The popularity of heirloom tomatoes is based around two characteristics – their stunning array of colors and the unique flavor profiles of each variety. The sheer number of heirloom varieties with unique flavors can be overwhelming however.
Fortunately there are a few generalizations that can be made with regards to the relationship between flavor and color in the heirloom tomato varieties.
Nationwide Taste Tests of Heirloom Tomatoes
Many gardeners, chefs and seed companies have performed taste tests on the most popular heirloom tomato varieties, resulting in a wide range of opinions.
Because the flavor of heirloom tomatoes is so dependent on micro-climates and growing conditions, the most reliable taste tests are those that were trialed as close to your home and garden as possible.
We do taste tests in Minnesota every year, both at the farm and at the farmers’ market in St. Paul. The list of flavor profiles below are based on our farm’s taste tests of the heirloom tomato varieties that we grow.
Some notable taste tests from other parts of the country include:
- New York Greenmarket
- Louisiana State UAg Center
- Mother Earth News
- Santa Clara County Master Gardener’s Guide
How to Determine Heirloom Tomato Flavor (in general)
- Flavor profiles are based on what the tomato tastes like when eaten fresh, rather its flavor after cooking or preserving.
- When a taste test review notes that the tomato has a “classic” or “old-fashioned flavor”, it is referring to a balance of acid and sugar in the tomato, getting as close to 50/50 as possible;
- An important characteristic that plays into a tomato’s flavor is texture (aka “mouthfeel”). Generally, if a tomato is said to be mealy, the texture is enough to detract from the flavor
- The flavor profiles based on heirloom tomato color are generalizations only. For example, pale yellow tomatoes tend to be mild and low-acid. Limmony and Hughs however is a yellow tomato that has a higher acid background, giving them a more robust flavor as opposed to mild and creamy.
- I have not included cherry tomatoes or plum & paste tomatoes, as they cannot be as easily grouped (and most of them are not heirlooms). In general the cherry tomatoes are sweet, the paste tomatoes are meaty and higher acid, and the plum tomatoes are juicy and mild.
- Finally, flavor profiles of each variety are not only subjective to an individual’s taste buds, but the flavor of the same variety can be highly variable depending on growing conditions (heat, water, type & rate of fertilizer, number of growing days, etc.)
Acidity vs Sugar in Different Tomatoes (by color)
Many people refer to tomatoes as being high acid or low acid, but most tomato varieties have relatively the same acidity. It’s really the sugar content that varies with different tomatoes. This means when people talk about a “high acid” tomato variety, they are actually referring to a tomato with a low sugar content.
As a general rule, high sugar tomato varieties are typically not bright red in color; rather, they are shades of orange, yellow or purple. This is something to consider as you review the “flavor by color” information below.
How Color of Heirloom Tomatoes Relates to Flavor Differences
Pink Heirloom Tomatoes:
The large pink tomatoes offer up what most of us think of as the sweetest tomato flavor — a balance of acid and sweetness., but favoring the sweeter side. The most well-known (not necessarily the best tasting) of the pink heirloom tomatoes is the Brandywine.
It has become the standard-bearer for the pinks, as it is a good size for slicing and typically has that blast of sweetness many people want in a tomato.
- Brandywine — a sweet tomato, offset by a notable acidity that achieves a balanced rich, succulent, old-fashioned home-grown tomato taste. Depending on growing conditions, it can also be low-sugar, low-acid and fairly bland.
- Mortgage Lifter — known for its mild sweet flavor and meaty texture, this pink-fleshed beefsteak can tip the scale at two pounds.
- Caspian Pink — similar flavor profile to Brandywine, and frequently beats Brandywine in taste tests. Pro is that it is earlier than Brandywine
- Prudens Purple — another early Brandywine type. Considered sweet, juicy and meaty; does well in short-season areas
- Cherokee Purple — sometimes included in the “black” category. A complex flavor with an initial smokiness followed by a slightly sweet aftertaste. Often compared to a zinfandel wine.
Black (or dark purple) Heirloom Tomato Varieties:
While often referred to as “black” tomatoes, most of these heirloom tomato varieties are more of a maroon or purple-brown color. Black tomatoes tend to have an earthy, almost smoky sweetness to them, with a bit less acid than bright red tomatoes.
The flavor profile is often referred to as “smoky, complex and wine-like”.
- Paul Robeson — of fairly recent popularity, Paul Robeson is getting good marks all around the country for its “smoky,” “complex” distinctive flavor.
- Purple Calabash — often compared to red wines such as Cabernet. The taste is rich and full of old-fashioned tomato flavor with just the right blend of sweetness and acidity. The flesh is smooth and meaty with evenly distributed seeds.
- Japanese Black Trifele — a pear shaped variety. Flavor is deep, chocolatey, smoky, and rich.
- Carbon — among the darkest of the black tomatoes. Exceptionally rich and sweet flavor. My favorite black.
- Black Krim — intense, slightly salty taste.
- Black from Tula — perceived by many as the “best-tasting black”, with thin skin and a sweet, complex flavor.
- Vorlon — cross between Prudens Purple and Cherokee Purple resulting in meaty, rich, sweet taste. Lynne Rosetto Kasper’s favorite black in 2011.
- Purple Russian — the best black tomato in a plum variety. Meaty, sweet and excellent for salads and sauces.
Red Heirloom Tomatoes:
Bright red heirlooms are often mistaken as hybrid tomatoes at market, as they look very similar. Red heirlooms however, are more varied in their flavor profiles than hybrids, tending toward the robust, higher acid flavors.
The red tomatoes are often what people are thinking of when they ask for that “old-fashioned flavor”. Red heirloom tomatoes tend to have thinner skin than hybrids, making them less amenable to shipping, and a shorter life on your counter.
The range of flavor you can get with properly grown red heirloom tomatoes however, is much higher than red hybrid tomatoes.
- Costoluto — “old-fashioned tomato flavor”; performs well when skinned and used in slow simmered sauces. The flesh is meaty with an abundance of juice and tart tomato flavor.
- Druzba — smooth, juicy fruits with robust sweet-tart flavor; meaty and great for canning.
- Legend — Introduced at Oregon State University as highly disease resistant variety. Nice blend of sugar and acid.
- Aussie — big, impressive beefsteak variety. Old fashioned, big robust tomato taste.
- Stupice — best flavor I can find in an early tomato (early tomatoes tend to lack flavor); small
- Thessaloniki — prolific crack-free heirloom with a meaty, classic flavor; sometimes considered “earthy flavor”
- Carmello — considered by the French to have the “perfect acid-sugar balance” . Productive, with juicy texture. Dona is a smaller version of Carmello.
Striped Heirloom Tomato:
Striped heirlooms (sometimes called marbled or bicolored), are beautiful and they tend to have a rich, juicy, super-sweet flavor that is low in acid (exception of the Green Zebra)
Gold medal (below) is one of the larger striped or bicolored heirlooms…..beautiful!
- Gold Medal — popular for its appealing sweet taste and marbled beauty, originating from the Black Forest region of Germany.
- Green Zebra — tangy, with a very robust flavor (i.e., high acid)
- Mint Julep — Often confused with Green Zebra, Mint Julep is a hybrid tomato with a sweet taste and a pear shape
- Black Vernissage — small and very prolific with that rich flavor similar to the Russian black tomatoes
- Indigo Rose — a hybrid tomato that is more bicolor than striped. The blossom end remains a dark purple color with the bottom of the tomato turning orange when ripe; tangy flavor
Orange & Yellow Heirloom Tomato Varieties:
Orange tomatoes (not yellow), are sweet and lower in acid than the bright red tomatoes. They are the varieties that will most remind you that tomatoes are, botanically speaking, fruits.
Yellow (and white) tomatoes tend to be mild and creamy and low acid. Two yellow heirlooms that are more robust (higher acid) in flavor however would be Hughs and Limmony.
- Persimmon — One of the best flavors of all the orange tomatoes. Meaty with few seeds. Creamy meaty, texture.
- Juane Flamme — small (large plum size), sweet and low-acid, bursting with juice. Almost a tropical flavor. My favorite small orange.
- Kellogg’s Breakfast — vibrant sweet taste, meaty with few seeds.
- Limmony — a yellow beefsteak with a strong, zesty, sweet citrusy flavor. It is also sometimes spelled Lemony.
- Hughs — a surprisingly robust flavor from a yellow tomato; large and meaty; a great slicer with a lot of flavor
- Jaffa — fruity and small; a reliable tomato that is not prone to blossom end rot like many tomatoes of this size
White tomatoes aren’t brilliant white. They’re more of a pale pale yellow. Pale yellow and white tomatoes are noticeably less acidic than red tomatoes.
Some consider them the sweetest tomatoes and some consider them the blandest tomatoes. The common factor is low-acidity.
White Tomesol — creamy, mild, sweet flavor; start off white and mature to pale yellow
Green Heirloom Tomatoes:
The commonality of green tomatoes is a bright acidity, but the degree of sweetness tends to vary quite a bit.
- Aunt Ruby’s Green — bright with acidity, but well-balanced with sugar. Incredible juiciness.
- Green Zebra — tangy and zingy are adjectives often attached to Green Zebra. Very popular for taste and eye appeal.
- Green Giant — huge green meaty tomato with great acid-sugar balance; starts off “granny smith” green and matures to a soft yellow-green
Guides for successfully growing heirloom tomatoes
- For germinating seed indoors
- Growing tomatoes in pots
- Best seed catalogs for tomatoes
- Best trellis systems for tomatoes
- Season extension for tomatoes
- Taste of heirloom tomatoes based on color
Other Attributes of Heirloom Tomatoes
In addition to unique flavors and colors, heirloom tomatoes have different growth habits, yields, etc. Click here for a summary of distinctive characteristics of heirloom tomatoes.