Growing and Cooking Your Own Food

Which Heirloom Tomatoes Have the Best Flavor?

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 particular heirloom tomato varieties.

HeathGlen's Heirloom Tomatoes in September
HeathGlen’s Heirloom Tomatoes in September

Taste Test Recommendations

Many gardeners, chefs and  seed companies have performed taste tests on the most popular heirloom tomatoe varieties, resulting in a wide range of opinions.  Because the flavor of heirloom tomatoes is so dependent on climate 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:

How to Determine Heirloom Tomato Flavor (generally speaking)

  1. Flavor profiles are based on what the tomato tastes like when eaten fresh, rather its flavor after cooking or preserving.
  2. 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;
  3. 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
  4. The flavor profiles based on heirloom tomato color are generalizations only.  For example, pale yellow tomatoes tend to be mild and low-acid.  Limmony, however is a yellow tomato that has a very strong acid background, giving it a robust  “lemon-like” flavor.
  5. 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. 
  6. 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.)

Color to Flavor Relationships

Pink Heirloom Tomatoes:

The large pink tomatoes offer up what most of us think of as a ”classic” tomato flavor — a balance of acid and sweetness. 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 tomato flavor most people want in a tomato.

4 varieties of pink heirloom tomatoes with similar flavor profiles
4 varieties of pink heirloom tomatoes with similar flavor profiles
  • 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; doing 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 red tomatoes.  The flavor profile is often referred to as “smoky, complex and wine-like”.

4 varieties of “black” heirloom tomatoes with similar flavor profile
4 varieties of “black” heirloom tomatoes with similar flavor profile
  • 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 reds and the pinks are often what people are thinking of when they ask for that “old-fashioned flavor”.  Red heirlooms also tend to have thinner skin than hybrids, making them less amenable to shipping.

4 bright red varieties of heirloom tomatoes with similar flavor profile
4 bright red varieties of heirloom tomatoes with similar flavor profile
  • 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), are beautiful and they tend to have a rich, juicy, super-sweet flavor that is low in acid.

Striped Heirloom Tomato Variety Chart
Striped Heirloom Tomato Variety Chart
  • Striped & Orange Heirloom Tomato Varities – 2012Striped German — almost candy-like flavor.  Sometimes a soft tomato.  Beautiful.
  • Big Rainbow —  considered one of the prettiest and most unique heirloom tomatoes. This meaty beefsteak tomato is known for its sweet and flavorful taste. The golden orange color with artful swirls of red and yellow are seen throughout the tomato
  • Gold Medal —  popular for its appealing sweet taste and marbled beauty,  originating from the Black Forest region of Germany.
  • Flavor Profile: rich, juicy, super sweet flavor that is low in acid.
  • Pineapple- Orange and red on the outside, and yellow with blushes of red on the inside. Very sweet, low acidity and nice flavor.

Orange Heirloom Tomato Varieties:

Orange tomatoes (not yellow), are mild, sweet, and are low-acid. They are the varieties that will most remind you that tomatoes are, botanically speaking, fruits.

4 striped varieties of heirloom tomatoes with similar flavor profiles
4 orange varieties of heirloom tomatoes with similar flavor profiles
  • 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.

 Green Heirloom Tomatoes:

The commonality of green tomatoes is a bright acidity, but the degree of sweetness tends to vary quite a bit.

Green Zebra heirloom tomatoes and a description of their flavor profile
Green Zebra heirloom tomatoes
  • 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.

The Yellow (or White) Heirloom Tomatoes:

White tomatoes aren’t really white. They’re more of a pale yellow. 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.

5 of the best yellow heirloom tomatoes
5 of the best yellow heirloom tomatoes
  • Yellow & White Heirloom Tomato VarietiesGreat White- yellow on the outside, and pale yellow on the inside.  A very mild flavor with low acidity, and  a hint of sweetness.
  • Limmony — a yellow beefsteak with a strong, zesty, sweet citrusy flavor. It is also sometimes spelled Lemony.

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.

3 Comments

  1. David Swenson on May 21, 2020 at 5:37 pm

    I’m sure that many varieties are similar with slight variations in flavor and completely different names, but I’m my part of the world (the Dakotas) my garden will always have these three: Black Krim, Amana Orange and Pantano Romanesco. A fourth would be Cherokee green

    • dorothy stainbrook on May 21, 2020 at 7:41 pm

      Interesting David. I’ve never tried Pantano Romanesco or Cherokee green. Always up for trying new heirloom varieties. They do seem to taste different though, based on the microclimate of where you grow them. Thanks for the ideas!

  2. […] are early or late, and how they taste is dependent on the variety and your growing practices.  Click here for tips on selecting heirloom tomatoes for […]

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