This is the golden age of tomatoes. Never have gardeners had more choices, from heirlooms to hybrids, huge beefsteaks to the tiniest, sweetest cherry tomatoes. True tomato junkies, though, are embracing the type celebrated for making the thickest, heartiest sauce: the paste tomato.
But paste tomatoes have more to offer. While they can't be beat for making the best tomato sauce, paste, and salsa, their intense flavor, firm texture, and few seeds mean they are just as appealing whole, eaten right off the vine, or featured in recipes that usually call for other types of tomatoes.
Many of the newer varieties of paste tomatoes are bigger and heavier than their predecessors, with just as much robust flavor. This is a boon to the cook: Processing lots of sauce tomatoes can be tedious, and a larger tomato cuts down on the work. There's less fruit to peel, deseed, and cook down.
Paste tomatoes have the same cultural requirements as other tomato types. Start seeds indoors following the directions on the seed packet, or buy transplants. Once plants are 6 to 8 weeks old, set them outside in the garden after any chance of frost, in rich soil improved with compost. Most will require support with stakes or cages. A thick layer of mulch and 1 inch of water per week should keep plants healthy and productive. We've chosen 11 paste tomato varieties—some new, some old—that merit space in the garden.
'Big Mama' is a hybrid Burpee exclusive that produces an 8-to-10-ounce, plum-shaped, very meaty tomato filled with old-fashioned flavor and few seeds. The skin comes off easily after a quick dip in boiling water. Like many newer hybrids, it's dependably productive, setting up to 50 fruits per plant, even when temperatures are unfavorable. "The fruits keep attractive and uniform in size and shape throughout the long harvest season," says Grace Romero, Burpee's head horticulturist, about the 5-inch-by-3-inch size of 'Big Mama'. "You can eat it fresh as a slicer, too," she adds.