Do Heirloom Tomatoes Really Taste Best?

I may have to surrender my subscription to Organic Gardening Magazine for saying this, but the two hybrid tomato varieties I’ve been growing this summer have tasted better than any of the heirlooms I have grown in past years – with one exception.

'Celebrity' Tomato

In the past I have grown only heirlooms – Black Krim, Green Zebra, German Johnson, Caspian Pink, Black Prince, Brandywine, etc. The results were uneven.

This year I planted just three tomatoes, each a different variety: the hybrids ‘Celebrity’ and ‘Early Girl’, and the heirloom ‘Black Cherry’.

‘Celebrity’ and ‘Early Girl’ appealed to me because they are supposed to be more compact.  Frankly, I am tired of trying to keep my trellises from toppling over under the weight of tomato vines. And I have to say that these two hybrids have lived up to their promise in this regard.

'Early Girl' Tomato

What’s more, the fruits have been just delicious. Dense and meaty, but with a taste that is bright and sweet. They aren’t overly large, about 6 ounces or so.

That size is perfect for our purposes. Judy’s favorite thing is to make BLTs, and I love open-faced toasted tomato and cheese sandwiches sprinkled with oregano.

Early Girl Tomato

I suspect that soil, weather, and cultural practices are at least as important as the variety in determining what makes for a really tasty tomato. And I would bet that what gives you the greatest yield (and the largest, most beautiful fruits) is not necessarily what gives you the greatest taste.

'Black Cherry' Tomatoes
A cluster of unripe ‘Black Cherry’ tomatoes. The daylilies want to hang out with the tomatoes.

For example, I haven’t been watering my tomatoes this summer, even when things were getting pretty dry. Does that account for the pleasingly dense texture of this year’s fruit? There’s no way to say for sure, but it wouldn’t surprise me.

'Black Cherry' tomatoes
‘Black Cherry’ tomatoes

However, when it comes to cherry tomatoes, I am a ‘Black Cherry’ fanatic. This heirloom is without doubt the most delicious cherry tomato I have ever eaten, anywhere. It is intensely flavorful, sweet and tangy. So I always plant one ‘Black Cherry’, despite the tendency of the vines to grow to infinity and beyond.

Are you a believer in hybrid or heirloom tomatoes – or are you agnostic on this issue?

57 Comments on “Do Heirloom Tomatoes Really Taste Best?

  1. I’m not sure that I’ve ever eaten an heirloom tomato but I’ve grown a lot of different varieties. Tomatoes like even soil moisture or they can split, so it’s always a good idea to mulch them. Those are nice photos of the plants!

    • I’ve had trouble with splitting in the past when I watered. This year I haven’t watered since fruit set, and no splitting. Fruits are smaller, though. This was not a plan I just didn’t get around to watering.

  2. I adore Black Cherry even though they succumb to blight every year with other heirlooms…this year I am also growing hybrids which are breaking the cages and growing like crazy although no red ones yet…but soon I suspect.

    I am still going to try to grow the BC with perhaps a better strategy for keeping blight at bay.

    I believe my tomatoes are better due to all the rain which is natural nitrogen together with all the snow. Oh and I used seaweed fertilizer with a smidgen of Epsom salts as they have been setting tons of fruit.

  3. Jason – I didn’t think that Black Cherry was an heirloom. It is my favorite cherry and I am trying to grow it in the Pacific Northwest. Lots of fruit but no color yet.

    I have found some heirlooms that have great flavor. The pinks are my favorite. I also like the purples but not quite as much.

    My all time favorite slicing tomato is the Lucky Cross, it is a cross between a brandywine (pink) and a yellow and has great flavor and texture. You might have tried it when Buddy brought tomatoes up when he had meetings in Springfield or Chicago.

    I’m also not shy about wacking off a couple of especially hardy branchs to keep plants under control.

    I like your blog, thanks for the entertainment

    • Hi Debby, nice to hear from you! Glad to hear you are gardening these days in the PNW. Judy and I will be in Portland next year, I think, for the Garden Bloggers’ Fling. Very pleased that you enjoy the blog.

  4. What a nice problem to have–tomatoes growing wild in the summer garden! I’m glad to know that the tomatoes which grow best in my area also taste great. We must grow fast-setting tomatoes to beat the heat and heirlooms don’t fit the bill.

  5. I have 3 heirloom tomatoes this year. Mexican Midget is a cherry tomato that is very sweet, Cherokee Purple is our slicers (very mild, almost smoky flavor, and Italian Heirloom which is more of a roma type tomato. I’ve had some hybrids before too, but always go back to the heirlooms because I like to save the seeds. (preserving history in my mind) This year, we’ve had almost 10 inches of rain the last month and they are not liking it one bit. It’s always something.

    • I can see why you would want to preserve the heritage that the heirlooms embody. I guess I’m not serious enough about my tomato growing to save seeds.

  6. Yay! Pictures of the food!! 😉 I agree that some heirlooms aren’t all that tasty. I think for many the lure is they can be quite colorful and weird. I like the stories behind them also, like our San Marzano sauce tomatoes have been around since the late 1700s. We also love black cherry tomatoes! We didn’t grow them this year but plan to again.

  7. I’m not picky about hybrids vs. heirlooms. But some Tomatoes just taste better than others. Sometimes I think it really depends on where you live, the soil you have, etc. But I’ve been happiest with the taste of medium-size Tomatoes. I know that sounds funny, but they don’t seem to split before they ripen. They seem to concentrate the taste with perhaps less water content than the really large Tomatoes. And they’re just the right size for BLTs! (I agree with Judy.)

    • I had the same thoughts about the medium-sized tomatoes. That seems to be our experience this year with Celebrity and Early Girl.

  8. I think generally the heirlooms are better, at least the unnamed ones I get off local farmers. I buy the plants and it is pot luck on what heirloom variety they are. I planted pink heirlooms last year that Cornell started, but did not really think they were that tasty.

    • I think most people would agree with you, and I was surprised that it was not our experience this year. There must be great variation in quality and taste among all the different heirlooms and hybrids.

  9. I’ve only gown heirlooms once and they didn’t grow very well. Because of lack of space, I just grow hybrids I know will turn out. For cherry tomatoes I’ve always grown sweet millions, but I’m curious about the Black Cherry’s. I’ll check them out next year.

    • I’ve grown Sweet One Hundreds and it was very good. I think I’ll stick with the hybrids I’ve discovered next year. Heirlooms have done OK for me, but I generally felt like I didn’t get what all the fuss was about.

      • I think the sweet millions are sweeter and more prolific. I get them periodically from Park seeds. Otherwise I grow sweet 100’s. But I haven’t grown them side by side with the sweet 100’s so not sure my observation is accurate 😃

  10. My favorite are the very pale yellow cherry tomatoes, like Snow White. A good cherry tomato, heirloom or not, is like candy.

  11. The value of heirlooms should be that they are right for the conditions (that means growing the right tomato for your area. Soil and climate make all the difference, I’ve grown several heirlooms this year some are good others less so – let’s be clear I grow tomatoes for taste but a pretty salad made up of 6 or 8 different shapes and colours is stimulating to the palate; I do also love the concept of heirlooms and being able to save seed, but there is a place for hybrids too, problem is seed companies especially those selling pesticides too are trying to squeeze out the heirlooms so in the end the is no choice.

    • Well, it is important to keep the heirlooms as an option. If I had more space (and more tomato eaters at home), I suppose I would grow some in addition to the ‘Black Cherry’. And you are right that a colorful salad can be very appetizing.

  12. we also grow loads of different tomatoes our favourite at the moment is Black Russian…it is a beefy type tom…growing pretty huge and the flavour is amazing …we have it sliced with olive oil and balsamic with what ever fresh herbs we have…yum

  13. I used to collect seeds of Black Cherry and Black Plum for Pro Specie Rara and am especially fond of Black Cherry. Certainly heirloom varieties are not always tastier or better. If you water or feed too much it’ll have an influence on the taste. It’s better to stress tomatoes (or plants in general) a little…

  14. My mouth is watering! Your tomatoes look great!!! I always throw an heirloom in each season, but gosh, Burpee’s are always so easy and perfect! My big hit this year is the cherry – Orange Sungold!

  15. I should probably keep out of this since I’m not much of a tomato eater but I grow the heirlooms mostly for the variety and history. Hybrids I grow for the productivity.
    My favorites are Kellog’s Breakfast (big, mild yellow heirloom) and sungold!
    All heirlooms were once hybrids long ago, that’s one way to get new varieties… you just keep selecting and saving seeds and eventually stabilize the traits and create your own variety.
    Sounds like I need to try black cherry!

    • The Land of the Tomato-Eaters is a democracy, everyone should have their say. I get your point about heirlooms and history. I guess if I had more space for tomatoes and more tomato-eaters at home I would plant another heirloom or two. By all means, give black cherry a try!

  16. Didn’t grow any tomatoes this year 😦 , but aim to next season. I’ll be sure to try the Black Cherry. As for heirloom or hybrid – I’m not picky, as long as they are sweet and flavorful!

  17. There are advantages and disadvantages to both heirloom and hybrid, determinate and indeterminate plants. I’ve grown tomatoes for over 30 years of MANY varieties. I was very dissapointed in Mississippi, but dad planted ‘Beeefsteak’ tomatoes here in Missouri, and they are HUGE and still green.

    • The tomatoes are slower to ripen, overall summer has been on the cool side. We are getting enough for the two of us, though, and to give a few away.

  18. I guess I’m not really a great connoisseur of tomato tastes, but I don’t find that the heirlooms have much greater quality of taste over the hybrids. And, unfortunately, most of the heirlooms poop out very quickly in our heat and humidity. ‘Celebrity’ stands up well and tastes good to me, and I’ve had very good luck in the past with ‘Champion,’ though not this year.

  19. If it comes to tomotoes, I think I am agnostic. I am growing sweetie (cherry tomato) this year and they are sweet as honey. Need to try your black cherry. Yesterday we tasted a corn, which is not heirloom and sweeter than honey.

  20. Jason, I has grown the hybrid tomatoes, they are fast-growing and fast matured. I think less watering —more delicious.

    • Fast growing is certainly important when the summers are short. Of course, your summers are short but the days are long with lots of sunshine!

  21. And here’s me watering mine EVERY day!!!! lol

    Yours do look great and taste even better by the sounds of things. I’m rather boring this year, I’m only growing gardener’s delight, a large cherry.xxxx

    • Well, tomatoes do like water, but I’ve decided not to give them any extra in spite of that. Original reason was just laziness.

  22. as a novice tomato grower an interesting post Jason, thanks, this is only the second time I’ve grown tomatoes and both times they have been from free seeds on magazines, now I have something more to think about over winter for next year, I’m enjoying learning, Frances

    • I saw your tomatoes they are looking pretty good, as are the rest of your veggies. I am also removing the lower leaves, hoping that will slow down the late blight.

  23. If you need to turn in your subscription to Organic Gardening Magazine I better hand over my garden trowel. My tomatoes are so slow to grow this year! I have only had a few cherry tomatoes and that is it. I think I need to rethink my placement of tomato plants next year. This is my first year with heirlooms that I grew from seed. If they ever produce fruit, I’ll let you know about the flavour.

    • Are you having an even cooler summer than ours? My tomatoes have definitely ripened later, especially compared to last year’s furnace of a summer.

  24. I think you hit the nail on the head when you said it was about soil and other conditions. I’ve grown heirlooms that were awful and hybrids that were great, and vice versa. Now I grow none of the above, since I got tired of chasing squirrels away after they toppled the tomato plants and made off with the fruit, only to throw it away after one bite. For what it’s worth, I adore Sungold cherry tomatoes. Easy to grow, very prolific, and extremely sweet.

    • Maybe it would be an interesting experiment to see which varieties the squirrels took the most bites out of. Then the winner could advertise as “squirrel-approved”!

  25. Variety and method of growing makes a huge difference to taste.
    I love cherry tomatoes and my favourite is Sweet Million.
    In the uk when cherry tomatoes first came on the market in the supermarkets some years ago they created a sensation for taste. It was said that the growers grew them under a ‘dry watering regime’ and this enhanced their flavour. Having established their market the growers got greedy to increase their yield. Bought in the shops they are still better than the normal tasteless pap but nowhere as good as your own!

  26. I used to LOVE collecting (and planting) heirlooms when I lived in Los Angeles. I easily grew them from seed and regularly had @17 different varieties growing in 15 gal. pots and what little open beds we had (rental house). My favorites where Green Zebra, Stupice, and Brandywine. Up here in the NW with our much shorter growing season, I’ve gotten a handful of GZs and the Stupices aren’t as tasty. So now my most reliable tomato is Sun Gold and, with luck, Oregon Spring. And we’re always racing to stay one step ahead of blight.

  27. My all time favorite tomato is Cherokee Purple….second to Mr. Stripey, German Johnson Pink and soon German Queen. I think heirlooms are so much more flavorful. I get my tomatoes from my farmer who gardens organically. I have a couple plants (volunteers from the compost! ) my sun is limited.

  28. I’ve never grown tomatoes, but I certainly love eating them! I’ve really enjoyed reading your post and all of the comments – I’ll store away these ideas until I give planting them a go. Maybe next year?

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