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Down & Dirty: Tomatoes

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Every week we get Down & Dirty, in which Nozlee Samadzadeh breaks down our favorite seasonal fruits, vegetables, and more by the numbers.

Tomatoes are the beauty queens of summer: beautiful, a bit high-maintenance, and occasionally prone to bursting. And they're not afraid to break your heart: tomatoes just aren't worth eating in any season but the summer. As red as a hothouse tomato looks, it can't compare to the juicy, intense flavor of a sun-ripened sungold at farmers' market.

As you probably know, tomatoes are actually fruit. But did you know that to keep tariff laws in order, in 1893 the Supreme Court unanimously decided to classify tomatoes as a vegetable? You can read the full decision here, if you'd like -- tomatoes may be fruit botanically, but legally they're vegetables.

If you're lucky enough to have tomato plants in your backyard, you know to water them well (but never let moisture touch the leaves!) and to keep them on the vine as long as possible to get the best of their sweet flavor once picked. For those of us who have to buy at market: most tomatoes are sold just a day short of peak ripeness, just for ease of transportation. Look for tomatoes that are unblemished, feel heavy in the hand, smell amazing, have clear, unwrinkled skin. If you need tomatoes for that day or are looking to make a big batch of salsa or tomato sauce, ask around until you find a stall with a "seconds" bin -- tomatoes that got smushed in transit, are partially split open, or are just a little ugly. Not only are these ready to eat, they're also less expensive!

The Heirlooms

Heirloom tomatoes are the ugly ducklings of the family, with gnarled outsides and flavorful innards. With dozens of cultivars, most heirloom varieties originated when a genetic mutation held over a generation or two. Because they aren't bred for consistency, heirlooms have wonderful craggy shapes and come in all colors: yellow, orange, green, and even black. We gathered as many varieties as we could at the Union Square Greenmarket to photograph, but these are just a drop in the bucket:

1. Black Krim - This variety originated in Crimea, where the long, hot summers are perfect for growing tomatoes.

2. Black Heirloom - Originally from Russia, the reds and greens in this tomato make it almost mahogany in color.

3. Mr. Stripey - Intensely sweet and striped in red and yellow, the tomato we picked out was adorably heart-shaped!

4. Green Zebra - Conventional green tomatoes are just unripe, but in heirloom varieties it's just another mature color. This yellow-green tomato is less sweet than other varieties because of its striped green flesh.

5. It's a Mystery! - We couldn't figure out the variety of this tomato: pale green on its lower half and darkest black on top, it had sky blue mottling near the stem. Amazing. If you know what variety this could be possibly be, let us know!

The Regulars
These are the tomatoes you're used to: round, reliable, and uniform in color. Most of these tomatoes are hybrids bred for their consistent shape -- an heirloom tomato makes a gorgeous addition to a salad, but it's the plum tomato you go to when you need to make a sauce. There's room for all kinds.

6. Beefsteak - This is what you think of when you think of a tomato: round, meaty, and red to the core. (These are Merrill's favorite kind of tomatoes!) They're sweeter than heirloom varieties, are usually smaller, and have a much higher yield, meaning that you get more bang for your buck when planting them in the garden.

7. Plum - Plum tomatoes are ideal for grilling and sauce-making. With a high ratio of flesh to seeds, they don't break down when heated or turn to mush when simmered. San Marzano tomatoes, prized for their sauce, are a plum variety. (You can also find yellow plum tomatoes, like we have here.) It's worth mentioning that plum tomatoes are ideal for slicing into long, skinny sandwiches, just because of their shape!

8. Cherry - From Sungolds to "Yellow Pears," I would bet that most cherry tomatoes never make it out of their respective owners' gardens -- they're that irresistable eaten sun-warmed straight off the vine. If you manage to get them inside, though, cherry tomatoes are perfect for salads: bite-sized and ready to eat, they won't get watery on contact with dressing. (Need to cut them in half? Try this trick.)

9. The Inside Scoop - As pointed out above, the inside of a tomato is important once you start cooking. Big, pound-plus tomatoes are mostly composed of seeds and the membranes around them -- less than ideal for breaking down on the stovetop. Small, meaty plum tomatoes, on the other hand, leave more behind after seeding.

Whether you're making sauce, tomato pie, or anything else, you might also need to peel your tomatoes. Kristen has us covered: you can freeze them, blanch them in boiling water, or just use a food mill.

From the garden or the farmers' market, it's always a good idea to eat as many tomatoes as possible during the summer -- here are three tomato-forward recipes you'll still be dreaming about in December:


With Bacon Aioli

Fried Green Tomatoes

The Best Tomato Sandwich

Tags: Vegetable, Long Reads, Sustainability, Infographics, Ingredients, Down and Dirty, Diagrams, Nozlee Samadzadeh