A Concise Guide to the Different Types of Tomatoes
How to select, eat and cook 9 common tomato varieties.
By Layla Khoury-Hanold for Food Network Kitchen
Layla Khoury-Hanold is a contributor at Food Network.
Eating the rainbow is usually an adage that applies to vegetables, but it’s equally apt for tomatoes. From Sungold cherry tomatoes to Green Zebra globe tomatoes to reddish-purple heirloom Purple Cherokees, there’s a wide variety of tasty tomatoes to eat and cook with. But which ones are best eaten raw in sandwiches and salads? Which ones can take a little heat to make a pan sauce or roast to candy-like sweetness for crostini and sides? What kinds of tomatoes should you avoid at the grocery store? Here, we explore 9 common types of tomatoes, what to look for, and how to use them in some of our favorite recipes.
What Are Tomatoes?
Tomatoes are part of the nightshade family, which also includes potatoes, peppers and eggplants. Although the U.S. Supreme Court declared them a vegetable in 1893, tomatoes are actually a fruit since they grow on a vine. They're in season from May through October, with some variation depending on where you live.
As their name suggests, beefsteak tomatoes are big and juicy with a mild flavor and thick flesh. When they reach their prime in late summer, they can weigh up to a pound each (sometimes more!). Because beefsteak tomatoes have a high-water content, they’re best eaten raw in salads or sandwiches. Try slicing beefsteaks to top burgers or layer into sandwiches, such as a Classic Club Sandwich, Tomato Tea Sandwiches, or these Almost-Famous Tomato, Basil and Mozzarella Flatbread Sandwiches. Beefsteaks also hold their shape nicely in salads, as with this BLT Pasta Salad or in a classic Caprese Salad. You can find beefsteak tomatoes at many grocery stores year-round, but out of season they’re often mealy, watery and much less flavorful compared to the ones available in summer. For the choicest beefsteak tomatoes, seek out heirloom varietals at summer produce stands.
Plum tomatoes have thin skins, few seeds and a tangy flavor profile. Common varieties include Roma and San Marzano—Roma tomatoes are what you’ll likely see at the supermarket, San Marzano varieties are often sold canned. Plum tomatoes are relatively low in water content, so they’re a good choice for making tomato-based sauces, as with this Grilled Tomato Cocktail Sauce that’s perfect for grilled shrimp, a quick-and-easy Box Grater Salsa, or this Fresh Tomato Pizza Sauce recipe that’ll take your pies next level. They lend themselves to roasting, which helps concentrate their flavor and brings out their sweetness. Try making our Slow Roasted Tomatoes to add to sandwiches, pasta dishes and sides, or make these Crostini with Thyme-Roasted Tomatoes for your next dinner party. Roma tomatoes can also be preserved—try making this slather-on-everything Spicy Tomato Jam this summer. Available in grocery stores year-round, Roma tomatoes tend to have better flavor than off-season beefsteaks or globe tomatoes, making them a better choice in winter
Cherry tomatoes are round, bite-size tomatoes with thin, snappy skins that are bursting with sweet tomato flavor. Cherry tomatoes are at their peak in summer, but flavorful cherry tomatoes are widely available year-round. They’re most commonly red in color, but also come in other hues such as orange, green and yellow (Sungold is a common yellow variety). Cherry tomatoes are versatile and can be enjoyed raw or cooked. Try tossing them into a Summer Pasta Salad, threading them onto Caprese-inspired skewers, or snacking on ‘em by the handful. Or try roasting cherry tomatoes. In this popular Baked Feta Pasta recipe, cherry tomatoes are roasted alongside a block of feta to create a jammy, tangy sauce to coat rigatoni. If you’d like to try growing tomatoes at home, cherry tomatoes offer the most bang for your buck and are a good choice for beginners, too.
Grape tomatoes are small, oblong-shaped tomatoes with a similar sweet flavor profile to that of cherry tomatoes. Try snacking on them raw, adding them to salads or roasting them to pair with grilled fare, like this Snapper with Roasted Grape Tomatoes dish. Grape tomatoes have a slightly lower water content and are a bit firmer and sturdier than cherry tomatoes, making them well-suited to sautéing. In this Pappardelle with Corn recipe, they’re used to make a pan sauce, but they still hold their shape nicely during cooking and add textural contrast.
Globe tomatoes are part of the "slicer tomato" family and one of the most common varieties. These are often what you see at the supermarket, where they might simply be labeled as red tomatoes. Globe tomatoes have a thin, snappy skin and a juicy interior, making them an excellent choice for slicing and adding to burgers or sandwiches. Despite their year-round availability, globe tomatoes are best purchased in season at farmers markets or produce stands, where they come in a variety of colors, including red, yellow and green. If you do buy globe tomatoes from the grocery store, avoid selecting any that are light red or pink or super firm, as these will lack flavor and juiciness. Look for ones that are red to deep red in color and yield slightly when gently squeezed.
The size of a cocktail tomato lands somewhere between a cherry tomato and a globe tomato. At the grocery store, you’ll commonly see a variety marketed as Campari tomatoes. They add a sweet-tangy burst when chopped and added raw to salads, like this Arugula and Tomato Salad, or in an alfresco-supper-ready Mediterranean Chicken Salad.
Some green tomatoes, like the Green Zebra, fall under the heirloom tomato category. But in this case, we’re referring to unripe tomatoes. Green tomatoes are commonly used to make Fried Green Tomatoes to be served with remoulade sauce, to accompany fried chicken or fish, or stacked into Fried Green Tomato Sandwiches. Green tomatoes can also be served raw, as with this Spicy Green Tomato-Avocado Salad where wedges are dressed in a jalapeno-spiked dressing.
On the Vine
On the vine tomatoes are also known as hot house tomatoes, which means that they are grown in greenhouses. They are mild in flavor, but the quality of flavor varies. This One Pot Spaghetti with Fresh Tomato Sauce is a good bet for on-the-vine tomatoes, which also calls for a dollop of tomato paste as insurance against any subpar tomatoes.
Heirloom tomatoes are those that are bred with open-air pollination; they cannot contain any genetically modified organisms. Beyond that, the definition of "heirloom" is often debated; some say a variety must be 100 years old to be considered an heirloom, others say 50 years is old enough, some maintain that a heirloom tomato’s lineage must be equivalent to three human generations.
No matter how you slice it, heirloom tomatoes are often the most flavorful and tomato-tasting of the bunch. They are at their peak in mid-to-late summer, where you’ll see them overflowing on farmers markets’ displays. Heirloom tomatoes come in a variety of shapes, sizes and colors, from golden yellow to green to orange to purplish-red. Heirloom tomatoes are very flavorful; Brandywine and Cherokee Purple are both heirloom beefsteak tomatoes lauded for their sweetness, juiciness and flavor. Because they’re so flavorful, heirloom tomatoes lend themselves to a variety of raw dishes. Snack on them sprinkled with a little salt, or slice and stack ‘em between slices of white bread slicked with mayo for a classic tomato sandwich. Show off heirloom tomatoes in summery dishes like Spicy Shrimp-Tomato Ceviche or Tomato and Watermelon Gazpacho, both simple dishes that call for peak-season ingredients.
Eat the rainbow of heirloom tomatoes by fanning out different colored slices in a show-stopping Heirloom Tomato Pie, or alternating them on a platter with sliced mozzarella for an especially pretty Caprese. Heirlooms are a good choice for sauces, such as this No-Cook Tomato Sauce that’s a fine match for simple pasta or grilled fish dishes. They can also be used in canning recipes for pasta sauces or salsa.
A medium-sized tomato contains 25 calories, no fat and 3 grams of sugar. They’re an excellent source of the antioxidants vitamins A and C and a good source of potassium, folate, vitamin B6 and thiamin. Many folks promote tomatoes because of their high lycopene content (look on the back of most ketchup bottles and you'll see something about it). Lycopene is an antioxidant that studies have linked to helping reduce heart disease and cancer risks.
How to Choose Tomatoes
Choose tomatoes that are heavy for their size and intensely colored. They should be firm, but not rock-hard. Heirloom tomatoes might have blemishes, which don't necessarily affect quality. Smell the blossom end — it should have an earthy, fresh tomato smell.
How to Store Tomatoes
Tomatoes store best at room temperature for several days; your refrigerator's cold temperature kills the flavor and creates a mealy texture.
How to Ripen Tomatoes Fast
To ripen up unripe tomatoes, place them in a paper bag, punch a few small holes in it and drop in an apple. Let it sit for several days and the ethylene gas emitted from the apple helps ripen the tomato.
How to Cut Tomatoes
Use a serrated or razor-sharp knife to slice tomatoes, which will slice through the skin smoothly without crushing the flesh. Lay a tomato on its side and slice off the stem-end, then make parallel slices down the length of the tomato. If you're making salsa, you can use the wide holes of a box grater to both peel and finely chop. Grate quartered tomatoes up to the skin; discard the skin.
How to Peel Tomatoes
Although you don't have to peel tomatoes, it's a nice touch for long-cooked dishes. Otherwise, the peel comes off during cooking and it can catch in your throat when you're eating the finished dish. The easiest way to peel three or more tomatoes is to make a small, shallow X on the bottom of the tomato, and then cut out the top core. Immerse the tomato in boiling water for about 10 seconds — just long enough to loosen the skin — and then transfer to ice water. Take care to not leave the tomato in the boiling water too long; you don't want the tomato to cook. When the tomato has cooled, the skin will easily slip off. If you only need one or two tomatoes and you're serving them raw, an extremely sharp vegetable peeler will also get the job done.