Extension Educator, Horticulture
Their names are ripe with history - Aunt Ruby's German Green, Box Car Willie, Mortgage Lifter, Abe Lincoln Original, and Dr. Wyche's Yellow. They are wrapped in a rainbow of skin colors from red, orange, yellow, green, pink, to purple. Some make a zebra proud as they show off their green or yellow stripes. They could be the size of a marble or big as a softball. Round, knobby, blobby and pear-shaped, tomatoes go well beyond plain old red spheres.
Sweet, tart, or tangy the flavor of tomatoes is as varied as their appearance. Recently the Master Gardeners held a tomato tasting with over 35 varieties. A lot of tomatoes but a small number compared to the over 600 reported varieties of tomatoes.
As with any food, tomato taste is in the tongue of the beholder. We all have our criteria for the perfect tomato flavor; however, researchers have pinpointed the two big components of tomato flavor - sugars and acids.
Sugars, mainly fructose and glucose, are the source of the tomato's sweetness. The acids in the tomato, which are the main source of the tart flavor, are mainly citric and malic acids.
Generally people characterize tomatoes with high sugar and high acid levels to also be high in tomato flavor. Conversely tomatoes with low sugar and low acid levels are often listed as bland or mild. Sweet tomatoes contain high sugar but low acid content. If it is low in sugar but high in acid, it's generally considered a tart tomato. Despite popular opinion yellow tomatoes are not necessarily low in acid nor are red tomatoes necessarily high in acid.
Tomatoes also contain over 400 different volatile compounds that contribute to subtle differences in flavor but also in fragrance. Although the volatile oils are present in very small amounts, our perception of flavor is tied to our ability to smell the different tomato volatile oils.
The "best tomato" also depends on the intended use. Most backyard gardeners go for fresh eating, but tomatoes for salsa, sauces, juice or stuffing are becoming more popular. We may choose different varieties for meatiness for sauces and salsas, but juiciness or how well it fits on a burger for fresh eating.
So here are a few of our unscientific but flavorful findings from our recent tomato tasting:
Many of us liked the heirloom 'Wins All'. Its pink skin shows its 'Ponderosa Pink' parentage. The medium sized round fruit was juicy and blemish-free. The flavor was sweet and tangy. It reportedly resists foliage diseases and blossom-end rot.
'4th of July' is a hybrid known for its earliness in production but also for its flavor. The red small to medium sized fruits are borne abundantly for processing and fresh eating.
'Black Krim' would not win any beauty contests; however, the flavor was outstanding. Don't expect this one to be a heavy producer, but the tasty dark purple almost black fruit is worth the wait.
'Wisconsin 55' had a nice tomatoey flavor. It is a good all purpose tomato for canning, freezing and fresh eating. Its abundant disease resistant fruit makes it a good choice in small gardens.
'Italian Ice' was popular with its small mildly sweet fruit that ripens to a soft ivory green color.
'Honey Bunch' was a favorite for snacking. Its very small and very sweet fruit are perfect for a snack attack.
'Sweet Tangerine' was very pretty with its bright orange skin. Several of us decided its very mild flavor would be good for somebody that really doesn't like tomatoes.
A big thank you to Master Gardener Ann Marlow for coordinating the tomato tasting and to Carolyn Ogen and Rita Wiesiger and Master Gardener program coordinator Karyn Traum for slicing and staging all the tomatoes. Also thanks to all the Master Gardeners that planted, grew, and gathered the many tomatoes.