Here's what you need to know for tomato season.

By Corey Williams
Updated January 23, 2020

Heirloom tomatoes are kind of like the Windsors: Everyone knows they’re prestigious and somehow better than other tomatoes, but very few people know why.

Here’s what you need to know about what makes an heirloom tomato an heirloom tomato:

What Are Heirloom Tomatoes?

Credit: Victor Protasio;

Victor Protasio;

Heirloom tomatoes are grown from seeds that have been passed down from season to season (hence the name).

So how do farmers pick the seeds that will go on to produce generations of heirloom tomatoes? Farmers take seeds from the best of the best tomato plants, then use them to grow more tomatoes. The heirloom tomatoes you buy in the store have a lineage that rivals Westminster’s Best in Show.

Basically, it’s survival of the fittest—but with produce.

Many heirloom varieties predate World War II, and are passed down through generations in a particular area. Often, they’re grown by ancestors of the farmers or gardeners who first grew them.

Decades of selective breeding results in tomatoes that are fairly uniform in flavor, size, juiciness, and color.

This may sound like genetic modification, but it’s not. The tomato’s DNA isn’t manipulated by people at all. Instead, farmers are able to hand-select the seeds that will naturally produce more desirable fruits (because yes, a tomato is definitely a fruit).

Heirloom tomatoes are open-pollinated, which means they are pollinated by insects or wind without human intervention.

The beauty of open pollination is that it results in plants that “breed true,” or remain stable from one season to the next.

Farmers are able to control this process by keeping pollen from other varieties from entering the tomato patch in question. Generally, they can do this by keeping a safe distance between varieties.

Hybrid vs. Heirloom

WATCH: How to Tell if a Tomato is Ripe

Hybrid and heirloom tomatoes are produced in totally different ways.

Heirloom tomatoes, again, are the result of decades of open-pollination. The heirloom tomatoes that end up on your plate today are identical to their ancestors from years ago.

These are known for being better-tasting than hybrid tomatoes, but they tend to be more prone to diseases and have a shorter shelf life.

Hybrid tomatoes, on the other hand, are the result of cross-pollination, or when one plant pollinates another plant variety. This is done to create a third plant that possesses the best traits from both parents. These are what you’re most likely to find on grocery store shelves.

If you’re still confused, try this metaphor on for size: An heirloom tomato is a purebred golden retriever, while a hybrid tomato is a goldendoodle.

Golden retriever breeders aim to recreate desirable characteristics (friendly personality, agility, obedience) litter after litter. Goldendoodle breeders aim to take the best characteristics from two breeds (friendly personality from the golden retriever, hypoallergenic fur from the poodle, etc.) and create a completely new dog.

Heirloom Tomato Varieties

Heirloom tomatoes are wonderfully quirky, with characteristics that vary from species to species. One type may be large, lumpy, and deep red, while another type may be small, smooth, and yellow.

More than 3,000 varieties are being actively produced. Here are five of our favorites:

  • Black Krim: Dark purple, rich, and slightly salty, these come from the Isle of Krim in the Black Sea.
Credit: yulka3ice/Getty Images

yulka3ice/Getty Images

  • Azoychka: Yellow, medium-sized, and tart. Azoychka originated in Russia and has a smooth, citrusy taste.
Credit: Westend61/Getty Images

Westend61/Getty Images

  • Amish Paste: A plum tomato with Amish origins. These are similar to Roma tomatoes in looks and taste, but Amish Paste tomatoes are generally sweeter and fresher.
Credit: outside2013/Getty Images

outside2013/Getty Images

  • Brandywine: The reddish-pink Brandywine cultivar is considered by many people to be one of the best-tasting types of tomatoes available.
Credit: undefined undefined/Getty Images

undefined undefined/Getty Images

  • Cherokee Purple: Cherokee Purple tomatoes are dense, dark, and extremely juicy.
Credit: Andrea_Mangoni/Getty Images

Andrea_Mangoni/Getty Images

Heirloom Tomato Recipes

Credit: Photo: Kelsey Hansen; Food Styling Karen Ranken; Prop Styling: Audrey Davis

Make the most of tomato season by whipping up one of our favorite heirloom tomato recipes: