The Five Dollar Tomato- Worth It?



I think of tomatoes as the bridge food between summer and fall.  Just when the summer fruit season in the Northeast is ending – the crowd of peaches is thinning at the farmers market and the blueberries have packed up, the most flavorful tomatoes are only just arriving and will be around for at least another month. And they only get better and better as they’ve had time to soak up the August rays.

The only issue I have with tomatoes is that like with many fruits, it can be impossible to tell what’s on the inside by looking at the outside. Most supermarket tomatoes are picked when still hard – so they wont bruise when shipped long distances – and then artificially “ripened” using ethylene gas. The gas turns the outside of the tomato red, but the inside is often still unripe.

It seems that the only tomatoes that are somewhat “guaranteed” to be edible are the heirloom variety (the “ugly” asymmetrical ones), but these can set you back five bucks a tomato! When did this happen?!  When did the price of admission to the inside of a deep red, juicy tomato reach such stratospheric heights?  If you want to get a fruit that has more flavor than a kitchen sponge, do you really need to pay $7/lb?

I decided to find out and did a taste test with five farmer’s market tomatoes.

The candidates were: 1) An heirloom tomato ($7/lb), 2) An organic, greenhouse grown (in dirt) basic tomato ($5/lb), 3) A non-organic greenhouse-grown (in dirt) basic tomato ($2.50/lb), 4) A beefsteak, field-grown tomato ($4/lb), and, 5) A hydroponically grown tomato (i.e. with water and no soil) ($4/lb).

The verdict

(in descending order of likeability):

5) Hydroponic: No taste whatsoever

4) The non-organic greenhouse grown: Limited taste and tough in the middle

3) The beefsteak: Very red and juicy but a little bit mushy inside

2) The organic greenhouse grown: Quite flavorful but would have liked it to be sweeter

1) The heirloom: Juicy, sweet, solid but not tough on the inside

I was so hoping the results would be different. I was so hoping that the heirloom tomato was an over-priced vanity fruit. “Heirloom” – the name alone has the ring of poshness. Like a table that gets called “antique” rather than “Grandma’s wooden table”, and a price that goes from $50 to $5000.

I was surprised though, how much flavor the organic, greenhouse tomato had. I am always a little wary of anything grown in a greenhouse, as it strikes me that they simply can’t be as flavorful or nutritious as anything grown in a field- where the plant can soak up unfiltered sunshine, be washed with summer rain, and nourished by soil saturated with worms.  When I asked the vendor about the use of a greenhouse, she said they have highly nutritious soil (due to the lack of pesticides) and this, along with the fact that they can protect the fruit from extreme temps and weather, makes them so tasty.

I recognize that this was not the most scientific of tests as there are a myriad number of variables that will impact flavor that go way beyond the basic labels that I mentioned above – organic vs. conventional, soil quality, the ripeness of the tomato when picked. So, this very limited test was limited.

The bottom line is, I do feel like it is worth paying more for a really great tomato. Otherwise your red kitchen sponge with some salt might work fine.

Any tomato stories, thoughts or learning, you care to share?

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