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Which Heirloom Tomatoes Have the Best Flavor?

Which Heirloom Tomatoes Have the Best Flavor?
Home » Grow Your Own Food » Heirloom Tomatoes » Flavor comparison of heirloom tomatoes

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.

Mixed varieties of heirloom tomatoes on display
Mixed varieties of heirloom tomatoes on display

Taste Test Recommendations

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:

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 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.
  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 sweetness many people want in a tomato.

Four varieties of pink heirloom tomatoes
Four varieties of pink heirloom tomatoes
  • 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 red tomatoes. 

The flavor profile is often referred to as “smoky, complex and wine-like”.

Four varieties of “black” heirloom tomatoes
Four varieties of “black” heirloom tomatoes
  • 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.

Four varieties of red heirloom tomatoes
Four varieties of red heirloom 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.

Five different bicolor heirloom tomatoes
Five different bicolor heirloom tomatoes

Gold medal (below) is one of the larger striped or bicolored heirlooms…..beautiful!

Early striped heirloom tomatoes
Early striped heirloom tomatoes
  • 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.

Orange yellow and green heirloom tomatoes
Orange yellow and green heirloom tomatoes
  • 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

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 tomato
White Tomesol tomato

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.

(missing photos)

  • 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

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.

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jason sechrist

Wednesday 6th of October 2021

If you want a tomato that's easy to grow and produces big juicy tomatoes that you can slice , or can get some german Johnsons, they are always my best producers and the blight hits and then they produce again at the end pretty heavy. Very good tomato, I taste a lot of tomatoes like the Cherokee purple who people are going crazy over and I swear they look like a German johnson cross with a black type of some kind. They taste very similar, except the Cherokee has a slight smokey taste. The mortgage lifter has german johnson in it. These tomatoes are meaty with little seeds. They make absolutely perfect juice that's ten times better than the store bought garbage , best vegetable soup ever. Red eyes and bloody Mary's have never been better. They produce at least twice as many fruits per plant , per pound than any other plant I've tried. They never get blossom end rot. The only problem I have is a little cracking when it rains heavy, but they heal up like blood clots on your skin. Really good choice for beginners.

dorothy stainbrook

Wednesday 6th of October 2021

Excellent suggestion Jason! I have tried the Old German and really liked them, but not the German Johnson. I will give it a go next year. Love the analogy of blood clots on the skin….spoken like a true tomato lover!

Nancy M

Monday 20th of September 2021

So, what are the general optimal soil, light and watering conditions to bring out the richest flavors? I had an amazing big yield of mediocre tasting tomatoes this year, despite growing 8 varieties. Only two stood out, a Brandywine type (volunteer) and a Sun Sugar (non-heirloom) cherry tomato. Less water?More lime? Any general tips for enhancing flavor? Thanks!

dorothy stainbrook

Sunday 26th of September 2021

Hi Nancy, optimal temperature conditions are 75 degrees (but you can’t easily control that), optimal soil would be a sandy loam with lots of compost mixed into it. Watering is where it gets tricky for flavor. At the beginning of growth tomatoes need about an inch a week. After they have set fruit and it is starting to color up however, you need to back off watering for them to set their sugars for flavor. Overwatering at this stage will mute the flavor profile.

Choosing the right varieties for your tastes is a big deal also. All tomatoes are a mix of acid and sugar and some people think the best flavor comes from the sweeter varieties and some people like the more robust, higher acid tomatoes (i.e., me!). Often when people say they want that “old fashioned flavor” they are looking for a higher acid tomato variety.

High acid tomatoes that I like include Druzba, Hughs, Box Car Willie, Green Zebra. Higher sugar tomatoes are the Brandywine, Caspian Pink, Purple Cherokee and most of the dark purple Russian varieties.

This post might help with varieties: https://farmtojar.com/comparison-heirloom-tomato-varieties/. Adjective that mean high acid will be “bold” or “old fashioned” or “robust”. Adjectives for sweet varieties will be “sweeet”, “rich”, “mild”

denise manhaeve

Friday 20th of August 2021

i am dissapointed with my beefsteak tomatoes, near the stem they stay orange forever that part is also green inside what to do?

dorothy stainbrook

Saturday 4th of September 2021

Some of the varieties are know for green shoulders (in your case orange shoulders). Try a different variety and make sure you have consistent watering. They need more water at the beginning sto get going and less water after they have fruited so they can develop their sugars. A couple of heirloom beefsteak varieties that don’t “usually” have green shoulders would be Druzba, Box car Willie and Mortgage Lifter.

Dustin

Thursday 5th of August 2021

This has been very helpful!

Anne H Gilmer

Sunday 17th of January 2021

I have had problems getting the whole tomato to ripen...greening I think it's called...which large red tasty variety would be best?? Thanks

dorothy stainbrook

Sunday 17th of January 2021

Well, I’d have to have a lot more information to really be able to answer this. What variety are you planting? What zone do you garden in? If you mean your tomatoes have “green shoulders”, that is common for some heirloom varieties and not for others. Druzba is a Hungarian heirloom that is acidic and no green shoulders. Carmello is a French tomato that is acid/sugar balanced with no green shoulders. Aussie is a huge Australian tomato with no green shoulders. My first guess is it’s the variety you’re growing.

This article might help a little in selecting a good variety: https://farmtojar.com/2013-heirloom-tomato-and-pepper-varieties-heathglen-mn-farmers-markets/

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