Tomato season is a glorious time of year. Farm stands are filled with technicolor fruits of all shapes and sizes, ready and waiting to make our tomato toast/sandwich/salad/sauce dreams come true. It’s a thrill to have so much choice and diversity at your fingertips, and seemingly endless tomato possibilities, but it can also get a little overwhelming.
If you’ve ever felt confused by all the tomato options at a farmers market, you are not alone. You might be wondering which types to use for what purpose, and how to pick a good one. You might see that different farms have different names on their signs for tomatoes you thought were the same. And what’s the deal with heirlooms?
If any of the above feels familiar: I’ve got you. Here’s everything you need to know (and then some) to enjoy the season with full confidence.
When Are Tomatoes in Season?
Tomatoes might start making appearances at your farmers market in early June, but midsummer is when they hit their peak. July and August are the months for head-spinning tomato perfection. September is a slow fade as the season phases out. This timeframe doesn’t apply to a temperate place like California, where tomato season is May-November, but the rest of us should stick to midsummer.
We know there are tomatoes on grocery store shelves all year long, but it’s best to operate as if they don’t exist. Tomatoes don’t naturally grow year-round — not even in California! — and they’re just not good when they’re not in season. Nothing tastes good out of season, but these are some of the worst offenders: generally disappointing, mediocre at best. Why bother?
Why Out-Of-Season Tomatoes Taste Bad
The edible objects in grocery stores year-round hardly deserve to be called tomatoes. They're hybrids bred to meet the needs of industrial farming and global shipping. Breeders of these hybrids prioritize traits that make them good for long-haul shipping and producing high yields and resisting disease, despite being grown in environments that are naturally inhospitable to tomatoes. Flavor, texture, and juiciness — the traits that actually make a good tomato — aren’t factors.
Many off-season hybrids are produced in Florida; grown in sand (not even sandy soil: actual sand), which is a completely unnatural occurrence. A tomato seed can’t even sprout in sand, and a whole plant could never grow without extreme human interventions. Everything about producing off-season tomatoes goes against nature, which can only make it harder to achieve good results.
Then these things are picked when they’re green, unripe, and hard, trucked across the country or shipped all over the world. They’re waxed (another measure for extending shelf-life) and sprayed with ethylene gas to make them turn red. They’ll develop some sugars and get softer thanks to the ethylene, but the fruits will never get juicy or flavorful because they were only bred to look nice on store shelves, not to be good tomatoes.
How to Pick a Good Tomato
Picking a good tomato is easy if you’re buying in season and getting them from a good source. Your best sources are farmers markets and friends with productive plants in their gardens.
Look for tomatoes with healthy-looking skin that has no dark spots or punctures. A good tomato should feel heavy, and it should be fragrant at the stem end.
You do not ever need to squeeze a tomato! I don’t know where we got that habit from, but it’s pointless and bad for the fruits. Heft and scent are much better indicators of quality.
When it comes to cherry tomatoes, go by looks and smell, and if your farmer will let you taste one, do it.
Heirloom and Hybrid Tomatoes
Tomato categorization can be made very neat and tidy: we group tomatoes according to shape and size, and within these groupings are lots of varieties and hybrids.
It’s not possible to know every variety and hybrid that belongs to each group, and it’s hard to tell all of them apart because so many look exactly alike, and every region and every farmers’ market will have its own unique selection, but don’t get caught up over any of that. The only important thing is to find what you like and enjoy it.
But first, we need to talk about heirlooms and hybrids. The terms have nothing to do with size or shape or color.
- Heirlooms are open-pollenated varieties that pre-date modern industrial agriculture and have been passed down through generations. Open-pollenated means that the crossbreeding happened naturally; birds and bees did the pollinating and new varieties were born. And because nature is resilient, these plants are able to keep themselves alive: a seed saved from an open-pollinated plant will produce a replica of the parent plant.
- Hybrids are hand-pollinated crosses of varieties that have been chosen for specific traits. These are produced by seed companies and plant breeders, and they can’t reproduce like open-pollinated plants do.
Putting this into the simplest possible terms: Heirlooms are made by nature. Hybrids are made by humans. There are heirlooms and hybrids of every type of tomato.
We’re most familiar with the red ones, but these also come in yellow, green, black, pink, white, and various color combinations of zebra stripes. The blockbuster celebrity of cherry tomatoes is probably the Sungold, which tastes like sweet sunshine with a hint of tomato vine.
Some highly notable heirlooms are Red Currant and Yellow Currant; both are sold on the vine, have super concentrated flavor, and are adorably small, some really are around the size of currants. And I find the Black Cherry tomato particularly striking.
How to use cherry tomatoes:
Grape tomatoes have a little less water content and a bit more heft than their cherry tomato cousins. Of course they come in lots of colors and varying oblong shapes, but Red Pearl and Yellow Pear (which is an heirloom) might be familiar to you.
I also have to give a shoutout to Juliet and Verona, red hybrids I’m fond of, mainly because of their names. Verona is just a slightly bigger version of Juliet, and oh how I hope that there’s a Romeo somewhere out there.
When it comes to heirloom grape tomatoes, the Italian varieties have a particular sort of magic; their flavors and fragrance have an intensity you’d never expect from such small things. There are grape-sized Speckled Roman, Grappoli D’Inverno, and Principe Borghese. If you ever see Datterini, jump on them.
Cherry and grape tomatoes can be treated similarly. These bite-size flavor bombs make the best summertime snacks. If you can manage to not eat them all out of hand, they’re great pretty much anywhere you want to put them. Salads, pasta, soups, whatever you like.
How to use grape tomatoes: (Hint: use them just like cherry tomatoes!)
Coming in at 2-4 ounces, cocktail tomatoes are bigger than cherry tomatoes and smaller than globes. They’ve got the concentrated flavors of a smaller tomato and a little more substance – a perfect combination.
Bright yellow-orange Clementine, black Indigo Rose, and red Mountain Magic are some you’re likely to find. One of my favorites is Jaune Flamme, a French heirloom that looks like an apricot and has a bold fruity flavor with citrusy notes.
Cocktail tomatoes are also called Saladette or salad tomatoes; want to guess what a good use for these might be? Jaune Flamme is especially good for sauce and for drying (and it’s always nice to have some preserved for when you need a dose of sunshine).
How to use cocktail tomatoes:
Also called sauce tomatoes or paste tomatoes, plum tomatoes are oblong, sometimes with pointy blossom ends, and they don’t resemble plums. Just like their miniature friends, the grape tomatoes, these fruits have lower water content than globe and beefsteak types, and their flesh feels more dense, almost meaty in comparison. Having less water content to mellow them out, their flavors are concentrated and more pronounced.
The ones we know best are Roma and San Marzano, but those names are actually categories within this category, and there are lots of different varieties of both. (Making sense of this family feels like opening a Russian doll!)
Speckled Roman, which are red with streaky yellow vertical stripes and pointy ends, are an especially exciting plum tomato. There are golden and orange-green plum tomatoes, but the majority of what you find will be red. A very well-known heirloom is Amish Paste.
All the plum/paste/sauce tomatoes are delicious raw. Their pronounced flavor and substantial texture must be enjoyed in its pure form. Just make sure to also let these tomatoes do what they were born to do. Cooking amplifies the already intense flavors. Make sauce, preserve some for your future self. Roast them, and swoon over their sweetness.
How to use plum tomatoes:
Globe tomatoes belong to the subcategory known as “slicer” tomatoes. Red globe tomatoes are the platonic ideal of tomatoes: attractively round, snappy skin, the perfect size for a sandwich or hamburger slice, with juicy flesh that can hold its form. Yes, please.
We’re all familiar with the red tomatoes that are permanent fixtures on grocery store shelves, but they’re nothing like the real thing and are excluded from this conversation. Red is the classic, but your farmers market will have a rainbow of globe tomatoes that taste as vibrant as they look.
Green Zebra, Red Zebra, and Indigo Apple are popular non-red hybrids. Celebrity and Early Girl are well-known reds. Two lovely heirloom varieties are Rutgers and Rose de Berne.
Globe tomatoes are good every way, but tomato toast and tomato sandwiches are a good globe tomato’s birthright.
How to use globe tomatoes:
Also slicers, beefsteak tomatoes have thin skins, thick flesh, pronounced flavor, and they are remarkably large. An average beefsteak might weight around a pound, but some can weigh up to four pounds. Really, they’re giants. These are mostly heirlooms that have been bred for flavor, color, and size.
Beefsteaks are terrible travelers, and have a short shelf life, so it’s rare for them to be grown commercially. Some popular varieties are Mortgage Lifter, Brandywine, Cherokee Green, Striped German, and Great White.
How to use beefsteak tomatoes:
Another group of giant slicers, oxheart tomatoes are a lot like beefsteaks but shaped differently. They’re rounder at the stem and taper to the blossom end; they do resemble hearts. Commercial growers don’t bother with oxhearts for the same reasons they don’t do beefsteaks. These heirlooms have firm, meaty flesh, and very few seeds. Coeur de Boeuf and Hungarian Heart are personal favorites.
Oxhearts and beefsteaks need nothing. Raw and given the simplest treatment is the way to go, but an especially juicy one will make gazpacho taste extra special.
How to use oxheart tomatoes: (Hint - use them just like beefsteak tomatoes!)
How to Store Tomatoes
We’re talking about the in-season and local fruits here. It’s always a good idea to buy tomatoes shortly before you want to eat them. Ideally, we’re eating them within a day or two after bringing them home, but reality happens, and most of us at some point will end up with lovely tomatoes we need to keep from going bad.
The best way to store tomatoes is to remove the stems and set them on a flat surface, like a large plate, stem side down, and leave them at room temperature.
If your tomatoes are underripe, leave them just like this and give them time.
Room temp is the rule, but the refrigerator can be a very helpful friend. If your tomatoes have reached their peak, and you need some more time to use them all up, move them to the fridge. Put them on the top shelf, toward the front, on the side your refrigerator door opens. Let them come back to room temperature before you eat them.
Cherry and grape tomatoes benefit from stem removal, but obviously not all tomatoes are able to rest stem side down. All the other rules apply, though. Leave them on a plate at room temp if you’re going to use them within a day, move them to the fridge when you need a few extra days before they go overripe.