Tomatoes come in three main types: standard, hybrid, and heirloom.
Standard tomatoes are exactly what the name implies—standard. They haven’t been cross-pollinated or altered, and don’t have any heritage.
Hybrid tomatoes are the result of cross-pollinating two different varieties of tomatoes to intentionally gain the best traits of both “parent” plants. Planning for disease-resistant tomatoes is one of the big benefits of hybrid tomatoes. Hybrids can also be consistent in shape and size and have a longer shelf life. But beware growing second-generation hybrids from seeds—you can’t really be sure the tomatoes will be exactly the same as the plant from which you harvested the seeds. Popular hybrids include Cherry, Early Girl, and Grape.
Heirloom tomatoes have been generationally passed down, without cross-pollinating, for 50+ years and were originally reproduced for select characteristics such as shape, size, color (red, green, purple, orange, and yellow, for example), or appropriateness for certain growing climates. Some say that heirlooms are more flavorful than hybrids, and they’ve become much more popular with home gardeners in recent years. Some heirloom tomatoes are just perfect for canning because of the right acid content. Popular heirlooms include Black Beauty, Chocolate Stripes, and Red Zebra.
When you think about how you’ll use your own harvested tomatoes, three main categories determine what varieties you should grow:
- Tomatoes for salads, including Cherry and Grape varieties
- Tomatoes for sauces, including Roma and San Marzano varieties
- Tomatoes for sandwiches also called “slicers,” including Beefsteak varieties such as Big Beef and Brandywine
Now, tomatoes are very versatile for culinary purposes, so these aren’t hard-and-fast rules—you can use Roma tomatoes in a salad, Cherry tomatoes on a sandwich, or any Beefsteak variety in a sauce.