Ask Chef Emily: What Is An Heirloom Tomato Anyway?

Heirloom Tomatoes

This Ask Chef Emily question comes from Fiona in West Hempstead, NY.

Ah, Fiona, seemingly such a straight forward question that is in fact challenging to answer. Genetics isn’t my strong suit, so I’m going to write this response as me-friendly as possible.

Hybrid tomatoes (the opposite of heirlooms) have been designed in a way that requires you the gardener to buy the seeds from a seed company, thus making the company’s time in selecting for beauty, taste, shelf life, etc. profitable.

Think Burpee. Think the tomatoes in the grocery store in February. Uniform, predictable, modified over time and in controlled environments to prevent pollen from one tomato plant from interacting with a different type of tomato plant. Large greenhouses, white jackets, clipboards, DNA strands.

Heirloom tomatoes are the hippy cousin who lives outside Woodstock in a treehouse. Or maybe a better description is that they are the seeds your great aunt Mildred saved during the depression and passed down through a tattered envelope year after year.

The seeds from heirlooms can be planted and will produce the same tomato plant next year. They may have lower yields, be asymmetrical, and not as pest resistant, but the trade off is you get a tie-dye rainbow of color and flavor to pop out of your flower pot. To complicate this a little bit, neighboring heirloom tomato plants can cross pollinate resulting in a “child” that’s part Aunt Mildred and part Great Uncle Bart.

What does that mean to you? If you’ve got space on a fire escape or in a garden to grow a tomato plant, I highly recommend giving the folks at Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds a call ( Tell them what you have in space, light and what size and color you want your summer tomatoes to be a packet of seeds, with a story and a provenance will be delivered to your door.

If you are near to a farmers market, it means that you will (hopefully) have access to a rainbow of things the grocery store would never stock, mostly because of their bumpy, technicolor exteriors. Buy up a few and cut in. Be prepared to be blown away by the intensity of the tomato-ness that the heirloom flavors provide. Save some seeds for next year (stinky, but doable) and remember to thank your farmer for keeping the traditions alive and well.

Heirloom Tomato & Bread Salad
1/4 cup olive oil
1 loaf sourdough bread, cut into bite-sized croutons (about 4 cups of croutons)
3 pounds heirloom tomatoes, selected for variety of color
1/4 cup basil, cut into chiffonade ribbons
1 pound fresh mozzarella cheese
4 kirby cucumbers, cut into bite sized chunks
1 pound bell peppers, preferably heirloom and colorful
1 cup thinly sliced sweet onion, red or yellow
more olive oil
sea salt
balsamic vinegar (optional)

1. Heat the olive oil in a heavy bottomed pot over medium high. When hot, add the croutons and stir occasionally until they are toasty.

2. Meanwhile, do all your chopping

3. In a large bowl, combine the toasted croutons and all the chopped fresh vegetables. Use your hands to get in there and toss gently to evenly combine.

4. Add more olive oil if necessary and salt and pepper to taste. Let stand at room temperature for about 30 minutes so that the bread soaks up some tomato juice. Toss again before serving.

5. Offer a small pitcher of excellent quality balsamic vinegar as a condiment to your diners – its a very pungent addition that may overpower the delicacy of your salad flavors, but some folks think its heresy to serve this salad without it.

Check out all of Chef Emily’s upcoming classes at Astor Center.

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  • Katie M.

    I made this last night for my mom… You taught me well :)  However, I forgot about the cucumbers and my red onion was rotten on the inside so I had to toss it.  It was still tasty though and she was totally impressed!

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  • Lissa

    Thank you so much for this post! I bought several pounds of heirloom tomatoes this weekend, and plan to make your salad for dinner tonight. :)

  • Lynn

    Nice post.  Heirlooms are probably subject to user selection as well–i.e. save seeds from these lovely tomatoes.  The difference is the most notable selection is probably taste and color, though yield will certainly be of some concern.  Disease resistance also factors in since plants that don’t survive to produce good tomatoes, are unlikely to be selected as seed donors.  

    All of that being said (by a geneticist), many of us find that we do get “volunteer” plants coming back in last years tomato pots or patch.  I usually feel compelled to let it grow, rather than to cull it in favor of this year’s choices.  Afterall, if the seeds survived the winter, there must be something good there. As a result this year I have 1 yellow cherry tomatoe plant (not the best taste, but great for early nibbling)  and 1 yellow big tomato plant  (I’ve decided I really prefer the more acidic reds) –both volunteers and both
    are nice.  The sauce I made from a mix of yellow and heirloom cherokee purple fruits is absolutely beautiful to behold.