We probably don’t have to tell you that not all tomatoes are created equal. And when it comes to these beloved summer fruits (yes, we said fruits) heirloom tomatoes—in all their idiosyncratic glory—are the undisputed cream of the crop.
Unlike beefsteak, Roma, grape, cherry, and other popular hybrid varieties, heirloom tomatoes are grown from seeds that have been passed down from generation to generation, hence the name “heirloom.” They are direct descendants of the plants that produced the best fruit, meaning farmers had the ability to select for everything from juiciness and size to shape and color.
Your ordinary tomatoes, on the other hand, have been scientifically engineered to be disease-resistant and long-lasting—basically as grocery store friendly as possible. The goal of these tomatoes is consistency, not taste, and you don’t have to be a chef to tell the difference between them and heirlooms.
The DNA of heirloom tomatoes hasn’t been manipulated in the same way. They’re also often open-pollinated, which means that they are pollinated naturally, by birds, insects, or the wind. They’re hearty and acclimated to local growing conditions. And boy do they taste good.
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“Think of them as the Honda Civic of tomatoes: affordable, dependable, gets your taste buds where they need to go,” Chowhound says of ordinary tomatoes. “Heirloom tomatoes, on the other hand, are like a souped-up sports car: bold, eye-catching, with a flavor that laps the competition.”
But heirloom tomatoes aren’t perfect. Compared to grocery store hybrids, they ripen quickly and bruise easily, so they don’t travel well. On the flip side, that pretty much guarantees that any heirlooms your come across were grown locally.
And then there’s the price. By the pound, heirloom tomatoes are considerably more expensive than grocery store varieties. It’s up to you whether or not their superior taste is worth the extra dough. But when it comes to tomato-forward dishes, we say go heirloom or go home.