Ahead of our annual Tomato Tasting (September 2), tomato expert and SSE adviser Craig LeHoullier explains how to fully enjoy the varied tastes of this favorite garden crop.
So, you are about to taste lots of tomatoes. Lucky you! Thanks to the efforts of Seed Savers Exchange, we are the most fortunate tomato lovers in history, with literally thousands of tomatoes available for gardeners to grow and enjoy. Few events are as delicious, instructive, and fun as tomato tastings - so enjoy! Here are a few things to keep in mind that will enhance your experience.
You will notice something immediately - there are so many colors, sizes, and shapes. Gone is the day when the "red" tomato (tomatoes the color of Early Girl or Better Boy, two commonly grown hybrid varieties) ruled. Your eyes are not deceiving you: tomatoes can also pink, purple and brown; yellow, orange, green and white - and even combinations of colors in stripes and swirls. Look more closely at the colors, and compare the whole tomato to the smaller pieces. Color is a combination of skin color and flesh color. Red and pink tomatoes differ only by the skin color (yellow vs clear). Same with the purple and brown tomatoes.
We tend to taste food "with our eyes", forming a preconceived notion of the flavor. If you can, toss out your expectations and think about the flavor as independent from the color. Tomato flavor is very individual and unique - each variety has its own particular taste. Rather than screaming differences, contrasts are more nuanced, yet very clear.
Tomato tastes lie along a number of factors. See how you perceive the sweetness/tartness impression, simplicity vs complexity, and the relative intensity. Tomatoes that are high in sugar will taste nearly like fruit - say, a peach. Low sugar tomatoes will provide a tart, acidic, refreshing bite (often described as "the old fashioned flavor I remember when I was young"). A very few tomatoes could confuse your palate, due to the complexity of flavor factors, while others may just strike you as pretty simple and forgettable.
It is also important to keep in mind that what your taste buds perceive could be very different from your fellow tasters. A tomato that bites your tongue may come across as far sweeter to someone else. Very ripe examples of a particular variety will be quite different than one that is not quite as ripe. If this all sounds like wine, or coffee, or dark chocolate tasting, it should. Tomatoes are one of the very few things we grow (apples being another that comes to mind) with mind-blowing diversity, nuances, and options.
So get ready, take notes, open your mind - and enjoy!
Craig LeHoullier, author of the award-winning book Epic Tomatoes (Storey Publishing), joined Seed Savers Exchange in 1986. In the decades since, he has established himself as an expert in heirloom tomatoes, and serves as tomato adviser to the SSE (a position he has enjoyed for many years). He gardens in Raleigh, North Carolina. Visit his website.