July 19 2015
Ah, the glorious tomato—everyone’s favorite nighshade, a pillar of some of the worlds greatest cuisines and a most delicious source of antioxidants. Though it is technically a berry it is legally a vegetable (at least in the USA), and
Tomatoes in American cuisine have come a long way over the past few decades, from mostly being used as tasteless slimy slices on burgers and in indifferent canned sauces to a full-on gourmet status with dozens of varietals available almost year round. And with applications in everything from Thai to Spanish food, it might be the most versatile primary ingredient of all.
Still, all tomatoes are not created equal. We’ve put together a basic, handy dandy reference guide for best uses for the most ubiquitous cultivars and variations.
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The Brandywine and the Beefsteak
Old faithful. These are somewhat similar cultivars with many similarities to old pre-Columbian varietals and are considered standard, run-of-the-mill tomatoes. If asked to picture a tomato in your head, this is what it probably would look like.
The brandywine is somewhat sweeter, but both are fleshy, meaty cultivars—the Brits even call this a beef tomato. They are notorious for being the flavorless, slimy slices on fast food hamburgers but can also be surprisingly tasty when grown with care.
This famously Italian cultivar was actually developed by scientists in Maryland. Not to be confused with the more slender (and probably superior) San Marzano, the Roma is nonetheless its best readily-available alternative. Its distinctive flavor and thin flesh make it ideal for canning and for typically mediterranean applications like pasta sauces and caprese salads.
This Southern staple is not a proper varietal, but it is almost used like one. Its firm, unripe flesh makes it ideal for breading and frying and its slightly more tart flavor makes goes well in fresh salsas.
Fried green tomatoes
Several varietals are presented this way, but according to who you’re inclined to believe, ripened-on-the-vine tomatoes are either a clever bit of packaging hype or a deliciously authentic and better-tasting alternative. There is very little evidence that merchandising on-the-vine is any better for taste or freshness, but they are more often not the best-looking tomatoes in the produce section.
If you’re trying to impress a date or your in-laws with a home cooked meal, you might want to start with the prettiest raw material. But beware of paying too much for what likely amounts to only surface difference.
These can be any number of old varietals whose current form has been mostly unaltered by commercial breeding. Because they harken back to pre-industrial tomatoes, they can be tougher, more bitter and have harder flesh than the more conventional varietals we’ve all been weaned on. Their draw is first and foremost that they support the continuation of multiple varietals that prop up biodiversity biologists say will be critical to our future food systems. They also offer a different, often superior taste and experience: they show that the tomato is far more complex and diverse than varietals grown for maximum utility.
Experiment with heirlooms in place of conventional tomatoes from time to time in any dish. They are generally not well suited to Italian-style sauces.