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A Florida Tomato Taste Test

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Are your tomatoes tasteless? Don’t give up just yet.

IMG_2992There’s a lot of sentiment that tomatoes just don’t “taste like they used to,” thanks to supposed genetic mutations that were incorporated to give the fruit (yes, fruit) a uniform color. We’ve also heard about tomatoes that are picked before they’re ripe and then gassed to make them fresh, but that can affect flavor.

Our advice? If you still haven’t found a tomato you like, look locally and keep trying different kinds. And here’s why you should try Florida tomatoes: The Sunshine State ranks first among all states for the value of its production of fresh-market tomatoes, and it provides 31% of the U.S. value of fresh-market tomatoes, according to a 2014 report from the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

We recently compared five Florida-grown tomatoes head-to-head for an unofficial, unscientific, and fun taste test.

The contenders were: 1. Tasti-Lee, a variety developed by the University of Florida and sold at Publix and other supermarkets around the state, 2. a generic “Florida tomato” with no label of origin except that we know it was grown in the Sunshine State (it was purchased at Sarasota’s Detwiler’s market), 3. heirloom tomatoes from a company in Pompano Beach, Fla., called Southern Selects, 4. Nature’s Finest, which shows an outline of the state on its sticker, and 5. Santa Sweets, a cherry tomato grown sold by a company in Plant City.

DSC_0109We sprinkled some salt on all the tomato samples and then tried each on its own as well as with a little balsamic vinegar and cheese—because we’ll find any excuse we can to include cheese.

Putting Florida Tomatoes to a Taste Test

Here’s how things went:

Tasti-Lee and the generic Florida tomato. Both had a manageable, medium-sized shape and a fresh smell reminiscent of summer. However, they weren’t quite as crisp as we thought they’d be.

DSC_0111The heirloom tomatoes had taste bursting through their yellow, light green, and red skin. However, as we relished the flavors, we took a second look at the packaging and noticed the company that makes them is in Florida but it also said (in “put-on-your-reading-glasses” font size) “Product of Guatemala”. Oops!

Nature’s Finest had a nice texture and crispness to it, but its flavor was pretty bland.

Santa Sweet tomatoes, which feature Elmo on the packaging (as part of a produce industry effort to get kids to eat their fruits and veggies more), were tiny, crisp and had a distinct, flavorful taste.

The final ranking? The Santa Sweet cherry tomatoes won first place, followed by the heirlooms (apparently not actually grown here), then the Tasti-Lee and generic, and finally Nature’s Finest.

A few caveats: First, Santa Sweets are the tomatoes we usually buy and use on sandwiches, in tacos, or just for snacks. However, we were completely open to adopting a new “house tomato” had another prevailed.

IMG_2999Second, despite our efforts toward equal freshness, these tomatoes could have been at different levels of freshness, which would affect taste and crispness. So, you can consider our rankings when you choose tomatoes, but don’t decide to avoid something based on our unscientific report. Also, we didn’t try every Florida-grown tomato possibility out there. For example, you can find a variety called UglyRipe, named for its odd look but (supposedly) yummy, ripe taste. It’s produced by the same company that makes the Santa Sweet cherry tomatoes. Explore different varieties and textures to find one you like, and don’t forget about heirloom and homegrown tomatoes.

Third, get to know what you like in a tomato. In our house, we apparently gravitate toward smaller ones with more flavor. However, if you’re making a BLT sandwich, texture or size may be important for you.

IMG_2991Finally, if you haven’t learned this already, keep your tomatoes out of the fridge. That just zaps their taste. To quote the Florida Tomato Committee, “Florida Tomatoes Taste Great When You Don’t Refrigerate.”

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