I've said it before and I'll say it again: Home-grown tomatoes are NOT the best-tasting ones. Not necessarily, that is.
Now, I'm not advocating tossing in your trowel and doing your harvesting at the supermarket. What I am saying is that choosing the best variety is the important thing if you're looking to grow a great-tasting tomato. Grow an Early Girl to perfection, harvest it at its peak of flavor and take a bite, and you'll taste a good tomato. But not -- in my opinion -- a great tomato.
A tomato that has been handled carefully keeps pretty well for a couple of days, so you could actually buy a great-tasting tomato from a store or farm stand. But only if that tomato is a great-tasting variety.
Unfortunately, the best-tasting varieties don't usually have the qualities demanded of a commercial tomato: tough skins to withstand handling, high yields, concentrated ripening, disease resistance.
So you do generally have to grow your own to get the best taste. And now is a good time to start, by doing two things.
1. Taste a lot of tomatoes
Try eating various kinds of tomatoes now, while they are abundant and tasty. Taste the varieties offered at farm stands and local farms, and those growing in the backyards of friends and neighbors. Cook up and taste any varieties you want to consider for canning, because cooking a tomato dramatically changes its flavor. A fresh San Marzano tomato tastes like cotton but cooks into a delectable sauce.
Fresh or cooked, you'll be amazed at the range in flavor among tomato varieties. Settle for nothing but the best.
2. Source seeds
Once you've found some great-tasting tomato varieties, plan for next year. If you have the variety's name, you may be able to find it in a seed catalog and simply order seeds for next season. Good sources for many tomato varieties include Tomato Growers Supply Company (888-478-7333, www.tomatogrowers.com), Totally Tomatoes (803-663-0016, www.totallytomato.com), Sustainable Seed Co., (877-620-SEED, http://sustainableseedco.com) and Seed Savers Exchange (319-382-5990, www.seedsavers.org).
But there's no need to forsake the best tomatoes just because you can't put a name on them. Many great-tasting tomatoes are nonhybrid, or heirloom, varieties. That means you can easily save the seeds.
Seeds from hybrid tomatoes also often yield plants with good-tasting fruits -- sometimes even fruits identical to those from the mother plant -- if they were called "hybrid" by seed sellers merely to discourage seed saving.
Saving tomato seeds entails nothing much more than squeezing a bit of the seed-gel mix out of the cavity of a tomato fruit into a glass. That gel contains inhibitors that keep the seeds from sprouting while still inside the fruit. Leach and ferment those inhibitors away by adding some water to the seed-gel mix. After letting the slurry sit for a day or so, pour it through a fine strainer, wash the seeds well in running water, and spread them out to dry. Now you're all set for good eating next year.
By the way, the tomato seeds I'm squirrelling away now are from the heirloom varieties Gardener's Delight, Belgian Giant, Amish Paste and Anna Russian, as well as the hybrid Sungold and two unnamed varieties passed down to me from a couple of local gardeners. Mmmm.