Every summer it's the same thing: piles of tomatoes at the market, and loads of dithering. At this year's annual Tomato Tasting Day at the Matthews Community Farmers Market, patrons sampled and voted on 30 different varieties. With that kind of assortment, how the heck are you supposed to know which one to buy?
I have yet to taste every kind out there, but I simplify my tomato selection with three criteria: type, use and flavor. Types include paste, cherry and globe, and tend to correlate with use. For example, cooks treasure the oblong paste tomatoes, such as Roma and San Marzano, for their meatiness and relatively fewer seeds. Not especially prized for fresh eating, their flavor comes out best when cooked down into thick sauces.
Cherry tomatoes and their mini cousins grape tomatoes, on the other hand, are the small bite-sized ones starring in Applebee's salads year-round. Forget those tasteless red cold bombs, though. Seasonally ripened cherries can pack as much flavor as any full-sized version. The amazing sweetness of the deep yellow Sungold variety has made it a local standout for salads and snacking.
Of course, it's the big round beefsteak tomatoes most of us dream of. Perfect for thick-sliced sandwiches or caprese salads with mozzarella and balsamic vinegar, these quintessential varieties are also referred to as slicers and globe tomatoes — although some of them aren't exactly round. Surely you've pondered at least one amoeba-like tomato that looked like an experiment gone awry.
Most likely you were examining an heirloom variety, the opposite of a hybrid. The latter are typically commercially bred for specific characteristics, which might include disease-resistance or texture over juiciness or taste. Seeds saved from these tomatoes will not grow the same fruit as the parent plant; they must be re-created through cross-pollination.
Heirlooms, on the other hand, came to us today precisely through seeds saved by individuals and passed down through the years. As Sammy Koenigsberg of Newtown Farms in Waxhaw explains, they had good enough qualities that someone thought they were worth keeping around.
Since his slicers swept the tomato tasting competition this year at the Matthews Market, Koenigsberg seemed an ideal authority on the appeal of heirlooms. Part of the answer is flavor. "These were not selected for good shipping qualities or good 'pick green in the field and gas 'em' qualities," he says. "If you didn’t taste real good you probably didn’t survive to be an heirloom." Besides flavor, he names color and size variations as attractive characteristics some growers sought to preserve.
So heirlooms don't necessarily have a lock on flavor. In fact, two of Newtown Farms' three winners were hybrid varieties: Parks Whopper and perennial favorite Early Girl. Everybody looks for something different, but you can consider a tomato's taste along a continuum of sweet to acid. Typically, yellow tomatoes carry more sweetness than red ones, but the best way to find your favorite is to try them yourself.
Short of a market tasting day, though, the next best approach to finding your perfect flavor is to ask. Once you know where you fall on that continuum, talk to the person standing behind the display of red, green, yellow and stripey tomatoes. Tell them what you like. Chances are, they'll turn you onto one of a hundred varieties you've never heard of.