This post is from KS contributing writer Haley Stewart of Carrots for Michaelmas…
It wasn’t until we started growing our own veggies that I realized how amazing a fresh tomato can be. And it wasn’t until I started peeking over my husband’s shoulder when he flipped through seed catalogs (he’s the one with the green thumb) that I discovered that there are literally thousands of varieties. So much more than the handful of options you can find at the grocery store!
After falling in love with fresh tomatoes, I realized that there was a good reason I never enjoyed eating grocery store tomatoes raw. Picked before they are ripe and grown for a long shelf life rather than great taste, tomatoes from the grocery store often have inferior flavor and texture. I still can’t stomach the flavorless wedges on the side of most restaurant salads, but fresh tomatoes from the garden really can’t be beat!
But whether you’re picking out seedlings to grow in your garden or just perusing all the options at the farmer’s market, all the different types of tomatoes can be overwhelming. So, here’s a little tomato primer to help you navigate what colors and varieties are out there and how to cook with them:
So Many Different Tomato Varieties
Tomatoes Aren’t Just Red: A Guide to Colors and Flavors
- Red is the by far the most popular tomato color. Usually, they’re the most “balanced” between sweet, acidic, and tangy. Pink tomatoes often fit this flavor profile as well.
- Black/Purple tomatoes have some of the most complex flavors. Smoky, earthy, and sweet without a lot of tartness.
- Orange tomatoes are usually fruity, tangy, and very flavorful. We LOVE the perfectly named Sungold tomato. Bright color, bright flavor.
- Yellow and white tomatoes are the least acidic and are usually sweet and mild. We’ve grown Dixie Golden Giant which fit this flavor profile perfectly. The flavor was subtle but very interesting.
- Green tomatoes can vary widely in flavor but are often described as especially sweet. These aren’t to be confused with unripe tomatoes that southerners like us love to fry.
Different Types of Tomatoes and How to Use Them
- Slicers– your stereotypical tennis ball-sized tomato. Usually used for slicing for sandwiches or tossing into salads.
- Paste– Typically longer fruits with a higher amount of “solid” or “meat” inside. Great for making sauces, ketchup, tomato paste or any recipe that calls for the seeds to be discarded. Perfectly fine for eating raw, too.
- Beefsteak – Big, big tomatoes. Meaty inside and great for slicing and making tomato sandwiches. Smoother texture, sometimes almost velvety.
- Cherry – The smallest variety. They usually grow in clusters and are eaten raw. Often very sweet.
- Grape – Oblong fruits, usually larger than cherry tomatoes.
For the Gardeners Out There…
Indeterminate vs. Determinate Tomatoes
Determinate tomatoes grow to a shorter height and set their fruit all at once. Usually, these varieties are favored by large commercial growers because they don’t require staking and they can be picked all at once.
Indeterminate tomatoes will grow tall, so they need to be staked. They also produce for a much longer period so you get much more fruit from each plant. The majority of varieties sold in nurseries and seed catalogs are indeterminate.
Most gardeners prefer indeterminate because of the huge number of varieties and the greater production. However, indeterminate vines can get crazy and grow all over the place so some folks who just want a small plant for a container on the patio might like a determinate variety.
These are the basic categories but there is plenty of variation in size, shape, and other criteria. Some varieties are known for early production, heat tolerance, disease resistance, and the list goes on.
If you’re of the gardening persuasion, it’s probably wise to try several varieties because it can be difficult to predict how each will perform in a certain climate or even in a particular year. Lots of factors can mean huge changes in the harvest from year to year.
Here in the South, heat, heavy rainfall, mildew, and high humidity can make it difficult to get the bigger tomato varieties to ripen on the vine. We usually depend on smaller grape and cherry tomatoes since they ripen more quickly.
Hybrid vs. Heirloom Tomatoes
Heirloom tomatoes are varieties that have been passed down for several generations, are self-pollinators (they don’t need human intervention to reproduce), and whose seeds can be saved to produce similar fruit.
Hybrid seeds come from fruits that were intentionally cross-pollinated from two different plants. Their seeds won’t produce a fruit anything like the plant they came from. Hybrids will usually be marked with “F1.” Hybrid does NOT mean GMO.
Biologically speaking, not all tomato varieties will necessarily fit into those two categories. But most nurseries and seed catalogs will divide their plants and seeds along those lines.
Fun fact: the scientific name for tomatoes, Lycopersicum, means “wolf peach” and comes from German legends connecting nightshade (the botanical family of which tomatoes are a member) and werewolves.Print
- 3 c. cherry and grape tomatoes (preferably of different colors), halved
- 1 handful of mint, roughly chopped
- 1 splash of extra virgin
- 1 splash of red wine vinegar
- pepper, to taste and freshly crushed
- Mix all ingredients and serve on a hot summer day!
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Nutrition in Tomatoes
Tomatoes will give you the following nutritional benefits:
- Vitamin C (40% of recommended daily value in one tomato)
- Vitamin A (20% RDA)
- Vitamin K (over 15% RDA)
- Decent source (7% RDA) of fiber
- Potassium, niacin, vitamin B6, folate
- Lycopene (antioxidant)
All those nutrients can improve your health:
- Lots of cancer protection
- Protects against heart disease, stroke
- Colon and prostate health
- Improves LDL cholesterol
- Natural anti-inflammatory (helps with above diseases plus Alzheimer’s and osteoporosis)
- Bone health
- Reduces stress
- Can reduce frequency of migraines
- Helps regulate blood sugar in diabetics
Lycopene is the Tomato’s Secret Weapon
Lycopene is an antioxidant, which means it helps cells protect themselves from oxygen damage. You’ve heard the phrase “free radicals” thrown around, I’m guessing. They’re bad for you, inside and out, and lycopene is a great weapon against them. It has been shown in studies to protect against colorectal, prostate, breast, endometrial, lung, and pancreatic cancers, quite significantly in many cases. It also protects against heart disease.
In one study, 10 healthy women ate a diet containing two ounces of tomato puree each day for three weeks, either preceded by or followed by a tomato-free diet for three weeks. The researchers measured blood levels of lycopene and evaluated oxidative damage to cells before and after each phase. They found that cell damage dropped by 33% to 42% after consuming the tomato diet. (source)
Organic tomatoes (ketchup, etc) and darker red colors have more lycopene, sometimes as much as three times! You also need the rest of the tomato for the benefits: lycopene supplements don’t cut it.
Are Tomatoes Healthier Fresh or Canned?
In the summer, when you can get local produce, of course, eat fresh tomatoes if you enjoy them. However, tomatoes are one of those few foods that actually increase in nutrition after being cooked. Cooking breaks down cell walls, releasing and concentrating carotenoids (lycopene).
The tomatoes available in grocery stores are generally cultivated for toughness and even color, not flavor or nutrition. Most are picked green and treated with ethylene gas, which causes them to turn red without really ripening. You can put a store tomato in a sunny window upside down to ripen it up (but it might not be worth the $ for the lack of flavor!). Hydroponic tomatoes, because of the lack of soil, lack nutrients. They’re not worth your time. Canned tomatoes get one more leg up because they’re picked at peak ripeness and processed immediately, thus retaining more nutrients than produce-section toms. (from Nourishing Traditions)
God Builds a Complete Package when He Makes Food!
Eating the whole tomato increases absorption of lycopene, so if you can find canned tomatoes with peels (most aren’t) or make your own tomato sauce/paste/etc, you can increase the nutritive value even further. To make sure your body absorbs the lycopene best in whatever kind of tomato you’re eating, add a bit of fat. Carotenoids are fat-soluble, so they will get into your system better if they had some oil to ride upon.
There’s a reason God made tomato sauce go with olive oil in good Italian food!
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