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The Best Type Of Tomato For Your Dish, According To Chefs

Walk into the grocery store, and you’re likely to spot a dozen different varieties of tomatoes ― cherry, grape, heirloom, vine, canned ― and even more during tomato season. It’s a drop in the bucket compared to the thousands of varieties, out there, but even deciding between a handful of breeds can be confusing.

You want to make delicious food, but with so many choices, how are you supposed to know which variety is best for which dish? To find out, HuffPost asked four renowned chefs for their recommendations on what to use for five tomato-heavy dishes: spaghetti sauce, caprese salad, creamy tomato soup, chili, and burgers or sandwiches.

Jason Wilson (James Beard Award winner, chef at Seattle’s Aerlume and Miller’s Guild)

Spaghetti sauce: I think canned San Marzano tomatoes are best for making a tomato sauce at home. There’s not a second-best option for me. They’re rich and they have a very ripe, red color.

Caprese: Head to the farmer’s market and find seven or eight different types of heirloom tomatoes. If you don’t have that opportunity, get a Kumato tomato. In the U.S. grocery stores, they come in a long, rectangular sleeve in plastic wrap.

Jane Devonshire explains Kumatos this way: “When the skin is dark green, the taste is mild and the flesh firm, great for slicing. As it ripens to a chocolate brown, it takes on a sweet and slightly spicy aroma, perfect for salads. Allowed to develop to a dark red tinge, the fruit becomes juicier and acquires a very sweet flavor.”

Creamy tomato soup: I would use Sungold tomatoes. They’re super sweet, super high in sugar. They taste like the sun. They’re orange so they look super cool as well.

Chili: Canned, diced, fire-roasted tomatoes. The tomatoes will cook without disintegrating into the sauce so it will be chunky and have that lovely flavor of smoke from the char.

Burgers or sandwiches: A really big heirloom tomato. The Jersey tomato is a real animal; it’s a beautiful beefsteak tomato. The key is to slice it half-an-inch to three-quarters of an inch. Even a full-inch, if you’re up for it.

Take the core out, salt both sides, and put them on a roasting rack for about 10 minutes. That will pull out some of the water from the fruit and what’s left is a concentrated version of the tomato. The water can be used for your chili or soup or you can add some salt and olive oil and have a really nice vinaigrette for your salad.

Green Zebra heirlooms are a perfect choice for making fried green tomatoes.

Green Zebra heirlooms are a perfect choice for making fried green tomatoes.

Bonus tomato recipe: I really enjoy the treat of the fried green tomato. They’re lots of fun.

  1. Take Green Zebras and drench them in some buttermilk, then cornmeal.

  2. Quickly pan-fry or put in a deep fryer.

  3. Pop a little chevre on top.

Jane Devonshire (Master Chef U.K. winner)

Spaghetti sauce: I use really good tinned cherry tomatoes and finish with a chopped Piccolo (cherry tomato) for freshness.

Caprese: The Kumato. When the skin is dark green, the taste is mild and the flesh firm, great for slicing. As it ripens to a chocolate brown, it takes on a sweet and slightly spicy aroma, perfect for salads. Allowed to develop to a dark red tinge, the fruit becomes juicier and acquires a very sweet flavor.

Creamy tomato soup: A classic San Marzano (not canned). The flesh is much thicker with fewer seeds, and the taste is stronger, sweeter and less acidic than other varieties.

Though most Americans only see San Marzano tomatoes in a can, this is what they look like fresh.

Though most Americans only see San Marzano tomatoes in a can, this is what they look like fresh.

Chili: I use tinned, as I like the ease and extra depth of flavor. I like a really good brand of San Marzano and some tomato paste.

Burgers or sandwiches: I use beefsteak tomatoes, not only for their large size but also their firm, meaty structure.

Bonus tomato recipe: I grow lots of varieties every year. There is nothing to compare with picking and eating a sun-warmed tomato straight from the garden. I freeze them in bags whole if I can’t use them all, then tip them into sauces and stews.

Roze Traore (chef at New York’s Eleven Madison Park)

Spaghetti Sauce: Freshly imported San Marzano tomatoes, as well as really good quality canned versions. Here’s my recommendation for amazing, simple, tasty pasta sauce:

  • 2 lbs San Marzano tomatoes

  • 1 tablespoon fresh oregano

  • 2 cloves of garlic

  • 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

  • 1 onion

  • Salt and pepper to taste

It’s not time consuming, but tastes like it’s been cooking for hours. For a more complex, modern tomato sauce, I add cherry tomatoes and Better Boy tomatoes to the mix. The cherry tomatoes balance out the acidity and provide a rounded, sweeter taste to the sauce and the Better Boys add some thickness to the overall finished product.

Caprese: Heirlooms, for sure!

Roma tomatoes break down well in slow-cooking dishes like chili.

Roma tomatoes break down well in slow-cooking dishes like chili.

Chili: Roma tomatoes. They stew well and don’t take long to break down.

Creamy tomato soup: Canned San Marzano with tomato paste. They stew beautifully. Plum tomatoes stew well, also. These tomatoes give you a great consistency when making a creamy soup.

Burger or sandwiches: Mortgage Lifter heirloom. It’s big, juicy and fits the whole patty.

Bonus tomato recipe: Heirloom tomatoes three ways:

  1. Marinate some wedges in olive oil, garlic, thyme and rosemary. Season with sea salt and enjoy!

  2. Fresh shaved slices on the mandolin (seasoned with salt, olive oil and a drizzle of aged balsamic) and served on your favorite bread or crostini wedges.

  3. Pickle wedges in white balsamic vinegar for about five days and then jar them. If you only have time for a quick pickle, just an hour will give you a light vinegar-y taste.

Pair with fresh mozzarella or feta to create an entire vegetarian dish.

Holly Smith (James Beard Award winner, chef at Cafe Juanita)

Spaghetti sauce: San Marzano or Roma, especially Amish Paste, which is a a super sweet Roma heirloom breed. For a seasonal option, I love to take heirloom tomatoes, including cherry tomatoes, and toss them generously with extra virgin olive oil and every herb I can find and roast them on a rack in a hot oven (400 degrees Fahrenheit) until they have released much of their juice and the flesh is concentrated. We save the “rendered” tomato juice and make our sauce à la minute with the tomatoes, adding reserved juice to taste.

Caprese: A mix of tomatoes for texture, visual impact and flavor, because different types have varying acidity levels. Brandywine, Purple Cherokee and Green Zebra tomatoes are great.

Purple Cherokee tomatoes (seen at the bottom of the basket) are a beautiful addition to a caprese salad.

Purple Cherokee tomatoes (seen at the bottom of the basket) are a beautiful addition to a caprese salad.

Creamy tomato soup: Use the most ripe and most delicious tomatoes you can find. Any heirloom variety. They bring acidity to the dish. In winter months, San Marzano or home-canned Amish Paste Romas are wonderful.

Chili: San Marzano again. Flavor and texture holds up.

Burgers or sandwiches: Heirlooms: Brandywine, Chocolate Stripe or Cherokee, especially with a BLT or a LTAvocado on lightly toasted potato bread to soak up the juice of the tomatoes. Another nice idea is a salsa of Sweet 100s and Sungold cherry tomatoes that soak into a soft roll or potato or ciabatta.

Bonus tomato recipe: Heirloom tomatoes (a mix not including Zebra), ripe nectarine, shallots macerated in colatura, dressed with extra virgin olive oil; a small amount of mashed avocado in a nest for the mixture (cut in hunks to get the texture and intense flavor); rings of fish-saucy shallots scattered throughout the salad; and one or two crisp fried squash blossoms on top.

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