A tomato connoisseur and organic gardening recommends his favorite cultivars based on flavor, reliability, and years of experience.
Find the best tomatoes for your sauce and canning recipes.
Photo by Dreamstime/picalotta
The basis of great home-preserved tomato products is, of course, great tomatoes. When preserving ketchup, tomato paste, or other dishes that require an extended amount of reduction, save time by choosing fleshy tomatoes that aren’t too watery or full of seeds. Good picks include paste and plum tomatoes along with heart-shaped and beefsteak types. Though shape or size may tell you something about the suitability of a cultivar for preservation, color should never be a factor.
Tomatoes can easily be frozen whole in freezer bags with no preparation aside from a rinse to remove any dirt and a quick check to avoid rotting areas. Skinning tomatoes before canning them is a matter of personal preference, but by eliminating this somewhat labor-intensive step, the whole process should be more accessible to beginners.
D: Determinate. All of these will grow in a 5-gallon or larger container supported by 4-foot stakes or short cages.
I: Indeterminate. These are the tomato family monsters, reaching heights of 8 feet or more by the end of the season, with their spread determined by how you prune and support them. Tie them to tall stakes with twine, or surround them with 6-foot-tall, 3-foot-wide cages made of wire mesh.
H: Heirloom. All tomatoes listed are open-pollinated, and many are heirlooms with special stories and long histories.
These are the workhorses of any sauce, paste, and canning garden. Very meaty, occasionally dry, and with few seeds, the flesh cooks down quickly into a thick product. Some are satisfying when eaten fresh, while others need to be cooked or roasted to bring out their flavor.
‘Banana Legs’ (D). A fairly recent creation, this stable midseason, open-pollinated cultivar is prolific and dazzling, with slender, yellow-fleshed tomatoes that show stripes of varying shades. Its mild flavor is enhanced by cooking.
‘Cream Sausage’ aka ‘Banana Cream’ (D). This is the go-to cultivar for a white tomato sauce. The compact vines produce loads of creamy-colored, paste-shaped tomatoes that are good for fresh eating and even better for cooking.
‘Green Sausage’ aka ‘Greensleeves’ (D). For those who really want to play with their food, here’s a paste tomato that’s green-fleshed even when ripe. Starting midseason, the compact vines produce prolifically, and the fruits have light- and dark-green stripes as a bonus.
‘Martino’s Roma’ (D, H). This classic heirloom Roma tomato ripens midseason, is super-prolific, and presents its copious yield in a concentrated harvest. Fresh fruits are firm and somewhat dry and mild in flavor, making this tomato best for canning and sauces.
‘Opalka’ (I, H). This is one of many indeterminate, heirloom paste tomatoes that produce fruit resembling big, red frying peppers, often 6 inches long by 2 inches wide. They taste great eaten fresh and are perfect for canning and sauces as they’re very meaty and have few seeds.
‘Orange Banana’ (I, H). This Russian heirloom provides many gorgeous orange tomatoes on a tall-growing vine. It ripens mid- to late-season and has the classic elongated paste-tomato shape. Also a good fresh-eating tomato, this cultivar makes a rich, orange sauce.
‘Roman Candle’ (I). Related to ‘Speckled Roman,’ this midseason tomato is a sunny, bright yellow and produces loads of slender fruit that are best used in cooked preparations or canning, as its flavor is on the mild side.
‘Speckled Roman’ (I). Perhaps my favorite paste tomato, this cultivar has everything going for it: good disease tolerance, early- to midseason ripening, a prolific nature, great flavor for any use, and a distinctive pattern of rich red with vertical gold stripes.
‘Ukrainian Purple’ aka ‘Purple Russian’ (I, H). Another of my favorite paste tomatoes, this has the rich flavor and color of ‘Cherokee Purple’ in the classic Roma shape.
Often richly delicious, typically very meaty, and with flesh that’s occasionally somewhat dry and dense, this tomato class should join the more classic plum or paste shapes as processing and preserving tomatoes. Heart-shaped tomato sizes range from 8 ounces to well over a pound, tend to be mid- to late-season, and need a minimum of six hours of direct sun to yield well.
‘Anna Russian’ (I, H). This is one of the tomatoes that hooked me on heirlooms. Brenda Hillenius of Oregon kindly shared seeds of this cultivar with me in 1988. Her grandfather, Kenneth Wilcox, was given the tomato by a Russian immigrant. My favorite pink-colored, heart shaped cultivar, this tomato’s flavor, productivity, and texture are superb.
‘Reif’s Italian Red Heart’ (I, H). I named this super-productive, succulent, medium-sized cultivar for my friend Jim Reif, who acquired it from an elderly Italian man prior to passing it on to me. Possessing weepy, wispy foliage typical of heart-shaped cultivars, this is a versatile red tomato with outstanding flavor.
‘Yellow Oxheart’ (I, H). The Livingston Seed Company released this huge, pale-orange, heart-shaped tomato in the 1920s as a companion to its big pink ‘Oxheart’ tomato. This cultivar — a great example of a “commercial heirloom” — defines “big” in everything from plant and fruit size to yield and flavor.
The true monsters of the garden, the meatiness of these cultivars screams sauce, with the advantage of typically intense, delicious flavors. Expanding your sauce and canning regimen to include some of these will make your efforts really sing!
When the kitchen counter is groaning with the weight of a particularly significant tomato harvest, consider roasting tomatoes in the oven rather than simmering them on the stovetop. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees Fahrenheit, and then combine tomato slices with a bit of olive oil, a chopped sweet onion, a chopped sweet pepper or two, and a few chopped garlic cloves. Roast for a few hours, stirring occasionally, for the most intensely flavored tomatoes possible. Once finished — if you can keep your now-ravenous appetite at bay — freeze or can the roasted tomatoes intact, or purée the tomatoes into a paste before preserving.
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