Many of us wait all year for tomato season, when we can buy homegrown tomatoes from local farmers or pick them from our gardens, and enjoy the smell and juiciness of a "real" tomato.
Even though most any freshly picked tomato tastes wonderful, many consumers want heirloom tomatoes because of the flavor and texture that can rarely be found in modern tomatoes, said grower Bill Best of Berea.
Heirloom is a term used to describe any tomato plant that's openly pollinated (by wind and bees) and has been cultivated for more than 50 years. They come in many shapes, sizes and colors.
The tomatoes we buy during the non-growing season are largely bred for high yield, shipping and shelf life. "They have very little flavor and turn color long before ripening, which makes it difficult to know when to serve them. It is hard to tell when a modern hybrid tomato is ripe through and through," said Best, who has been selling tomatoes at Lexington Farmers Market for 40 years. He is the only grower from the original group who is still selling.
"My customers have increasingly moved toward heirloom tomatoes of all colors and shapes and toward the pink hybrids," he said. "Pink tomatoes, both heirlooms and hybrids, tend to be high in acids and high in sugars as well, and have what we often refer to as 'old-fashioned flavor.' Other heirlooms are also becoming more popular, including the purples, blacks, whites, oranges, striped and green when ripe.
"There are many flavor combinations, with a lot of people developing a preference for the black heirlooms. Red hybrids have become increasingly bland and tough over the years, with the best ones invariably being the ones most likely to be discontinued because of a shorter shelf life," he said.
Here are tips from Real Simple magazine on how to select and store fresh tomatoes:
■ A ripe tomato will be vibrant in color, plump and firm, and have just a little give. Sniff it if you can; if it's missing that sweet, woody smell, leave it behind. Always look for tomatoes and grape tomatoes that are free of wrinkles, a sign of age.
■ Keep tomatoes unwashed and at room temperature; putting them in the refrigerator can turn the flesh mealy. For maximum air circulation, remove them from plastic bags. To help speed ripening, put them in a paper bag with an apple, which emits ethylene gas, a ripening agent. Once ripe, tomatoes will last up to three days.
■ For the smoothest slicing, use a serrated knife, which will cut through a tomato's skin without bruising the flesh. To remove the core, use a paring knife to cut around it at an angle.