What is it about our love and obsession with tomato varieties? Seed catalogs respond by offering dozens and dozens of varieties to choose from. And plant developers are cultivating new and unusual strains every year to feed our desire to find the next great tomato. My method for choosing tomato varieties focuses on reliability, production, flavor and balance of tomato types.
Reliability and production is key on our homestead for nearly everything. It has to work with our climate and when it comes to tomatoes, that means they need to thrive in the relatively short summer months of the Pacific Northwest. If you live in a hotter climate, you should be looking for varieties that can withstand nearly intolerable heat.
Hybrids will generally beat out heirlooms when it comes to short ripening times and high yields, but that’s where my flavor criteria enters the decision-making process. I find heirlooms to generally have a richer, more intense flavor than hybrids. Americans like sweet things and seed developers have responded by offering many super-sweet hybrid tomatoes. You’ll find them listed with clever names like Might Sweet, Honey Delight, and Supersweet. I’m drawn to meaty, old varieties that offer a deeper and unique flavor profile.
Balance of tomato types is key to think through if you want to maximize how much fruit actually gets used on your homestead. The three general tomato types are sauce/paste, slicer and cherry. Sauce/paste tomatoes have lower water content and meaty fruit. They are ideal for canning because it takes less time to boil them down into a thick sauce, but those meaty walls ensure your sauce will have a strong, rich, tomato flavor. Slicer tomatoes are big guys with high water content, perfect for slicing onto a juicy burger. And cherry tomatoes are fabulous in gardens with children. They are often prolific and sweet, great for fresh eating and kids love stuffing their mouths full of them.
We do an obscene amount of canning, so 80-90% of our tomato plants are sauce/paste varieties. We usually grow a couple types of slicer tomatoes for fresh tomato salads, salsa and general eating. And we always grow one cherry tomato. As our family expands, we may need to increase that. But generally, one cherry tomato plant will produce a ton of fruit that is best for fresh eating. To keep things interesting, I generally try to rotate in a new-to-me variety as well to test it out.
Sauce/Paste: Hands down, over years of experimentation, nothing compares to San Marzanos. They make a rich, deliciously flavored sauce that we can as simple tomato sauce, marinara, tomato paste, ketchup and more. Other good sauce tomato is Cuore Di Bue. This oxheart-shaped tomato also has delicious flavor and I end up using it just as often in fresh dishes as I do cooked down into sauce.
Slicers: The list can go on and on here! I have so many favorites, so I try to rotate through them and include a new one each year for experimentation’s sake. Orange Oxheart is one of my favorites, reminding my of my days working on the Urban Farm where we grew so many of these. They are gorgeous to look at, have few seeds and can weigh almost a pound when ripe. I love them fresh, but they are pretty when made into Simply Canned Tomatoes with red varieties.
Pineapple is fun variety that produces massive fruits – probably the biggest slicer I’ve grown. The fruit is yellow with streaks of yellow and pink. It is juicy and full-flavored. It looks great in salad or thickly sliced on a burger.
Cherokee Purple is an old tried and true variety that has won the hearts of tomato lovers for decades. It’s easy to find as a the simple red variety as well, but I appreciate the dark, purple hint of this fruit. It’s flavor is fantastic anyway you slice it.
Brandywine is an heirloom that dates back to 1885 and has been consistently one of the most popular tomato varieties in America. It develops reddish-pink, huge fruits that can easily weigh over a pound a piece.
Cherry: My favorite cherry tomato variety is Sungold. Some describe it as having a fruity, tropical flavor, but I think of it like biting into sunshine. It pops with bright flavor and has been very productive on our homestead. Other favorites include Chocolate Cherry with a surprisingly complex flavor and the ever-prolific Yellow Pear with it’s unusual shape and insane amount of fruit.
Okay, now it’s your turn. I want to hear what varieties you can’t live without, which ones you’ve tried and haven’t been so impressed with, and which ones you are growing on your homestead this year. Tell me about it in the comments below!