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Why are heirloom tomatoes so expensive? And what makes them so special? Those are questions you may find yourself asking right about now, since summer isn’t just tomato season. It’s also FANCY tomato season. I’m talking about heirloom tomatoes, those farmers’ market beauties that come in a variety of shapes, sizes, colors, and flavors. Though visually stunning, it’s the quality that sets heirloom tomatoes apart from their garden variety supermarket brethren.

Hybrid Tomatoes: The Honda Civic of Tomatoes

If heirloom tomatoes are so superior, why do tomatoes that are not of the heirloom persuasion dominate the shelves? Those familiar beefsteak, roma, grape, cherry, and Campari tomato varieties you’ve encountered so often are hybrid tomatos that have been scientifically engineered for disease resistance, high yields, and a long shelf life. Basically, ensuring year-round availability in abundance trumps maximizing flavor potential.

And let’s be clear: These tried and true varieties are a-ok. Think of them as the Honda Civic of tomatoes: affordable, dependable, gets your taste buds where they need to go.

Related Reading: How to Grow Tomatoes in Your Garden

Heirloom Tomatoes: Souped-Up Sports Cars with Pedigrees (and Finicky Dispositions)

Heirloom tomatoes, on the other hand, are like a souped-up sports car: bold, eye-catching, with a flavor that laps the competition. These top of the line tomatoes are tried and true, grown from seeds that have been passed from generation to generation (hence the name “heirloom”). Over decades of production they’ve become accustomed to local growing conditions ensuring consistency. While pollination of hybrid tomatoes is often relegated to controlled environments such as greenhouses, all heirloom tomatoes are open-pollinated so their seeds are naturally spread by animals and the wind.  These attributes essentially result in the flip side of hybrids—better quality but more susceptibility to disease, lower yields, and a shorter shelf life.

Heirloom Tomato Seeds and Plants from Burpee (prices vary)

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Needless to say, heirloom tomatoes are temperamental. They ripen quickly and bruise easily which means that when you see them for sale there’s an excellent chance they’ve been grown locally. It’s no wonder heirloom tomatoes cost more than conventional hybrids.

Eckerton Hill Farm Farmer's Choice Heirloom Tomato Variety Pack (3 Pounds), $54 from Goldbelly

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Family Heirlooms: The Many Varieties of Heirloom Tomatoes

Though heirloom tomatoes share many traits, not all are alike. In fact, the number of different varieties is in the hundreds. While giant Brandywines (a must for Caprese salads) with their signature ridges tend to be the poster child of heirloom tomatoes, there are plenty of smaller options like the Juane Flamme which are suitable for snacking.  Then, of course, there’s the pride of Italy, the medium-sized, elongated San Marzano, an exceptional choice for pasta sauces.

Cento San Marzano Organic Peeled Tomatoes, Pack of 6 for $20.88 from Amazon

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Color also serves as a reflection of the diversity of heirlooms, with each shade offering a different flavor profile. If you’re looking to stick with a familiar, well-balanced tomato flavor, keep an eye out for pink and red varieties. Want something a little smokier? Options of a darker hue including Black Beauty, Chocolate Lighting, and Cherokee Purple are the way to go.

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Green heirlooms such as the Aunt Ruby’s Green and Green Zebra are known for their pronounced acidity—but don’t mistake them for unripe green tomatoes which are extra firm and tart. For something a little sweeter, yellow and orange tomatoes should be your color of choice.

All things considered, few will argue that pound for pound heirlooms are the superior tomato option when compared to hybrids, at least when it comes to providing that big, juicy flavor—plus their names are so much more fun to say. But are heirloom tomatoes worth the extra cost? That’s for you to decide. Just don’t take too long or the choice will no longer be available to make. Until next summer, anyway.

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Header image courtesy of Tetra Images/Getty Images

David is a food and culture writer based in Los Angeles by way of New York City. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, CBS Local, Mashable, and Gawker.
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