Tomatoes are the perfect addition to any garden! Fairly simple to grow, you can plant specific types to eat fresh all summer long or plan ahead and grow them for long term storage (canning tomatoes is really easy). Now a staple in my garden, I want to help make it super easy for you to decide which of the different varieties of tomatoes are best for your needs!
I was in my twenties before I realized I liked tomatoes. Using them in fresh salsa or homemade pasta sauce was one thing, but just grabbing a tomato and taking a bite? No way.
It wasn’t until we started growing our own vegetable garden 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!
Varieties of Tomatoes
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!
1. A Guide to Tomato Colors and Flavors
- Red tomatoes are 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.
2. Different Types of Tomatoes and How to Use Them
The type you buy is important – if you use tomatoes mostly for making sauce, you’ll be really bummed if you buy (or grow) a type meant for slicing!
- 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.
3. Extra Tips for the Gardeners Out There
Indeterminate vs. Determinate Tomato Plants
- 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 available and 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 garden on the patio might like a determinate variety.
These are the two 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.
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 tomato 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.
At some point every summer we have so many cherry tomatoes coming off our plants that I need to find unique ways to use them up! My family loves the cherry tomato and mint salad recipe I’m sharing with you below, it pairs beautifully with everything from dinner made on the grill to sandwiches if it’s too hot to cook.Print
A perfect side dish to any summer meal!
- 3 cups cherry or grape tomatoes (preferably of different colors), halved
- 1 handful of fresh herbs, roughly chopped
- 1 splash of extra virgin
- 1 splash of red wine vinegar
- pepper, to taste and freshly crushed
- Cut the garden-fresh tomatoes into halves (or quarters depending on your preference).
- Roughly chop your choice of fresh herbs and place into a medium-sized bowl with the tomatoes.
- Add the extra virgin olive oil and red wine vinegar to the bowl along with a few dashes of salt and pepper – season to taste!
- This salad can be served immediately but the flavor profile really comes to life after allowing to chill in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes.
You may use any of your favorite fresh herbs! Mint is one of my favorites and offers a light and refreshing flavor profile. Basil pairs beautifully with tomatoes and you can also use it in a mixture of oregano and/or thyme.
- Serving Size: 3/4 cup
- Calories: 86
- Sugar: 4 g
- Sodium: 298 mg
- Fat: 7 g
- Saturated Fat: 1 g
- Carbohydrates: 5 g
- Fiber: 1 g
- Protein: 1 g
- Cholesterol: 0 mg
Keywords: fresh, summer, produce
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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 the 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 (also known as free radicals). One of the great weapons to fighting those free radicals is lycopene! It has been shown in studies to protect against colorectal, prostate, breast, endometrial, lung, and pancreatic cancers as well as heart disease.1
Organic tomatoes (ketchup, etc) and darker red colors have more lycopene, sometimes as much as three times!
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 so using canned tomatoes is great.2 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.
God Builds a Complete Package when He Makes Food!
Eating the whole tomato increases the absorption of lycopene3, 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!
Want to Dig into Gardening?
I want you to imagine increasing your harvest with proven techniques that won’t consume your time.
I also want you to imagine decreasing disease and pests with time-honored crop rotation and companion planting.
Check out my dear friend Melissa’s Organic Gardening Workshop. Melissa is a 5th generation homesteader with 20 years of experience growing her own food. In fact, she raises more than half of her family’s fruits and vegetables with a day job and on only a half-acre.
She has got an amazing special going on to help you learn:
- how to naturally build healthy and organic soil at home with composting and/or cover crops
- vertical gardening to grow MORE in the same amount of space
- natural pest and disease treatment options that WORK
- how to easily work permaculture techniques into your property to take advantage of nature’s design for your food
- how to use cold frames in the spring and fall to increase your ability to grow food longer & extend your growing season (if not all year long)
- easy seed starting with vigorous seedlings that not only sprout but thrive when you plant them outdoors
- how to evaluate YOUR property and growing space to its best advantage so you don’t waste precious time, resources, and energy having to replant or move beds
- Megan Ware, R. D. N. (2017, September 25). Tomatoes: Benefits, facts, and research. Retrieved May 1, 2020, from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/273031#benefits
- Turning Up The Heat On Tomatoes Boosts Absorption Of Lycopene. (2008, August 22). Retrieved May 1, 2020, from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/08/080820163109.htm
- Magee, E. (n.d.). Health Properties of Tomatoes. Retrieved May 1, 2020, from https://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/features/health-properties-tomatoes#1