Ready to hit the market in search of some great tomatoes this summer? Or thinking about expanding your garden next year? Here's a guide to some of the more common varieties and how to make the most of them.
These are your big, red globe tomatoes. They can weigh in at a pound or more, with a six-inch diameter. They mix a tangy, acid bite with a touch of sweetness, creating a classic rich flavor.
"They're akin to a Burgundy," says Lawrence Davis-Hollander, author of the forthcoming book "Tomato: A Fresh-from-the-Vine Cookbook." ''Big, broad, lots of nice taste, but not as focused as some of the tomatoes that are less meaty."
These are juicy tomatoes, with lots of water. Beefsteaks come in more than 350 varieties. Brandywine is one of the most common varieties, but you might also come across Red Field Beauty, Soldacki, Cardinal, Matchless, or the Mortgage Lifter, which supposedly got its name because it helped its West Virginia propagator pay off his mortgage, Mr. Davis-Hollander says.
Often called "slicers" because of their size and meaty texture, these tomatoes are great stacked on a hamburger or BLT, or carved into wedges and sprinkled with salt. Or let them form the centerpiece of the meal.
"There's nothing like a big tomato on the center of your plate, or stuffed or served with balsamic and buffalo motz (mozzarella)," says Mark Toigo, a tomato specialist for Toigo Orchards in Shippensburg, Pa.
Think baby Beefsteaks. These uniformly round tomatoes are racquetball size, with a thick skin. They make a distinctive "pop" when bitten into. Prized throughout Europe and the Middle East for their rich flavor and juicy, explosive texture, their smaller size also makes them perfect for individual consumption.
Early Girl and Czech Bush varieties are relatively common. Sometimes called "saladettes," they make bite-sized wedges perfect for salads or snacking.
PLUMS OR ROMAS
The thick-walled, oblong plum tomato is synonymous with Italy. Known in supermarkets primarily as Roma tomatoes, these big-sweet, big-acid tomatoes are known for their chewy flesh and low water content. Which makes them perfect for tomato sauce.
These tomatoes also can be used for quick sautéed dishes or in fresh salads where you don't want excess moisture. They offer longer shelf life than moister tomatoes.
"Throw them in a basket, and this becomes your go-to tomato," Mr. Toigo says. "It's almost like an onion. That thing will stare at you for two weeks."
CHERRY AND OTHER TINY TOMATOES
Generally, the smaller the fruit, the bigger the sugar. That's one reason the tiny-tomato industry has boomed in recent years.
Cherry tomatoes run about an inch in diameter and traditionally are the most delicate and complex of the small tomatoes. Growers – and eaters – love the Sungold for its delicate orange tint and fruity, almost tropical flavor, says Josh Kirschenbaum, product development director for Territorial Seed Company in Cottage Grove, Ore.
The Juliet, which resembles a mini-plum tomato at roughly 2 inches long, is another favorite.
Grape tomatoes, named for their size and shape, have become grocery store standards and offer predictable, uniform sweetness.
Mini-tomatoes also can be pear- or teardrop-shaped and often come in red or yellow. These will have a slightly bland, more subtle flavor than grape or cherry tomatoes.
Currant tomatoes are about 1/4 inch in diameter and are intensely sweet. They have a flavor Kirschenbaum describes as "smoky." Fortunate shoppers may find white currants, tiny white tomatoes with a yellow blush.
Generally known as "snacking" tomatoes, mini-tomatoes are great skewered for shish kebabs or briefly sauteed for a pasta sauce.
Among the more exotic summer offerings are "black" tomatoes, which sport a deep purple color and run from plum size up to nearly a pound. They generally have a rich, almost salty taste, says Davis-Hollander.
The Cherokee Purple offers big flavor, as does the Black Krim, which is softer and juicier than the Cherokee. These tomatoes make beautiful caprese or tomato salad, and delicious salsa. Eat them simply, with minimal adornment, to preserve their nuanced flavors.
These super-juicy, gigantic tomatoes – up to 2 pounds – tend to be yellow with a red or orange blush, Davis-Hollander says. They have a big, fruity flavor with little of the acid associated with traditional tomato flavor.
"We're talking subtlety here," he says. Typical varieties might be Reginas, Big Rainbow, or German Stripe. Use them for a delicate tomato sauce or a beautiful salsa or salad presentation.
"Keep it simple," Davis-Hollander says. "You really want to eat the flavor."
GREEN, YELLOW, AND ORANGE TOMATOES
Green tomatoes – meaning those that ripen to a gentle shade of green – generally offer an almost spicy taste, Davis-Hollander says.
Among the most popular is the Green Zebra, a slightly firm tomato with yellow-green skin and purplish stripes that runs roughly 2 inches around. Aunt Ruby's German Greens are softer and can weigh in at a pound or more.
Yellow tomatoes tend to be sweeter and less acidic, with a generally mild flavor, Kirschenbaum says. The Pineapple and Gold Medal varieties, with their bright yellow outside and red-veined interior, are popular.
Orange tomatoes, like the Earl of Edgecombe and the Indian Moon, offer a rich orange color and mild fruity flavor, Davis-Hollander says, without the acidity associated with classic tomato flavor.
For all of these, bask in their colorful glory. Generally too mild to withstand much cooking, these tomatoes should be served raw on a platter, possibly drizzled with olive oil and salt.
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