When I was a girl, my mom and I took weekly trips to the market for fruit and vegetables. Even then, I was fascinated by the different apples, lettuce, peppers, and tomatoes—although there was just one kind of paste tomato, and it was always called ‘Roma’. Gardening and canning have since become a minor obsession and a favorite pastime of mine, and I’ve realized that it’s not just one variety of paste tomato that results in the tastiest salsa, the creamiest ketchup, or the richest spaghetti sauce. That’s when I decided to put paste tomatoes to the test. I scrutinized the catalogs and talked with local market growers and gardeners. For the next two years, I grew 20 varieties in my garden so that I could discover for myself if there really was any difference.
Stick to a few tried-and-true types
Naturally, flavor is a big factor in what makes a tomato great, but disease resistance, productivity, texture, and ripening time are also important. It doesn’t matter how flavorful a tomato is if the growing season is over long before it ripens. The six varieties that are tops in my book are ‘Black Prince’, ‘Early Cascade’, ‘Italian Gold’, ‘Saucy’, ‘Sausage’, and ‘Viva Italia’. Each produces well and has great flavor in good and bad growing seasons alike. These six can be grown in any region where the average tomato can ripen, especially when you are starting with seedlings.
Originally from Siberia, ‘Black Prince’ has a rich, deep garnet color I love. Like a chameleon, the color changes depending on where you live. Increased sun and heat encourage a deeper color with an almost chocolate glow. The round, egg-size fruits ripen early on indeterminate but restrained vines. I use ‘Black Prince’ fresh in salads and pasta dishes or combined with ‘Viva Italia’ for sensational salsa.
‘Early Cascade’ is an early, disease-resistant, and vigorous plant that performs especially well when staked or caged. The rounded, slightly heart-shaped fruit produce an almost continuous bumper crop of tomatoes right until the end of the season.
‘Italian Gold’ puts on a show-stopping performance with its beautiful golden yellow fruit and prolific yields. Easy to peel, this tomato is high in pectin, and its refreshing taste makes it perfect for canning and freezing.
No paste tomato is perfect for every need, but ‘Early Cascade’ and ‘Italian Gold’ come close. The fruit are a match for just about every use, although ‘Early Cascade’ may not produce the thickest ketchup and sauces. Because both are easy to peel, they are also the best for canning.
When space is at a premium, plant ‘Saucy’. Its determinate, disease-resistant vines are compact but prolific. The easy-to-peel fruit grow in clusters that hold well on the vine until you’re ready for them. Use ‘Saucy’ for salsa making or canning.
‘Sausage’ really surprised me for several reasons. The indeterminate plant can grow quite tall, and the meaty fruit, shaped like its namesake, can grow up to 6 inches long. A dependable heirloom variety, ‘Sausage’ comes into full production later in the season, when there is less garden work and more time to devote to preserving the harvest.
A midseason tomato, ‘Viva Italia’ is one of the first hybrid Italian paste-type tomatoes developed. This variety resists many diseases, including bacterial speck, a leaf-spot disease that thrives in cool, wet conditions. Although ‘Viva Italia’ is determinate, the vines grow vigorously, holding abundant, pear-shaped tomatoes. This easy-to-grow variety produces throughout the season and even sets fruit during hot weather. The fresh, zesty flavor of ‘Viva Italia’ is excellent in salads, and it holds up to canning, cooking, or freezing. It’s my top choice for a piquant sauce; the flavor livens up any salsa, particularly when combined with ‘Black Prince’.
Optimal conditions improve flavor
Even the most flavorful variety can suffer an unsavory fate when raised in an environment with too much of some things or not enough of others. Too much nitrogen will encourage foliage growth at the expense of fruit production. Excess water can affect flavor, so don’t overwater once tomatoes have reached their full size and are beginning to change color. Other factors that can weaken tomato flavor are insufficient heat and light. Always give tomatoes your sunniest spot; they need six hours or more of direct sun a day.
If finding a spot with adequate sun is a problem, try bringing more light and heat to your plants by laying down mulch. To increase the amounts of light and heat that reach the fruit, stake, trellis, or cage your plants. Also, if possible, lighten heavy clay soil by working in compost or other organic materials. In addition to benefitting the harvest, the organic matter will open up the soil, allowing air and water to penetrate better.
A soil test can go a long way in helping you determine how much fertilizer to apply to your plants. Tomatoes require ample amounts of phosphorus, potassium, and calcium, and even though you shouldn’t overdo the nitrogen, it is also needed for healthy plants. My plants get a side dressing of well-rotted manure, but compost also works. Rock dust applied at the rate of 10 pounds per 100 square feet or a kelp foliar spray will add plenty of valuable flavor-producing trace minerals.
Once your plants are established, water deeply and keep the soil moisture even; mulching will reduce water loss. When soil moisture fluctuates, blossom-end rot may develop in susceptible plants. This is commonly caused by a calcium deficiency, and moisture fluctuations can interfere with the uptake of calcium. A calcium imbalance can also occur if the soil has too much magnesium, so don’t use dolomitic limestone, which is high in magnesium. Before planting, add crushed eggshells or oyster shells to the soil to help prevent the problem.
Experience has shown me that the best salsa or spaghetti sauce has as much to do with the type of tomato used and how it was grown as it does with the recipe. For flavorful food that’s hard to resist, grow the best in paste tomatoes.
—Every year, Kris Wetherbee grows 20 varieties of tomatoes at Camelot Farm in western Oregon.
Get better sauce flavor in the can
Let’s be honest. The majority of paste tomatoes won’t ever appear atop any “Best Tasting” lists. These canning tomatoes are grown because they are heavy producers; they are meaty, with little juice and fewer seeds; are easy to process; and ripen on the plant evenly so that they can be picked all at one time.
I recommend planting several good, solid paste tomatoes that will give you some mass in the sauce pot. But then, plant some additional meaty varieties known for their good taste. The caveat is that these options usually won’t produce as much as the traditional paste varieties nor will they ripen on a predictable schedule.
When you’re ready to can your harvest, incorporate some of these super-tasty gems with your regular paste varieties to produce a sauce with a better tomato flavor.
Tasty tomatoes for the sauce pot
‘German Orange Strawberry’
— Scott Daigre is the producer of Tomatomania!—The World’s Largest Tomato Seedling Sale.