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A summer favorite: Heirloom tomatoes

By Jolene Lamb, culinary coordinator, Community Education, Lincoln Land Community College

An heirloom tomato is generally considered to be a variety that has been passed down, through several generations of gardeners because of its valued characteristics. Farmers look for flavor, shape, texture and color, and then they select the seeds of the best tomato plants displaying those traits. The seeds from those selected plants are saved and planted again the following year. This cycle has continued for hundreds of years. Heirloom tomato plants are pollinated naturally in the field by wind, insects, birds and/or humans. This is known as open pollination. Since there are no restrictions on the flow of pollen between individuals, open-pollinated plants are more genetically diverse.

Why should we eat heirlooms? Because they are delicious! Seriously, there are so many distinct flavor profiles among the varieties. When was the last time you ate a store-bought tomato and thought, “Wow, this tastes great”? Chances are that boring, hybrid tomato had very little flavor. Heirlooms, on the other hand, span the scale of tastes from savory, smoky, zesty and peppery to sweet, citrusy, tart, tangy and fruity. Texture, or mouthfeel, is an important characteristic that plays into a tomato’s flavor. Texture can be described as meaty, crisp, firm, crunchy and dense. Another flavor factor is the level of acidity, which varies wildly in heirloom tomatoes. Some are very acidic; others are higher on the pH scale and are more alkaline. Some have higher levels of sugars than others. This mix of acid and sugars along with texture give heirloom tomatoes a rich and complex taste.

Because heirlooms are so diverse and full of flavor, they are one of my favorite foods of summer. Mostly, I like to eat them just straight up. Snacking on the small grape and cherry sized varieties by the handful or slicing the larger tomatoes into thick slices, dusting with a sprinkle of sea salt and carving them up like I’m eating a steak. Alone the tomatoes are delicious, but just adding a few simple ingredients can elevate them to a fresh summer salad or side dish. Replace the store tomato with an heirloom variety in a classic sandwich like the BLT and discover a whole new flavor that improves the sandwich.

Before you decide how to prepare them, you should know how to store them. A tomato that has been allowed to ripen on the vine should be eaten within a week. Store at room temperature, in a single layer on a plate or tray (not in a plastic bag) and out of sunlight. Keep in mind that if you place a tomato in the refrigerator, it will change its texture and become mealy, so avoid if possible. Wash and core prior to using.

Summer corn salad

Serves 4-6 as a side

  • 5 teaspoons olive oil, divided
  • 1 tablespoon lime juice
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 1 minced hot pepper from the garden
  • 1 ½ cups fresh sweet corn
  • 1 ½ cups heirloom tomatoes, medium dice
  • ½ cup finely chopped cucumber
  • ¼ cup finely chopped red onion
  • 2 tablespoons minced fresh basil
  • ¼ cup crumbled feta cheese (optional)
  1. In a small bowl, whisk 4 teaspoons oil, lime juice, minced pepper and salt; set aside.
  2. In a large skillet, cook and stir corn in remaining oil over medium-high heat until tender. Transfer to a salad bowl; cool slightly. Add the tomatoes, cucumber, onion and basil. Drizzle with dressing, and toss to coat.
  3. Let stand for 10 minutes before serving, or refrigerate until chilled. Sprinkle with cheese just before serving.

Sesame tomato and cucumber salad

Serves 8-10 as a side

  • 1 pound tomatoes, thinly sliced crosswise
  • 1/2 cup thinly sliced English cucumber
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon rice vinegar
  • 2 teaspoons olive oil
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons granulated sugar
  • 2 medium scallions, dark green parts only, thinly sliced
  • 1 medium serrano or jalapeno chile, thinly sliced crosswise
  • 2 teaspoons toasted sesame seeds
  1. Arrange tomato and cucumber slices on a platter.
  2. Whisk together soy sauce, vinegar, olive oil and sugar in a small bowl until sugar dissolves. Drizzle 2 tablespoons of dressing over tomatoes and cucumbers, and top with scallions, chile and sesame seeds. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
  3. Serve immediately with remaining dressing.


Lincoln Land Community College offers credit programs in Culinary Arts, Hospitality Management and Baking/Pastry, and non-credit cooking and food classes through LLCC Community Education.

Cooking or food questions? Email