Types of Tomatoes and Their Classifications
Looking to learn a lot more about the different types of tomatoes and their classifications? Tomatoes have a few different classes, which help or inhibit their growth, depending on your hardiness zone. In this article, gardening expert Logan Hailey looks at the different types of tomatoes, and their classifications.
Do you crave a garden-fresh Caprese salad? Hearty homemade pasta sauce? A juicy BLT sandwich? Sweet tomato snacks straight from the vine? Each of these recipes requires a different type of tomato. Although most types are grown the same way in the garden, your cultivar selection will dramatically impact the functionality of your harvest in the kitchen.
According to Auburn University, there are more than 10,000 varieties of tomatoes worldwide! If this mind-boggling number makes it sound impossible to pick a variety, rest assured most tomatoes fit into a few key categories based on the plant’s characteristics.
Knowing the type can help you narrow down the best tomato seeds to plant in your garden. Let’s dig into the classifications of tomatoes based on the fruit shape, growth habit, and seed type.
Six Types of Tomato Based on Shape
The most obvious way to categorize tomatoes is by the fruit size and shape. These are the classifications we commonly see in grocery stores because they are easily recognizable at a glance. Some types have multiple names or are generalized under a specific variety when they actually encompass a broad range of cultivars.
Nonetheless, these six umbrella categories can help narrow down your search for the perfect garden tomato. Remember that the tomatoes within each category can vary drastically in flavor, ripeness, color, and quality depending on the seed variety, soil, and growing conditions.
No matter what type you choose, reference our in-depth guide on How to Plant, Grow, and Care for Tomatoes to reap the best yields possible.
Slicer (Globe) Tomatoes
- Fruit Shape: Rounded, smooth, slightly flattened
- Size Range: 2 to 3 inch diameter, 5 to 8 ounces
- Most Common Uses: Burgers, sandwiches, subs, wedge salads, caprese, toast, deli trays, salads, salsa, canning
- Most Popular Varieties: ‘Early Girl’, ‘RuBee Dawn’, ‘New Girl’, ‘Valencia’, ‘Moskvich’, ‘MountainFresh Plus’, ‘BHN 589’, ‘Better Boy
Slicing or globe tomatoes are the classic supermarket tomatoes you see everywhere. They are typically medium-sized and smooth around the edges.
Texture and Use
Globe tomatoes are made for slicing and serving on burgers, sandwiches, or salads. They hold their shape and have the perfect amount of juiciness that won’t make your bread soggy.
Slicers are thick, meaty, and tend to be durable after harvest. Compared to heirloom varieties, these fruits are less watery and less prone to splitting. They are the most versatile in the kitchen and the most widely produced in commercial settings.
Thankfully, that doesn’t mean your garden slicers will have the bland flavor of a grocery store, shelf-ripened tomatoes! Choose a richly flavored type like ‘Early Girl’ or ‘Better Boy’ and let the fruits fully ripen on the vine for that old-fashioned tomato taste you crave.
These plants can produce copious yields that thrive in both greenhouses and outdoor gardens. Most slicer tomatoes mature in clusters and ripen from the bottom to the top.
While red is the most common color, you can find globe tomatoes in orange, pink, yellow/gold, and burgundy/purple hues. If you like the idea of rainbow slicers, ‘Lemon Boy Plus’ is a uniquely tangy-sweet yellow tomato. ‘Beorange’ is a vibrant orange variety with a complex savory-sweet flavor.
- Fruit Shape: Very large, flattened, ribbed or lobed, pumpkin-shaped
- Size Range: 3 to 6 inch diameter, 8 to 64 ounces
- Most Common Uses: Burgers, sandwiches, grilled cheese, roasting,
- Most Popular Varieties: ‘Big Beef’, ‘Big Boy’, ‘Brandywine’, ‘Chef’s Choice Orange’, ‘Grand Marshall’, ‘Marbonne’, ‘German Johnson’, ‘Beefmaster’
These All-American, broad-shouldered tomatoes can grow impressively huge. The largest beefsteak tomato ever recorded was a whopping 11.5 pounds with a 32.5-inch circumference!
But we don’t recommend going for a Guiness-World-Record-breaking tomato size in your garden. You may sacrifice flavor for size when growing ultra-large beefsteak varieties.
Texture and Use
Beefsteak tomatoes have a dense, smooth texture that is the most “meaty” of the tomato types. This is why they are most renowned for their use on burgers! Their fairly thick skin makes them durable enough to withstand grilling and roasting without turning to a mushy sauce. The flavor is more acidic and less sweet than cherry or slicer tomatoes.
Technically speaking, beefsteaks are just the bigger cousins of a slicer tomato. However, the line between the two is sometimes blurred. They have many of the same characteristics, but beefsteaks have been bred for particularly large fruits and thicker textures.
When in doubt, remember that only the burliest varieties are considered beefsteaks. Beefsteaks also include ribbed or “pumpkin-shaped” fruits that contrast with the smoother, rounded slicing types.
To make matters more confusing, some beefsteaks are also heirloom varieties (described below). Unfortunately, their larger size makes them more prone to cracking, so if you live in an area with moist summers, be sure to pick a crack-resistant variety like ‘Big Beef Plus’ or ‘Big Boy’, and learn about the 7 Reasons Your Tomatoes Are Splitting or Cracking on the Vine.
Because of their hardy size, these varieties typically have the longest days to maturity. Remember that beefsteaks require long day lengths (up to 13 hours of sunlight) to ripen fully on the vine with optimal flavor. Ample sunshine and fertility are essential for these big producers!
Beefsteaks usually come in classic red, but you can also find unique colors like ‘Chef’s Choice Orange’ and ‘Pineapple Pole.’
- Fruit Shape: Small round spheres
- Size Range: ¾ to 2 inch diameter, 0.5 to 1 ounce
- Most Common Uses: Fresh snacking, veggie platters, dipping, salads, roasting, stuffing, skewers, toppings, drying
- Most Popular Varieties: ‘Supersweet 100’, ‘Sun Gold’, ‘Sakura’, ‘Gold Nugget’, ‘Washington Cherry’, ‘Edox’, ‘Cherry Bomb’, ‘Glacier’, ‘Clementine’, ‘Mountain Magic’
These bite-sized rounded treats are known for their sweet, flavorful burst as they explode between your teeth. Most are about the size and spherical shape of an actual cherry, but there are slightly larger cherry types referred to as “cocktail” tomatoes.
Texture and Use
Cherry tomatoes are best for fresh eating, but you can also skewer them, roast them, and use them in any recipe where you don’t need a slicer tomato. They have an ultra-sweet flavor, minimal seeds, and hydrating juiciness.
Cherries grow in big dangling clusters that ripen from the bottom of the plant upward. These varieties can produce continuous fresh-snacking fruits throughout the entire growing season. They mature more quickly than large slicer types and are often the first to harvest in the spring.
The most significant risk with harvesting cherry tomatoes is accidentally knocking off nearby developing flowers. Remember that every yellow flower is essential to producing a heaping harvest of juicy bite-size snacks.
Check cherry tomatoes multiple times each week during the summer to catch them before they crack. Cracked cherry tomatoes won’t store, so they must be enjoyed straight from the vine!
Like most tomato types, cherry tomatoes have been bred to come in a whole rainbow of colors. The orange ‘Sun Gold’ cherries usually take the cake for flavor and aesthetic appeal. But the key to a great cherry tomato is harvesting when the color is brightest.
You don’t usually harvest whole cherry tomato clusters at once. Instead, pick only the ripest fruits. Orange, yellow, and purple varieties may be harder to spot at full vibrancy, so opt for the red cherry cultivars if you have difficulty seeing the ripe ones for harvesting.
- Fruit Shape: Tiny, oblong like a grape or mini watermelon
- Size Range: ½ to ¾ inch long, 0.2 to 0.5 ounces
- Most Common Uses: Snacking, salads, skewers, bruschetta, pizza, pasta, roasting, baking
- Most Popular Varieties: ‘Santa’, ‘Ruby’, ‘Jellybean’, Golden Sweet’, ‘Red Pearl’, ‘Five Star Grape’, ‘Nova’, ‘Santorange’, ‘Valentine’
Another bite-size tomato, grape types are similar to cherries, except they are smaller with thicker skins. Interestingly, grape tomatoes most closely resemble the wild tomato ancestors that grow in the mountains of Latin and South America. As garden plants, they have been bred for more complex flavors and concentrated yields in big clusters.
Texture and Use
The denser texture of grape varieties makes them hardier and more resistant to cracking than cherry tomatoes. Their flesh is also more meaty and firm. They are not as watery as cherry types and really shine in bruschetta, skewer, and roasting recipes where you don’t want too much liquid.
You can easily substitute cherry and grape tomatoes for each other in most recipes. Choose grape varieties if you want the longest-lasting snack tomato with a denser texture. But if you want the most flavorful and juicy bite, choose a cherry variety.
Because they last longer in transport and storage, grape tomatoes are more common in grocery stores. However, they don’t always have the delicate burst of flavor that cherry types are most coveted for, so be sure to select an extra sweet variety like ‘Nova’ or ‘Five Star Grape.’
Grape tomato plants are grown very similarly to cherry types. Cut back on irrigation just before harvest to ensure maximum flavor.
Spruce up summer salads with vibrant grape tomato varieties like ‘Rainbow Blend,’ ‘Santorange,’ and ‘Nova.’
Plum (Paste) Tomatoes
- Fruit Shape: Medium-sized, oblong, oval or cylindrical
- Size Range: 2 to 2.5 inches long, 4 to 6 ounces
- Most Common Uses: Sauce, paste, canning, preserving
- Most Popular Varieties: ‘Roma’, ‘San Marzano’, ‘Amish Paste’, ‘Juliet’, ‘Plum Regal’, ‘Paisano’, ‘Granadero’, ‘Napoli’
You have most likely seen plum or paste tomatoes labeled as “Romas.” In reality, ‘Roma’ is only one variety of plum tomatoes that is the most popular for making tomato sauces.
Texture and Use
Hundreds of plum tomato varieties may be suited to your climate, soil, and taste buds. They all share unique qualities that make them ideal for canning: thick flesh, rich flavor, tender texture, mild acidity, and low water content.
Larger than cherries and grape tomatoes but slightly smaller than slicers, these oval-shaped fruits have been developed specifically for sauce. They peel easily and cook quickly. They have the lowest water content for the most flavorful and thick tomato sauces possible. Paste cultivars are the most popular for preserving, and many strains were actually developed in the 1940s and ’50s specifically for the canning industry.
Paste tomatoes aren’t just for paste; they’re ideal for almost any cooking or preserving where you don’t want too much juice. The reduced juiciness means more flavor concentration, leading to extra-rich pasta sauces, salsas, ketchup, and sun-dried dehydrated snacks.
It’s best to irrigate paste tomato plants slightly less than other varieties. This ensures that the flavor and “meatiness” is concentrated. Too much water before harvest can cause juicy tomatoes less ideal for canning.
It’s best to keep your paste tomatoes red; otherwise, you’ll end up with funky-colored sauces. However, a dark purple paste tomato with red flesh still will produce a red sauce once the purple skin is removed!
Oxheart (Heart-Shaped) Tomatoes
- Fruit Shape: Heart-shaped like a large strawberry with a pointy end
- Size Range: 3 to 6 inch diameter, 8 to 30 ounces
- Most Common Uses: Slicing, sandwiches, salsas, burgers, stuffing, sauce, roasting, preserving
- Most Popular Varieties: ‘Oxheart’, ‘Cauralina’, ‘Hungarian Heart Tomato’, ‘Bulgarian Oxheart’, ‘Anna Russian’, ‘Coeur de Boeuf’
The Oxheart tomato is an old heirloom variety from the 1920s, named for its heart-shaped fruits with a pointed end. In the past century, this variety has evolved into a whole category of tomatoes with the signature large strawberry shape, tapered bottoms, and thick consistency.
Texture and Use
The key thing all oxhearts have in common is their ultra-rich flavor which encompasses the full range of sweet, acidic, tangy, savory, and fragrant profiles. They are grown primarily for their superb flavor and firmness. They are wonderfully aromatic, with an incredible spectrum of complex flavors and colors.
The primary downside of this type is that they don’t store as long, which is why you don’t often see them in grocery stores. The fruit can turn soft quickly, so harvest them ripe from the vine and enjoy them fresh!
While most oxhearts are heirlooms, there have been recent seed-breeding efforts to create ultra-vigorous hybrids that are more disease-resistant and uniform. These vines yield hearty (pun intended!) harvests of extra large, pink-hued fruits weighing up to 2 pounds.
One key thing to remember about growing oxhearts is that the plants may appear unusual compared to other tomato types. Sometimes their wispy foliage and twisted or droopy leaves make them look sick, but this is a completely normal part of their physiology.
Oxheart tomatoes tend to blush with different shades on the top and bottom of the fruit. This can make a ripe harvest somewhat difficult, so be sure you know what the final tomato should look like. While you can find oxhearts in purples and oranges, we love the classic Italian ‘Cuore Di Bue.’
Two Growth Habits of Tomatoes
Regardless of the size and shape of tomato fruit, tomato plants have a particular way of growing that determines how you should prune and trellis them. The plant’s vining habit also impacts the overall size of the plant, when it sets its fruit, and how long they live in the garden.
Every tomato plant falls into one of two classes:
- Determinate (“bush” tomatoes)
- Indeterminate (“vining” tomatoes)
Determinate (Bush) Tomatoes
If you want a simple tomato plant that you throw a tomato cage over and leave to grow, then determinate tomatoes are the varieties for you. These tomato plants have a bushy habit that requires little to no pruning. Determinants max out at a specific size and ripen all their fruits in a single window.
The easiest way to remember this is that determinate tomatoes have a predetermined size. Instead of rambling through the garden all summer, these bush types grow to their max height and start fruiting. They are more compact and manageable for small space gardens.
Technically, almost any type of tomato (slicer, beefsteak, cherry, etc.) can be determinate, but paste cultivars are the most common determinate type. This makes perfect sense because paste tomatoes are used for canning, making sauces, and preserving. You probably don’t want to spread out your canning efforts all season long, so these plants provide a bulk harvest of fruits all at once so you can get your preserving out of the way.
If you want a bulk harvest of tomatoes at one time (for canning, drying, or a summer feast), choose determinate bush varieties! Be aware that determinate types will not yield a continuous supply of tomato fruits as indeterminates do.
- Yield large quantities of tomatoes that ripen in one window of time.
- Can easily grow with a standard tomato cage.
- Best for canning and preserving.
- Better for small spaces.
- Bushy habit is great for container gardens.
- Little to no pruning required.
- Top off at a specific height.
- Don’t provide a continuous supply of fruits.
- Require planned processing and preserving because fruits ripen all at once.
- Usually wither or die after their fruit set.
- Cannot be trained up a vertical trellis (tend to max out their height).
Indeterminate (Vining) Tomatoes
Unlike their determinate cousins, indeterminates can technically ramble on forever. Their vines won’t just stop growing once they reach a certain size. This is why vining tomatoes typically require more pruning efforts.
If you don’t keep them under control, they can grow wild because they have no maximum height. One of the biggest tomato plants ever recorded was an indeterminate variety called ‘Big Boy,’ which produced vines that were 65 feet tall!
If you prefer to keep your tomatoes under control, indeterminates will require a robust trellis that can support their weight and vigor. They don’t usually do as well with a tomato cage. Instead, opt for a fence post structure, stake system, hoop tunnel, tomato tower, or pergola.
Indeterminate tomato varieties are the gift that keeps on giving. They can provide sweet bite-size cherry tomatoes or consistent heirloom beefsteaks all summer. Instead of setting their fruit all at once, these vines consistently produce new flowers and fruits at scattered intervals. Choose indeterminate vining varieties if you want a continuous supply of tomato fruit throughout the season!
The majority of garden tomato varieties are indeterminate. They thrive in a single or double-leader pruning system that helps maximize yields. This means the plant is pruned to channel its energy into one or two vines that can hold all the fruit.
- Yield a continuous supply of tomatoes throughout the season
- Fruits ripen at scattered intervals.
- Longer-lived plants (they can technically keep growing as perennials).
- Vines can be trained to vine up a trellis or fence.
- Great for vertical gardens.
- Better for larger gardens.
- Require regular pruning and maintenance.
- Require a strong trellis to support their heavy vines.
- Need more space.
- Without pruning and trellising, they can overgrow your garden bed.
- Without pruning, fruit sets can be reduced by an overgrowth of foliage.
- Less tomatoes at once
Three Major Types of Tomato Seeds
The final tomato designation comes down to some technicalities regarding plant breeding. Just like dogs or cats, plants are bred for specific traits like size, color, vigor, and resistance to disease. When you’re perusing seed catalogs, you will notice different categories of seeds that can help you understand the genetic makeup of the tomato plants you will grow.
Thanks to their dazzling colors and nostalgic flavors, heirloom tomatoes are among the most popular tomato seeds on the planet. An heirloom seed is passed from one generation to the next. In other words, these could be your great great grandmother’s tomatoes.
These “vintage” plants hold the history and culture of times past. As each generation saves seeds from the best plants and shares them throughout their community, heirloom varieties can become regionally adapted to specific conditions.
Heirloom seeds are naturally non-GMO and may be available as certified organic seeds. Their genetic makeup has stabilized over time, allowing them to produce true-to-type seeds. These have often been passed down from generation to generation to preserve unique flavors, colors, textures, and growth patterns. Heirloom seeds are, by nature, open-pollinated (described below), which means you can save their seeds and replant them year after year for true-to-type tomato plants.
Any tomato (slicer, paste, cherry, etc.) can be an heirloom, but you often see heirlooms associated with large slicer and beefsteak varieties. Some of the most popular heirloom varieties include:
- ‘Amish Paste’
- ‘Arkansas Traveler’
- ‘Black Krim’
- ‘Cherokee Purple’
- ‘Hawaiian Pineapple’
- ‘Green Giant’
- ‘Oxheart Pink’
- ‘German Johnson’
Open-pollinated or “OP” is a plant breeder’s term to describe plants that can freely cross-pollinate with each other and create true-to-type seeds. This means you can harvest the tomato, clean out the seeds, replant those seeds, and grow the offspring will look almost identical to the mother. Unlike hybrid tomatoes, OP varieties are great for seed-savers!
The main thing you need to know about OP seeds is that they are traditionally bred and non-GMO. Open-pollinated tomatoes have flowers fertilized by bees, moths, butterflies, wind, and rain.
The number one benefit of OP seeds is food security. You can save seeds from these plants (and save money!) to replant them next year. You can also use OP plant lines to breed your own varieties of tomatoes that are specifically adapted to your garden.
All heirlooms are open-pollinated, but not all open-pollinated seeds are heirlooms. Many modern OP tomatoes have been crossed and bred from heirloom lines to create entirely new varieties.
Hybrid tomato seeds are increasingly common commercially because they have the most vigor and disease resistance. This is due to a phenomenon called hybrid vigor. These modern cultivars are created by crossing two parent lines and often include an heirloom variety in their lineage.
The resulting seeds from the cross-pollinated variety are grown the following season and undergo testing for resistance to diseases or good fruit quality. If the crossover worked, new seeds would be grown in the future by crossing the same two parent species again, resulting in an F1 hybrid seed type. F1 designates that it is a first-generation hybrid variety.
All complicated plant genetics aside, hybrids are superb performers in the garden. Thanks to traditional breeding, they are still non-GMO. However, hybrid seeds have to be re-purchased from your seed grower year after year because their seeds do not save true-to-type. If you save seeds from a hybrid plant, the offspring will not produce the same tomatoes as the parent plant.
Ultimately, you should source F1 hybrid seeds when you have disease issues or want ultra-vigorous plants. But if you’re interested in saving seeds, stick to the OP tomatoes!
Quick Tomato Selection Guide
Use this as a guide to choose the best tomatoes for your garden based on your maintenance and culinary preferences:
- If you want small-space tomatoes to grow in a tomato cage and hate pruning, choose determinate bush types.
- Choose indeterminate vining types if you want a continuous supply of tomatoes all season.
- Choose slicers, beefsteaks, or Oxhearts if you crave a hearty BLT sandwich or burger.
- If you want the biggest tomatoes possible, choose beefsteaks.
- If you love fresh, bite-sized snacks, choose cherry or grape tomatoes.
- If you love to make homemade salsa, choose paste tomatoes or an Oxheart variety.
- If you love canning, choose paste tomatoes.
- Heirlooms are perfect if you enjoy colorful tomatoes with a rich flavor and history.
- To save your tomato seeds and regrow them next year, choose open-pollinated cultivars.
- If you have disease problems, choose hybrid tomatoes that have been bred for resistance.
Tomatoes can be classified in numerous ways that are sometimes confusing, but these categories help you quickly narrow down the perfect tomato variety for your uses. You can find most tomato classifications clearly printed on the seed packet label.
When in doubt, grow a diversity of tomatoes for a diversity of uses! Testing out new varieties is one of the most exciting parts of gardening.