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Don Kinzler, Published August 30 2013

Growing Together: Searching for answers in Great Tomato Wars

Tomato-lovers are now in paradise as homegrown fruits ripen in gardens, flower beds and patio pots.

We know home-grown tomatoes are the Holy Grail of vegetables, but did great-grandmother’s tomatoes taste better than varieties grown in today’s gardens?

Much has been publicized lately questioning whether hybrids developed in recent years are as flavorful as the varieties of yesteryear, called heirlooms. Media leaders ranging from USA Today to Martha Stewart have tackled the issue.

I decided it’s time to settle the controversy once and for all for Northern gardeners. Besides, are we really sure we can trust someone who prefers the pronunciation toe-maahh-toe instead of to-may-to?

Heirloom tomatoes are varieties that have existed before 1960. Some are more than a century old, like Brandywine, Oxheart, Red Zebra and Mortgage Lifter.

Heirlooms are being pitted against hybrids. Most of the varieties grown in today’s gardens are hybrids that were developed after 1960. Common are Celebrity, Big Beef, Fantastic, Early Girl and Big Boy.

A hybrid is formed when one variety is cross-pollinated with another. For example, a large fruited tomato can be crossed with one having great flavor with hopes of combining the traits. Hybrids can occur in nature when bees fly between flowers of two different varieties.

To conduct a taste test between heirlooms and modern hybrids, five Forum newspaper staffers became our panel of tasters.

Panelists were given a slice of seven tomato varieties, sampling one at a time. Only I knew the identities, and samples were rotated between heirlooms and hybrids. To keep things interesting, I sneakily added a sample of a “store bought” tomato, but The Forum’s Jack Zaleski identified it immediately, and it wasn’t complimentary.

Our taste test included three modern garden hybrids, three heirloom varieties and the “store-bought” tomato from the produce section of the grocery store. Panelists recorded their impressions of taste, texture, appearance, juiciness and sweetness/acidity. Tomato identities were not revealed until the entire taste test was completed.

Here is a compilation of comments:

Hybrid tomatoes: Sweet, fragrant, juicy, less flavor, most flavor of all, good color, not much flavor, bursting with flavor, great texture.

Heirloom tomatoes: Acidic, juicy, tangy flavor, flavor too mild, appealing flavor, bland, flavor better than most, sour, tough skin, unappealing color.

When analyzing the comments to determine a conclusion, contradictory comments were obvious. For example, the same hybrid sample was considered by one panelist to have less flavor, while another panelist termed it bursting with flavor.

This is to be expected. Almost everyone has a slightly different opinion of the perfect tomato taste.

Another variable determining flavor is degree of ripeness. Some prefer tomatoes firm-ripe, while others like them fully ripened with a softer texture.

All panelists agreed on one thing – a hybrid cherry tomato. All comments were favorable: delectable, sugary, super sweet, like eating candy, my favorite tomato.

What can we conclude? Which tastes better, heirlooms or hybrids? The answer lies in the contradictory comments. If we exclude the cherry tomato, neither heirloom nor hybrid was a runaway winner, although the hybrid varieties received slightly more positive comments.

Based on this admittedly unscientific flavor test, we can draw several conclusions. We cannot say that all heirloom tomatoes taste better than the hybrids developed over the past 50 years. And we cannot say that the hybrids have the better flavor for all people’s taste.

Although taste is a must-have characteristic, there are other important traits to consider. Heirlooms tend to be more susceptible to disease, while many hybrids have been bred with resistance to blights. Some large heirlooms are late to ripen in Northern gardens, and their fruit are more prone to cracking and disfigurement.

On the plus side, heirlooms exhibit some interesting types and flavors not available in hybrids. Also, you can collect seeds from heirloom varieties but not F1 hybrids.

Based on all the evidence, I’m ready to make a recommendation, at least for my own garden. I’m going to plant mostly hybrids because I like the combination of flavor and disease resistance. But I’m also going to save space for an heirloom variety or two because they can be fun, and I’ve always liked antiques.

Although many people have never tasted heirlooms, you can find them increasingly available at local farmer’s markets.

In the Fargo area, I located a nice assortment at the Veggie Barn in the South University Drive Kmart parking lot, operated by Ladybug Acres and grown organically. Hildebrandt Farmers Market in West Fargo also sells small baskets filled with several different heirlooms.

How did our taste test compare with USA Today and Martha Stewart Living? We all concluded the same thing: Many hybrids taste as good as many heirlooms. There’s no need to wage a war. Let’s just enjoy the tomato season.

Don Kinzler, a lifelong gardener, worked as an NDSU Extension horticulturist and owned Kinzler’s Greenhouse in Fargo. Readers can reach him at forumgrowingtogether@hotmail.com