What are Heirloom Tomatoes (and why are they so expensive)?

When working at the Farmer’s Market I am often asked “What are heirloom tomatoes?”  My first response is always “Delicious”.

See, before trying heirloom tomatoes I never liked tomatoes.  Sure, I liked ketchup and spaghetti sauce, but put a tomato on my burger and I would immediately take it off.  Tomatoes as the ‘sauce’ on a pizza, absolutely not.  That is, until I had an heirloom tomato.

I was working at a restaurant at the time and I remember the chef getting in these cases of tomatoes in all different shapes and colors and me – in all my naivety- asking, “What are those?”  He described them to me and cut one up for me to try.  I was amazed at the flavor and at the fact that I actually like it (coincidently enough these tomatoes happened to come from the family farm where I now work and married into; and were most likely picked by my now husband – years before we actually met).

So what are heirloom tomatoes?  The American Heritage dictionary refers to an heirloom as “3. Botany A cultivar of a vegetable or fruit that is open-pollinated and is not grown widely for commercial purposes. An heirloom often exhibits a distinctive characteristic such as superior flavor or unusual coloration.”

To put it simply – heirloom tomatoes are tomatoes with more flavor and color and most heirloom varieties have been unchanged for more than 50 years.

Why do they have more flavor?  First, they are most often allowed to ripen on the vine unlike supermarket tomatoes that are picked green to ease picking, shipping, and storing mass quantities.  Also heirloom seeds have not been altered to increase production, ease transportation, and resist disease as most supermarket varieties have. This alteration is what leads to loss of flavor (and nutritional value).

Why are they more expensive?  Heirloom tomatoes have a thin skin and thus are more delicate and require more care when picking and storing. For this reason they are also picked by hand, which is more expensive than when machine picked.  The plants also produce much less fruit than other tomato plants – some  plants may have only a few pieces of fruit on them where as traditional plants yield much more.  The varieties can also be tricky – a variety that will do well one year may not produce at all the next.  Also, heirloom tomatoes ripen very slow and are  therefore more susceptible to being damaged due to weather conditions and insects.

Yes, you will have to pay more for a pound of heirloom tomatoes than a pound of romas or beefsteaks, but in the end every cent spent is definitely worth it.

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