When most people in the United States – and some other parts of the world – think of a tomato, the picture that first comes to mind is of a large, red, succulent, round vegetable. In actuality, however, tomatoes come in a very diverse assortment of shapes, sizes, and colors – including white, yellow, orange, green, pink, purple, black and, of course, red. There are even some striped varieties. This diversity really isn’t surprising when you consider that there are currently over 10,000 recognized types of tomatoes in the world, and the number keeps growing.
Although it is considered and referred to as a vegetable for culinary purposes the tomato is actually botanically classified as the berry of the Solanum lycopersicum (commonly called the tomato) plant in the Solanaceae – or Nightshade – family of flowering plants, which technically makes it a fruit. In a May, 1893 ruling (which still stands today) the United States Supreme Court officially ruled that, for tax purposes, the tomato was to be classified as a vegetable. All parts of the tomato (skin, seeds, flesh, etc.) can be eaten; the other parts of the plant (leaves, stems, flowers) cannot. Tomatoes are about 95% water, and contain a good amount of vitamins C, B6, K and A as well as potassium, manganese, and phosphorus.
The tomato plant is a vine that – depending on the variety – can grow to 6 feet or taller if supported by a trellis or other support aids, and can be divided into determinant and indeterminate varieties. Simply put, most determinate varieties will stop growing when they reach a certain height and produce their full crop all at one time, while indeterminate varieties continue to grow and produce fruit until they are killed by the cold. Generally speaking, commercial producers prefer determinate plants due to the ease of harvesting the crop all together, while smaller farmers and home growers prefer indeterminate varieties that produce a yield throughout the growing season.
The tomato is native to South America, where it has grown in the wild (and been consumed by the indigenous peoples) for thousands of years. The first known human cultivation of the tomato dates back to about 500 BC in what is now the southern part of Mexico. The tomato was introduced to Europe in the late 15th or early 16th century by the Spanish explorers and from there spread quickly to the Caribbean nations, Southeast Asia, and China through both exploration and trade. The first known cultivation of the tomato in the United States probably occurred in South Carolina in about 1710 and as European domination of the continent spread, so did the tomato.
Today, tomatoes are grown in almost every part of the world with a tropical, subtropical, or temperate climate, and in every part of the United States. Commercially, almost 180 million metric tons of tomatoes are produced annually, with China accounting for over 30 percent of the total. Other major producers include the European Union, India, Turkey and Egypt. The United States, which ranks 4th in production, grows around 14 million tons annually. Major US commercially producing states include California, Florida, Indiana, Ohio, Tennessee, Michigan, South Carolina and New Jersey.
Tomatoes (and tomato plants) can be classified in a number of different ways including by shape, size, color, and general usage. Virtually all of the tomato varieties you will eat in your lifetime are the result of specific breeding practices (in many cases to produce more durable, disease and pest resistant, and ‘’redder’ or more uniform tomatoes), which have gone on for centuries. Most tomato cultivars (with the exception of some South American varieties that still grow in the wild) are described as being either ‘heirloom’ or ‘hybrid’. Heirloom varieties are generally considered to be cultivars which have been bred largely unchanged (also known as true-bred) for 40 years or longer and are extremely popular with smaller farmers and home growers. Hybrid varieties are usually commercially grown (although some are home garden favorites) cultivars which have been ‘improved’ to allow for longer storage, more durability during shipping, and more uniformity. Generally speaking, heirloom varieties will have a slightly better, truer tomato flavor, while hybrids will be easier to grow. Many varieties of each are grown both commercially and by home growers.
So, what are some of the types of tomatoes available today (and please don’t be upset if we don’t mention your personal favorite – there are over 10,000 different types after all!)?
Also often referred to as slicing, globe or salad tomatoes, the standard tomato family has more specific cultivars than any other type of tomato, and are the most widely commercially grown tomatoes in the world. Most standard tomato varieties will be somewhere between 2 and 3 inches in diameter, round (or globe) shaped, and come in a variety of colors. Generally considered to be all-purpose tomatoes, standard varieties can be used for everything from salads to pizza, canning to juicing, sauces to slicing to top off a burger or sandwich. Generally speaking, the type of tomato you are most likely to find at the supermarket year-round in most parts of the world will be a type of standard tomato.
The Celebrity has been one of the most widely grown tomatoes – both with commercial growers and home gardeners – since it was introduced to the market in the 1980s. A hybrid variety, the Celebrity plant is relatively high yielding and produces medium-red, slightly flattened globe tomatoes that are usually about two-and-a-half inches in diameter. Highly adaptable, the Celebrity will grow in most parts of the world, and was specifically designed to resist most common tomato diseases. It is a relatively quick growing tomato (usually about 70 days) and produces a consistent yield throughout the growing season. It is particularly popular with home growers due to the fact that it is almost maintenance-free, and will perform consistently and well in most climates.
Along with its high yields and adaptability, the Celebrity is also a very versatile tomato, which makes it particularly popular with larger commercial growers, as it holds up well to both canning and juicing. In fresh applications, the Celebrity has a good, slightly sweet and succulent flavor which is not as rich or acidic as some other cultivars. It is often used in cooking – particularly for sauces, soups and stews. It is also often sliced or diced for use in sandwiches and salads.
The Early Girl is another hybrid standard tomato that is extremely popular with both commercial and home growers. Developed from a French short-season hybrid, the Early Girl was first released in the early 1970s. Not surprisingly, it is among the first tomatoes to appear during the growing season, and one of the fastest developing – often reaching maturity in between 50 and 55 days. It is a high-yielding, indeterminate plant (in some cases a single vine can produce upwards of 250 tomatoes per season) that does well in most climates, and produces consistently throughout the season.
The Early Girl tomato grows to roughly the size of a tennis ball (around 2 inches in diameter), has a bright red skin and flesh, and a globe shape that is slightly flattened at the stem. The flesh is quite meaty, and the flavor is usually fairly sweet and strong, with just a bit of acidity. Early Girl tomatoes are considered to be a slicing tomato and is used fresh in salads, on sandwiches, and in some crudities. It is also used in some cooked applications, although it can lose much of its flavor when cooked for prolonged periods.
The Green Zebra was developed in 1983 in Everett, Washington by plant breeder Tom Wagner, and today is predominantly commercially cultivated in California and parts of Mexico. Although it is a relatively recent cultivar, it is considered by most people to be an heirloom, indeterminate variety. A disease and pest resistant strain that will usually ripen in about 70 days, the Green Zebra has a globe shape and will usually grow to about 2 inches in diameter. The tomato has a smooth vibrant green skin with yellow striping (hence the name) and a firm, bright green flesh. The Green Zebra is quite juicy and has a classic, fairly sweet and somewhat tart tomato flavor. It is widely used in salads and other cold applications, and in recent years has become a favorite of chefs due both to its tartness and the fact that its flesh does not break down as fast as some other tomatoes during cooking.
Introduced just a couple of years after the Green Zebra in the mid-1980s – again by plant breeder Tom Wagner – the Black Zebra is a cross between the Green Zebra and a black tomato strain native to Southern Ukraine. Classified as an heirloom indeterminate, the Black Zebra is globe-shape and will grow to about 2 inches in diameter. The tomato will normally have a deep mahogany or purplish skin with dark green vertical stripes, while the solid flesh will be mahogany red with relatively few seeds. It has a very rich, slightly smoky (courtesy of its black tomato ancestor) and sweet flavor. They can be used for most traditional tomato applications, although they do not stand up to cooking particularly well. The Black Zebra takes 75 to 80 days to mature.
Also often called the Golden Jubilee, the festively named Jubilee tomato is an indeterminate heirloom variety that was first introduced in early 1940s and has remained extremely popular with small farmers and home growers ever since. A larger variety of standard tomato, the Jubilee is globe-shape and will usually grow to between 3 and 4 inches in diameter, taking 70 to 75 days to mature. It has a golden yellow skin and a firm, meaty dark yellow flesh. The flavor is fairly mild, and the tomato has less acidity than most red varieties, making it a favorite for juicing. It is also widely used in salads, sandwiches, and cold soups such as gazpacho. It does not perform well in most cooked applications. As it is a particularly high yielding plant, due to the size of the fruit extra heavy cages or trellis supports are usually required for growing.
Fourth of July
Also sometimes called the Independence Day, the patriotic sounding Fourth of July tomato is so named because it is one of the fastest growing of all standard varieties (around 45 days), so tomatoes are ready to be harvested by the 4th of July holiday. A relatively new hybrid indeterminate cultivar released in the 1990s, it is a small (around one-and-a-half inches in diameter) tomato with a thick bright red skin and corresponding, meaty flesh that has a rich, not overly acidic taste with just a hint of sweetness. Performing particularly well in warmer climates, the Fourth of July will continue to produce throughout the growing season, and requires very little maintenance. It can be used in most fresh and cooked standard tomato applications.
Beefsteak tomato varieties tend to be some of the largest commonly grown tomato cultivars in the world, often growing to well over 6 inches in diameter and weighing over a pound. Generally, beefsteak varieties will produce thick, meaty tomatoes that will be red or pink in color. Beefsteaks are grown throughout the world and are particularly popular with consumers in the United States and Canada. Many beefsteak varieties need a significantly longer growing season – and in some cases a hotter climate – than other types of tomatoes, and so are usually not suitable for growers in colder climates with shorter summer and fall seasons.
Originating in Chester County, Pennsylvania in the 1880s and named for the Brandywine Creek which runs through it, the Brandywine is an heirloom, indeterminate tomato and one of the most popular beefsteak varieties in the United States. The tomatoes will usually be round with a somewhat flattened top and bottom, between 5 and 6 inches in diameter and can weigh up to 2 pounds. A fairly slow-growing fruit, they will usually mature in between 90 and 100 days and are considered to be a fall tomato. They have a thin reddish-pink skin and a lighter pinkish flesh. Called by some ‘the best-tasting tomato in the world’, the Brandywine has a rich, sweet and slightly spicy flavor. While it is most often used fresh in salads and sandwiches, the Brandywine is also often grilled, stewed and sautéed; its stands up well to slow cooking, and can be used in soups and stews. Along with the pink variety, other cultivars of the Brandywine have been developed that are red, yellow and black.
Released in the early 1990s, the Big Beef is a medium size (4 to 5 inches in diameter) indeterminate hybrid beefsteak variety that is popular with home and commercial growers alike. A relatively fast growing cultivar (around 75 days) the Big Beef has a globe shape, fairly thin smooth bright red skin and firm, meaty red flesh that is quite sweet and juicy, with low acidity. Most often used as a slicing tomato in salads and sandwiches, they can also be used for juicing and some cooking applications. The plants are highly resistant to disease, and will grow well in most parts of the US.
Originating in the mountains of West Virginia, the aptly-named Hillbilly has been around since the late 1880s. A very large indeterminate heirloom beefsteak variety (often reaching over 2 pounds), the Hillbilly has a heavily ribbed, smooth yellowish-orange skin with red streaking, and a dense, almost seedless orange and red flesh with a peach-like texture. It has a quite sweet, almost fruity flavor with extremely low acidity. Hillbilly tomatoes are most often used in raw applications, although they are also sometimes lightly grilled. Not a particularly hardy variety, they grow best in warmer climates.
Believed to have originated with Cherokee growers in Tennessee in the late 19th century, the Cherokee Purple is a medium to large indeterminate heirloom beefsteak. Usually running between 4 and 5 inches in diameter, the skin is a dark pink with purple blush, often with some dark green striping near the stem. The firm flesh is dark red and has a rich, sweet and moderately acidic flavor with a hint of smokiness. While it is most often used fresh, is will stand up to light cooking – such as being sautéed with pasta – and light grilling. The Cherokee Purple does not do particularly well in colder climates, and will usually take between 85 and 90 days to ripen.
The Caspian Pink is an heirloom indeterminate beefsteak tomato believed to originate in the area of Southern Russia between the Black and Caspian (hence the name) seas. Very popular throughout Europe since the end of the Cold War, it has gained a great deal of popularity in the US and Canada in the last couple of decades. The Caspian Pink will usually be around 5 inches in diameter and weigh a pound or more. The globe-shape, pleated tomato has a pinkish-red skin and flesh, and a sweet, slightly acidic, rich tomato flavor. Good for all fresh tomato applications, it is also sometimes slow roasted or grilled, and used in sauces. A hardy tomato that does well in colder climates, the fruit ripens in around 85 days.
Plum (and pear) tomatoes are also frequently referred to as processing and paste tomatoes and are most often used for sauces and canning purposes. Most varieties have a cylindrical or oval shape (somewhat resembling a plum), fewer seeds and less natural moisture than most other tomato types, and longer fresh storage time. While the best-known varieties of plum tomatoes are red, they actually come in a variety of colors. Very small plum tomato cultivars are often referred to as ‘grape’ tomatoes.
Also known as Italian or Italian Plum tomatoes, Roma tomatoes are the most popular type of plum tomato in the world with commercial growers. Developed by scientists at the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service in the mid-1950s in the United States, the Roma is a determinate hybrid variety with an egg-like elongated shape that will usually grow to about 3 inches. The most common Roma varieties have a smooth, thick, bright red skin and a duller red meaty flesh with few seeds and a low moisture content. Roma tomatoes tend to be sweet – which increases with cooking – and have a high acid content. The low moisture content makes them ideal for use in sauces, pastes and canning – both home and industrial. Along with their cooked applications, they are also used in salads and crudités. Normally taking about 75 days to ripen, Romas tend to be fairly hardy and will grow in both hot and temperate climates. They are widely grown in the United States, parts of Europe and Asia, Mexico and Australia.
Sometimes confused with the Roma (it is actually one of the cultivars cross-bred to create the Roma) the San Marzano originated in the town of the same name, located near Naples Italy, in the mid-18th century. An indeterminate heirloom, the San Marzano is a high yielding plant that produces fruit in about 85 days. Having a similar shape to the Roma, the San Marzano is thinner, more pointed and, at 4 inches, slightly longer. The skin is bright red while the red flesh is thicker and has fewer seeds and less moisture than its offspring. The flavor is quite strong, sweet, and less acidic than the Roma. The vast majority of commercially produced San Marzano tomatoes still come from Italy, and are either canned whole or used in industrially produced sauces and pastes.
Japanese Black Trifele
Perhaps the most unique-looking of the plum/pear-shaped varieties, the Japanese Black Trifele (which means ‘truffle’ in Russian) is an heirloom indeterminate which, despite its name, has its origins in Russia. Normally growing to between 2 and 3 inches, the tomato is pear-shaped with a thin skin that is dark green at the top which darkens to a deep mahogany and finally to a dark red almost black at the base. The meaty flesh carries on these colors. The flavor is relatively sweet and a little smoky. This tomato is widely grown in Europe and parts of Asia and has started to catch on in the US in recent years.
Cherry tomatoes are the smallest tomato varieties commonly grown, and are probably the closest in size and shape to the yellow tomatoes originally brought to Europe by the Spanish explorers. Cherry tomatoes normally grow in clusters on the vine. Normally around an inch in diameter, Cherry tomatoes are a good choice for home growers in colder areas with shorter growing seasons, and can be grown in containers.
First introduced to the market in 1978, Sweet 100 is probably the most popular cherry tomato variety with both home and commercial growers. Also called the Supersweet 100, this is an indeterminate hybrid that produces large clusters of 1 inch round tomatoes normally starting at about 60 days after planting. Both the smooth skin and flesh is scarlet red, and the flavor is very rich and almost sugary-sweet. Most often eaten fresh, Sweet 100s also stand up to all types of cooking and canning well.
Probably originating in Mexico, the Italian Ice is a hybrid indeterminate that is widely grown throughout Europe, South America and parts of the US. The plant produces clusters of 1 to one-and-a-half inch tomatoes in about 65 days. When ripe, the tomatoes have a thin yellow to ivory skin and a yellow flesh that is extremely sweet and low in acid. These tomatoes are best eaten fresh, as they do not stand up well to most types of cooking.
Not as popular (yet) in the US as it is throughout Europe, the Kumato is an indeterminate hybrid first released in Switzerland in the mid-1970s. The skin of the mature, round, 1 inch tomatoes is a dark reddish-brown, while the flesh is dark red, juicy, and very sweet – getting sweeter the riper it gets. The Kumato can be used either fresh or cooked in any application calling for traditional cherry tomatoes. The plant is low maintenance and easy to grow.
An indeterminate hybrid variety, the Honeybunch (also sometimes called Honey Bunch) is among the smaller cherry tomato cultivars, usually only growing to about half an inch in diameter, and sometimes slightly smaller. The round tomato has a light red skin and flesh, and gets its name from its honey-like sweetness. The plant usually produces fairly large clusters of ripe tomatoes in between 60 and 65 days. Honeybunch tomatoes are usually used fresh, and do not stand up well to either cooking or canning.