Sungold’s sublime flavor is surprisingly delicate, with very little acidity. Roasting brings their explosive sweetness to a new level…that is, if you can hold back from eating the whole basket at once.

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