Tomatoes: A Primer

Tomatoes: A Primer

by Donna Marie Zotter

Generally speaking, if you are left to the aisles of a supermarket, or even if you are shopping at your farmer’s market, globe, plum or roma, cherry and grape, yellow, or green tomatoes and tomatillos are the most commonly available varieties.  Heirlooms need to be grown or sourced, but when they make an appearance at any market, it is always worth your while to indulge.  If you spend enough time looking, you’ll ultimately find a reliable source who knows their fruit (yes, a tomato is a fruit).  And never, ever hesitate to ask for a taste.  After all, if sweet, juicy, and ripe is what you want, and you end up with tart and meaty, you’ll never be satisfied.

A good rule of thumb is to select your tomatoes according to your needs from their somewhat standard categorical classification.  Once you know what type you’re looking for, then the fun begins.  There are hosts of varieties within each type and a lifetime of tasting opportunities.

Globes: Your classic slicing tomato.  Best when used sliced or cut up for salads.  Red, round, and juicy, these are most commonly raised to suit commercial purposes (longevity, transportability, etc.) and flavor may be compromised.  Search out home-grown ones, which are advertised as Early Boy or Early Girl, or the classic Beefsteak in American markets, or purchase from a local farmer for better flavor.  Heirlooms are also considered globes and come in a range of sizes, shapes, and flavors.

Plum or Roma (Italian): Distinguished by their oval shape and thick, meaty wall, these high-flavor, low-juice, and small-seeded tomatoes are ideal for cooking and sauce making, since there is little juice to cook off.  If you are purchasing canned (and I’m talking “in a tin, in an aisle” canned), plum tomatoes are your best bet.

Cherry or Pear (Grape varieties also becoming popular): Smaller in size and spherical, arriving in yellow or red varieties, with concentrated sweet flavor.  Perfect for crudité platters or cut up in salads; work well sautéed or when made into sauce.

Yellow: A range of coloring from pale to deep and vibrant yellow.  They are low in acid, making them milder, which some interpret as less flavorful.  A nice addition to salads and eaten raw.  Because of the low acidity, they do not impart much flavor when cooked.

Green: Generally refers to unripe or un-matured tomatoes.  Heirlooms, such as Green Zebras and Green Grape varieties, are, however, ripe.  Firmer and much more acidic, they have a tart taste.  Sautéed or fried is the classic preparation, or cut up raw for relishes and salsas.

Tomatillos: Yellow or green tomato variety wrapped in papery husks.  Known for their very tart, lemony flavor.  A cornerstone for Mexican cooking, these are lovely when added judiciously to a tomato salad or cooked into a sauce.

Once you’ve found the tomato flavors you desire, little more is needed than a way to combine them for the ultimate flavor experience.  Here in our Test Kitchen, where the elements of taste are the cornerstone of our testing and recipe development process, I recommend an olive oil with notes of herb and grasses as a flavorful fat to extend and deliver raw tomato flavor to the palate.  Sea salt and vinegars are also fantastic for pulling the flavor out of globes or other heirloom varieties.  Fresh herbs are the perfect way to push the flavor toward a savory note, and the ultimate flavor platform for any variety is a complementary cheese.  With these thoughts in mind, your palate becomes the canvas for flavoring a perfect salad.  Tomatoes and a simple combination of flavor elements are all you need for a satisfying taste experience.

Photo: Kelly Cline

Donna Zotter is the founder and executive chef of There’s A Chef in My Kitchen, a portable culinary school in Harrisburg, PA.