Culinary Arts

A Guide to Tomato Varieties: Learn How to Pick and Cook With Tomatoes

Written by MasterClass

Apr 26, 2019 • 4 min read

Turns out, tomato-tomahto is only the beginning of tomato classification. As of this moment, there are 15,000 known heirloom tomato varieties worldwide. Only 3,000 or so are actively cultivated, but still: that’s a lot of tomatoes. (Or, tomahtoes.)


What Is a Tomato?

A tomato is the edible berry of Solanum lycopersicum, a nightshade commonly known as the tomato plant. Though a majority of species are red, they come in a variety of colors and sizes, from snackable marble-sized grape tomatoes to tie-dye beefsteaks splitting at their seams.

How to Pick Ripe Tomatoes

Ripe tomatoes have a firm, taut skin with a little bit of give. Unripe tomatoes, especially where the larger varieties are concerned, will feel a little too light. You want to feel the weight of the water and seeds inside. Smell is also a good indication (though if you’re in a grocery store, try to be cool about it and don’t sniff the whole shelf): ripe tomatoes smell earthy and herbaceous, reminiscent of the green tang of the plant itself and an indication of that tell-tale tomato flavor. Unripe tomatoes smell like… nothing. You’ll know.

Health Benefits Of Tomatoes

Tomatoes come packed with lycopene, an antioxidant that helps prevent heart disease and cancer, as well as vitamins C and K.

How to Cook With Tomatoes

While some of the best ways to cook with tomatoes don’t involve cooking at all—the closer in a BLT, for example, or sliced and served with a sprinkle of flaky salt and fresh mozzarella cheese—there are many, many ways to incorporate them into your repertoire.

  • Cook them down, with a little olive oil and garlic, into a red sauce destined for pastas and pizza dough.
  • Sauté them, along with garlic and ginger, as the foundation to most Indian dishes.
  • Roast them and grate them over a craggy piece of toast.
  • Use tomato paste as a subtly sweet thickener to soups, stews, and sauces.

How to Store Tomatoes

It’s a tempting reflex, but don’t store tomatoes in the fridge unless they are fully ripe. Even then, allow them to come back to room temperature and restore their aromatic flavors. Tossing your average tomato in the fridge halts its enzyme activity, which is responsible for that indelible tomato fragrance and flavor. Just leave them on the counter, out of direct sun, and eat them as fresh as possible.

12 Common Types of Tomatoes

There are so many different types of tomatoes, each with their own individual tomato-y pizazz. Here’s a primer to scratch the surface:

  • BRANDYWINE: You know those tomatoes that catch your eye at the farmers’ market? The ones streaked with orange, yellow, and green that are the size of a softball? Those are typically brandywines, one of the slowest maturing tomato varieties with the biggest payoff.
  • CHEROKEE PURPLE: Often described as having a nearly smoky quality, Cherokee purple vines are on the less productive end of the scale, but worth the wait.
  • BEEFSTEAK: Looking into a cut beefsteak is like looking into a small, liquidy universe—little seed-packed compartments with a squiggle of flesh running through it. They’re dense, deeply flavorful, and the only sandwich tomato you’ll ever need.
  • SUN GOLD: These little orange globes are especially jammy right off the vine, with thin skin always on the verge of bursting.
  • EARLY GIRL: If you live in a place with cooler summers, like San Francisco, you’ll be familiar with Early Girl tomatoes, which ripen earlier in the season and don’t require the same blazing heat as other varieties to produce a sweet flavor.
  • BLACK CHERRY: Deep, purplish-red hue with a “true” tomato flavor, black cherry tomatoes are a striking addition to any tomato medley.
  • BLACK KRIM: Like a larger, flatter Black Cherry, Black Krims feature the same dark color markings with hints of green inside. They originated in Russia.
  • GREEN ZEBRA. Tart, tangy, and striped like its namesake. You’ll know they’re ripe when they show just a hint of yellow around the stem. Green Zebras add dimension to a sliced tomato salad or coated in cornmeal and fried.
  • SWEET 100: Perfect for people who like to eat tomatoes by the handful, Sweet 100s are a variety of cherry tomato that grow in prolific clumps like grapes. As their name suggests, they have a sweet, lightly acidic pop of concentrated flavor.
  • BETTER BOY: You might not know it, but Better Boy tomatoes are among the most popular in the United States. They look like the proverbial tomato out of central casting: medium-sized, smooth, thin skin, with a consistent red blush. They’re great slicing tomatoes, with lots of seedy pockets.
  • ROMA. Romas are dense, Italian plum tomatoes with a low-seed count and a firm, flavorful flesh, making them (tied with San Marzanos) the undisputed choice for tomato sauces, tomato pastes, and the like.
  • SAN MARZANO. You might recognize San Marzanos from the cans in your pantry, popular as they are for red sauce enthusiasts everywhere. With pale red and elongated fruits, San Marzano plants are particularly resistant to disease and highly productive.

How to Grow Tomatoes at Home

A notoriously finicky art, homegrown tomatoes require warmth, and lots of it. Because of that, growing seasons can be relatively fluid depending on where you live.

What you’re bound to run into is the choice between a hybrid tomato variety and an heirloom one. Hybrid plants are a result of crossbreeding for the best results, whether that’s increased disease resistance for things like mosaic virus, a higher yield, or a particular flavor. Heirloom varieties are those with a long and intact history, breeds that go back at least 50 years and are open-pollinated (which just means they rely on insects). They don’t travel well, so home growers and local farmers—along with organizations like the Seed Savers Exchange—have kept them alive and available.

Determinate tomatoes are the varieties that grow in a compact, bushy formation. All the fruit typically ripens all at the same time. Indeterminate tomatoes will continue to produce until frost sets in, growing up to heights of 12 feet and requiring supportive staking or cages.

Learn How Alice Waters Picks Ripe Fruit