Usually around the end of the summer, sometimes earlier, when the weather turns from hot to very hot, heirloom tomatoes start making an appearance at farmers markets, fancy grocery stores, and even on trendy restaurant menus. Many of us flock to this vibrantly colored and irregularly shaped variety, disregarding the outrageously high prices, but few of us actually know what separates these special tomatoes from the others.
What exactly makes an heirloom tomato an heirloom? To understand heirloom tomatoes, it’s worth talking about the standard tomatoes you typically find in the grocery store. These usually conform to just a few distinct varieties, and they have been developed by farmers and large agriculture companies for consistent shape, rapid growth, pest resistance, and a number of other factors that tend to value profit over flavor.
Heirloom tomatoes have a different origin. In simple terms, the word heirloom basically means “old.” Now we’re not talking old in the sense that these tomatoes are dry-aged like high-end steaks, but rather referring to their heritage seeds, which have been passed down by farmers year after year, sometimes even for generations. By saving and replanting heirloom seeds from past seasons, farmers are able to continue to grow and sustain their favorite and most delicious tomatoes.
Another fun fact about this seasonal crop is that they are open-pollinated, meaning that through naturall occurrences — wind, birds, insects, etc. — these tomato plants share their genetic diversity.
Since heirloom tomatoes aren’t manipulated like other species in their family, they grow in unique shapes, colors, and most importantly flavors. No two heirloom tomatoes will taste exactly the same — and that’s a good thing! Although these delicate gems might look funny, their individuality is what makes them so special. Our favorite way to enjoy this incredible summer crop is simply cutting them into thick slices, sprinkling them with salt, pepper, and a little good-quality olive oil, and serving them on top of a crusty baguette. For more complex tomato recipe inspo, check out these healthy summer side dishes.