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Tomatoes are annual plants native to South America, cultivated for their colorful and juicy fruits. When European explorers first came to the Americas, they were introduced to the tomato, and they brought the flavorful fruit back with them. While the nightshade relative was initially greeted with suspicion, it was ultimately embraced, and the tomato has become a ubiquitous feature in the cuisines of many nations.
As should come as no surprise, there are a number of different varieties of tomato. Commercially, scores are in active cultivation, and estimates suggest that there may be several thousand kinds. These tomatoes range in size from giant beefsteak to small cherry tomatoes, and they come in colors like yellow, green, and purple in addition to the classic red. Many also have unique flavors, and are more suitable for some applications than others.
The classic globe tomato group, which includes beefsteak, encompasses that that tend to be red and roughly round. Globe tomatoes can be eaten raw or cooked, and they tend to have firm, flavorful flesh. These varieties are among the most heavily cultivated, commercially, since they have such a wide range of potential uses.
Roma tomatoes, on the other hand, tend to be more oblong in shape, and they are more suitable for cooking and refinement into products like tomato paste. Some people call members of this group “paste tomatoes,” for this very reason. Plum tomatoes are also classified in this group, although they are much smaller than many other Roma varieties.
Many cooks enjoy working with small tomatoes such as cherry and pear varieties. These tomatoes are often packed with flavor, and they make an excellent addition to dishes like salads and salsa. They also tend to be sweeter than other varieties, especially when they are yellow, as yellow tomatoes are generally sweeter. In many cases, small tomatoes are sold on the vine, with consumers pulling fruits off as needed.
The umbrella term “heirloom tomatoes” is used to refer to a number of heritage varieties such as brandywines and zebras. Heirlooms tend to be more flavorful and fleshy, and they may be more abundantly seeded. They also come in intriguing color combinations, like striped green and white or purple and green, and they may have irregular shapes as well. This type of tomatoes are delicious raw and cooked, and they are available in many grocers and farmers' markets.