The Basics of Tomato Flavor

by Karen Weiland, Advanced Master Gardener

There are plenty of fresh tomatoes to be had this time of year.  What makes the best tasting tomato?  Well, that all depends on what your taste buds Tomatoes2prefer and a blend of plant chemistry and garden variables such as temperature, soil, rain and sun.

Tomato flavor is a balance of sugar and acidity and the mix of other compounds within the tomato.  Sugars and acids are more fully understood, but the mix of the other compounds are still a bit elusive.  The tomatoes that have a more sour or acidic taste have higher levels of acids combined with low levels of sugars.  A tomato high in sugars and low in acids is going to have a sweeter taste.  If a tomato is low in both sugar and acid, it will have a bland taste.  According to the University of Florida tomato breeder Dr. Jay Scott “an interaction of a plants’ genetics with the environment is the key to tomato flavor.”

Tomatoes
After these cherry tomatoes have ripened, they are a tasty treat to pop into my mouth as I am gardening.

Choose certain varieties for flavor.  Size of fruit- higher sugar concentrations are reached in cherry and grape tomatoes as opposed to the full size tomatoes.  Color of fruit-different pigments tend to produce different balances of sugars and acids.  Orange or yellow fruits often taste milder and less acidic than their red counterparts.  Some black tomatoes, which are created from the mixture of red and green pigments, have a tendency to have a more complex flavor.  A yellow tomato is not necessarily less acidic than a red or black tomato, it’s that the combination of sugar and acid levels and the other elusive compounds I mentioned earlier, makes for a milder taste.  Have yourself a tomato tasting, try some of each color and decide for yourself.  Foliage-an abundance of leaves can catch a greater amount of sunlight, therefore a plant with a lot of healthy foliage can convert more sunlight into sugars and other flavor enhancing components.  Do you prefer heirloom varieties?  Their abundance of leaves may partially explain why some folks think they are so packed with flavor.

Tweaking your gardening practices can also help make a difference in flavor.  Soil-don’t forget that all important soil test.  Amend the soil with lots of organic matter and include plenty of potassium and sulfur.  Water sparingly as the fruit matures as dry soil concentrates flavor compounds.  Temperature-the ideal temps for growing tomatoes is 80’s during the day and 50 to 60 during the night.  This does not mean that you cannot grow great tasting tomatoes if you have less than ideal temps, it helps to choose varieties that are suited to your growing zone.  Sun-tomatoes prefer 8 hours of full sun daily.  Sunlight maximizes photosynthesis in tomatoes, allowing the plants to make carbohydrates that are turned into sugars, acids and other compounds in them.

In the end it’s all a matter of taste – yours!

As always, Happy Gardening!

More information about gardening and related subjects can be found online at www.hort.purdue.edu/ext/garden_pubs  The Purdue University Cooperative Extension Service can be reached at 499-6334 in LaGrange Co., 636-2111 in Noble Co., 925-2562 in DeKalb Co. and 668-1000 in Steuben Co.

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