Juicy, flashy and intensely flavored tomatoes seem to get all the glory these days, so it may come as a shock to tomato aficionados that not everyone swoons over a platter of luscious love apples. Some gardeners don’t care for fresh tomatoes, yet they enjoy a fiery salsa or spaghetti with a savory tomato sauce. And some people, including members of my own family, actually prefer tomatoes with a mild flavor, a firmer texture and “fewer wet, slimy seeds,” which translates to less mess when eating burgers and BLTs.
Taste is subjective and preferences are deeply ingrained, often from childhood. Fortunately, the vast world of tomatoes offers the option of paste varieties for those who are underwhelmed by plump, pulpy tomatoes oozing with seeds and juice. Also known as plum or Roma tomatoes, paste varieties have fewer seed chambers, dense flesh and less juice, making them good candidates for cooking, canning and drying. Often, they are dismissed for lackluster flavor when eaten fresh, but I appreciate their versatility in the kitchen and find that most varieties are satisfactory for salads and other dishes where the tomato is not the star.
Any paste tomato that you grow will be decidedly better than the uniform, red plum tomatoes that are available year-round in the produce section at the grocery store. And growing your own means you will have a greater selection of varieties to sample. Naturally, paste tomatoes are associated with red tomato sauce, so it may be surprising to learn that they also come in an assortment of pretty hues that include yellow, orange and green. Peruse seed catalogs for photos and descriptions, while tempering your expectations with the reality that tomato-growing conditions in Texas are less than ideal.
Adverse weather can affect yield and flavor as we try to squeeze tomato season into the few short months after the last freeze in spring and before the inferno of summer. A general recommendation for growing tomatoes in Texas is to look for varieties that produce in less than 75 days which, unfortunately, eliminates many noteworthy late-season varieties. The way I approach this guideline is to always plant a few dependable, early-producing varieties in my garden (‘Early Girl’, ‘Stupice’ or ‘Juliet’, for example) and then push the boundaries with varieties that take longer to mature and see what happens. Growing your own transplants from seed opens up an array of distinctive paste varieties and also allows you to start seeds earlier in the season, stepping up to larger pots so transplants are further along when it is time for planting outside.
When it comes to choosing new, vintage or novel varieties to try in your garden, asking for recommendations from fellow gardeners, reading evaluations from regional Extension trials and visiting tomato festivals and farmers markets in your area are good paths to follow. With that in mind, I have compiled a short selection of versatile paste tomatoes that have been tested, tasted and endorsed over the years by gardeners in Texas. Some varieties will be sure winners, while others might drop off your “try again next year” category; but sampling new varieties is the fun part of gardening. And remember the wisdom of Dr. Jerry Parsons: “Any tomato that tastes good to you is a good tomato!”
‘Amish Paste’ ranks high with seed savers and tomato growers for looks, flavor and yield. Vigorous plants produce plum-shaped, red fruits, each weighing four-to-six ounces. This variety is considered juicier and seedier than most paste tomatoes and is suitable for making sauce as well as eating fresh. Originating in Wisconsin from a community of Amish farmers, it is an heirloom that dates back to the 1870s. Indeterminate.
‘Banana Legs’ is a yellow-fleshed, elongated tomato that ripens from pale green to bright yellow with faint green or yellow striping as it nears maturity. A novelty in both name and appearance, it has a firm texture and mild flavor (though some describe it as bland) when eaten fresh. Original crosses for ‘Banana Legs’ were made by Tom Wagner of ‘Green Zebra’ fame. An independent plant breeder, Wagner also bred ‘Cream Sausage’ and ‘Green Sausage’ sporting unique colors for paste tomatoes. Determinate.
‘Big Mama’ is an impressive Roma variety from the folks at W. Atlee Burpee Company. Vigorous, hybrid plants produce hefty, bright-red tomatoes that weigh in at six-to-eight ounces. Large, meaty fruits make quick work of sauce-making and canning. ‘Gladiator’ is a more recent introduction with the potential to produce slightly earlier and larger than ‘Big Mama’. Indeterminate.
‘Black Plum’ produces clusters of two-to-three-ounce fruits that ripen to a gorgeous red mahogany with dark-green shoulders. An heirloom from Russia with a tangy and complex flavor, ‘Black Plum’ is ideal for roasting, sauce-making, drying and eating fresh. Pretty to look at, tasty to eat. Indeterminate.
‘Little Napoli’, part of the Little Collection from Pan American Seed, is a compact Roma tomato that reaches a height of about two feet at maturity. Its diminutive size and tidy habit make it an excellent container plant. Expect moderate yields of crimson plum tomatoes with a slight tang. Determinate.
‘Plum Regal’ yields deep-red, three-to-four-ounce plum tomatoes with good flavor for fresh eating. Medium-sized, hybrid plants offer good vigor and resistance to several diseases, including early blight and tomato-spotted wilt virus. Determinate.
‘Principe Borghese’, a variety from Italy that is popular for sun-drying, produces clusters of small plum tomatoes with low moisture and few seeds. They don’t rank high for eating fresh, but drying concentrates their flavor and produces chewy nuggets of tomatoey goodness. Dry in the oven or in a dehydrator, then cover with olive oil and store in the refrigerator up to six months. Use the tomato-infused oil for marinades, vinaigrettes and sauces. Determinate.
‘Roma’, an improved version of the classic Italian heirloom ‘San Marzano’, was developed by a breeder at the Agricultural Research Service in Beltsville, Maryland, in 1955. It produces slightly earlier than ‘San Marzano’ and offers improved disease resistance. Another Roma-type heirloom for sauce-making is ‘Martino’s Roma’, favored for high yields and resistance to blossom-end rot. Determinate.
‘San Marzano’ became renowned in the commercial trade as the canned tomato exported from Italy. Glossy red and meaty, it is the quintessential Italian paste tomato popular for sauce-making and traditional Italian dishes. Its raw fruit tends to be dry and mealy, but cooking produces a rich, full-bodied flavor. Breeding experts believe that the genetics of ‘San Marzano’ are in the parentage of most plum tomatoes. Indeterminate.
‘Sunrise Sauce’ is an early producer of pale-orange, sweetly flavored plum tomatoes. Hybrid plants yield good-looking fruit for cooking or fresh eating. Recommended for containers. Determinate. tg
H=Hybrid OP=Open Pollinated
Days to Harvest
Variety (from transplants) Source
Amish Paste (OP) 80–85 days 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 8
Banana Legs (OP) 75 days 8
Big Mama (H) 80 days 1
Black Plum (OP) 65 days 4, 6, 7
Little Napoli (H) 60–65 days 5, 7
Martino’s Roma (OP) 75 days 3, 7, 8
Plum Regal (H) 72 days 2, 3, 6, 7
Principe Borghese (OP) 75 days 3, 4, 6
Roma (OP) 78 days 1, 3, 4, 6, 7
San Marzano (OP) 80 days 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8
Sunrise Sauce (H) 60 days 2, 5, 7
- Pinetree Seeds
- Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
- Territorial Seeds
- Tomato Growers Supply
- Totally Tomatoes
- Victory Seed
By Patty G. Leander, B.S.
Advanced Master Gardener — Vegetables