Learn how to grow the best stuffing tomato varieties.
When I was growing up, mom would make stuffed tomatoes. Basically, she scraped out the seeds, core and flesh, and used the remaining tomato as a shell to hold tuna or other cold salads.
I hated them. The juice from the tomato and its thin walls would turn everything into a mushy mess.
Things would have been different if Mom had known about stuffing tomato varieties developed specifically for that purpose. Resembling bell peppers, stuffing tomatoes are thick-walled, hollow and relatively juice-free. "When you slice one open, the seed gel is in the middle and the rest is hollow," says Marianne Jones, who stocks seed for nine different stuffers at Marianna's Heirloom Seeds, in Dickson, Tennessee. "Sales are not big," she says, "but that's only because people don't know about them and how much fun they are."
Stuffing tomatoes are more popular with chefs — when they can get them — than with the gardening public. Chefs like them because they make beautiful, decorative presentations for both cold and hot dishes.
Even without widespread popularity, stuffing tomatoes come in incredible ranges of size, shape and color. On one end of the continuum are varieties like "Coursen Roy's," a large, reddish-orange tomato with a fairly standard round shape, albeit slightly taller than it is wide. On the other end is "Zapotec Pink Pleated," a heavily ribbed, double-bowled tomato that's a true pink color. "Zapotec Pink" looks as if two smaller, fig-shaped tomatoes were stuck together. "Schimmeig Striped Hollow" looks like a striated 'Delicious' apple — red with yellow and orange markings.
Most of the stuffers, however, look like lobed bell peppers and come in single colors, such as "Yellow Stuffer" and "Orange Stuffer," which are the most commonly available varieties. They are configured inside like bell peppers, as well. When you cut the top off, you'll find the seed mass forms a "strawberry" just under the stem. The rest is hollow, except for a few ribs in some varieties. The flesh is thick and moist, but not runny.
Stuffers, according to Darrell "The Tomato Man" Merrell, are among the earliest tomato cultivars. "They're almost all from Mexico originally," the Tulsa, Okla., resident says. "Precontact Aztecs were great tomato cultivators, much more so than South American tribes — even though tomatoes originated there."
Lacking the broad appeal that attracts large-scale commercial growers, stuffing tomatoes have been kept going primarily by amateur growers, small market farmers and specialty seed houses. They are showing up now in mainstream seed catalogs. The chart, A Super Selection of Stuffing Tomatoes, includes 11 varieties and four mail-order sources.
Stuffers are said to score low on the flavor scale. Perhaps so, but many do have a rich, tomato taste with little acidity to overpower the flavors of the food put inside them. Many people cut them up into salads instead of using standard slicing tomatoes. The stutters provide a tomato taste that complements the other salad ingredients without dominating them.
You're not likely to find stuffers at the supermarket or farm stand yet, which means you'll have to grow them yourself. Seed is readily available, with many seed houses stocking at least one type.
Stuffers are grown the same way as any other tomato. However, because you'll be using them as edible bowls, it's more important that you prevent blemishes from blight, bug bites and cracking. While you could cut out such blemishes, it detracts from the overall appearance of the dish, especially when the tomato is used raw as a salad bowl. If you grow for the market, bear in mind that chefs will not accept blemished stuffers.
The secret to blemish-free fruit is airspace. Space plants at least 30 inches apart, in rows at least 3 feet apart, and thin out any excess growth. Consistent watering is particularly important, both to fend off blossom-end rot and to prevent cracking. Most stuffing tomatoes produce large, brushy, indeterminate plants that need strong support. I recommend growing them in wire-mesh towers.
One potential downside to growing stuffers is that they are very prolific. "Schimmeig Striped Hollow," for instance, seems to put out as many fruits as a cherry tomato plant. And "Coursen Roy's" definitely does. Bobbi Cavanaugh, codirector of New Jersey's Garden State Heirloom Seed Society, has found that stuffers can be frozen and still serve for cooked dishes. "Top and core the tomatoes and drain any liquid," she says. "Put in freezer bags, squeezing out as much air as possible. Freeze."
When ready to use, remove as many as you need, she says. "Put them in a barely warm oven — not more than 250 degrees Fahrenheit. Drain the water as they defrost. When they are thawed but not cooked — about 15 to 20 minutes — fill with stuffing and bake as the recipe requires."
Now, see Stuffed Tomato Recipes: A Meal in an Edible Bowl for some new dishes you can make with your stuffers.
A Super Selection of Stuffing Tomatoes
"Costoluto Genovese" — Italian variety that bears lumpy, red fruits with a delicious, slightly tart flavor.
"Brown Derby Mix" — A red tomato with a hint of brown, slightly elongated like a bell pepper, about 3-by-3 inches.
"Dad's Mug" — A large, elongated, red tomato, grows to 8 ounces or more.
"Yellow Ruffles" — Round, flattened, scalloped tomato about the diameter of an orange. Particularly good for cooking.
"Green Bell Pepper" — A green (when ripe) tomato with gold stripes. More appealing to the restaurant trade than the home gardener because it scores low in the flavor department.
"Brown Flesh" — A mahogany tomato with green stripes.
"Liberty Bell" — A bright scarlet, bell pepper-shaped tomato.
"Zapotec Pink Pleated" — A heavily ribbed, true pink, 4 inch tomato.
"Coursen Roy's" — A large, reddish-orange tomato, slightly taller than wide.
"Schimmelg Striped Hollow" — A red tomato with yellow and orange stripes.
"Yellow Stuffer" or "Orange Stuffer" — A widely available tomato that looks like a bell pepper.