The beauty of tomatoes is more than skin deep. My 35 years of experience as a gardener, coupled with considerable book learning, have taught me that heirlooms, ripened on the vine in full sun, are the most delicious tomatoes of all.
Tomatoes have never been more popular. Yet tomato land in America today is dominated by commercial F1 hybrids, which have only their unyielding flesh to recommend them to consumers. These hybrid tomatoes, bred to be grown in high plant densities and harvested mechanically, are a tool of industry and the market economy. Hybrids reduce biodiversity and prevent farmers and gardeners from saving harvested seed to regrow.
Heirloom tomatoes are the natural alternative, capable of breeding true from seed (unlike F1 hybrids) and designed to be homegrown. Many are living legacies -- old-time handed-down tomatoes, valued by generations of gardeners. Pollination expert Jeff McCormack captured an essential truth about growing heirloom tomatoes: "The world is a large garden, and there is room enough for everybody to cultivate a piece of happiness."
I've saved seeds many times from tomatoes whose pollination wasn't controlled (isolated, bagged, or caged), but it's a gamble with seed purity. Use fully ripe disease-free tomatoes for seed processing.
Seeds can be saved casually by, for example, squeezing them out on a paper napkin (I've done that scores of times in restaurants or when traveling) and air-drying them. Fermentation is the better route, though, because it removes germination inhibitors and the gelatinous sheath, and it may treat some seed-borne diseases. (For more options, visit Vegetable MD Online.)
This is how it's done. Cut tomatoes, one variety at a time, and squeeze the pulp, juice, and seeds into a glass or plastic container. You may need to work the cavities with your fingers to liberate all the seeds. Cherry and currant tomatoes can, instead, be pulverized whole in a blender. Fill the container about halfway, but never add water as a substitute for tomato juice; water slows fermentation.
Label and set the containers aside for 96 hours at a temperature not exceeding 70 degrees. (I usually use my kitchen, screened-in porch, potting shed, or garage.) Two or three times daily, stir the fermenting juices to submerge the floating pomace (pulpy material). Mold may form, fruit flies may hover, and one thing is certain -- it will stink to high heaven.
After four days, go to the sink and fill the container with water, stir, and pour off the pulpy water -- but not the seeds, which accumulate at the bottom. Repeat two or three times. Dump the seeds into a fine-mesh sieve, and, under running water, use your fingers to drive any remaining pulp through the strainer and remove the fruit jelly that adheres to the seeds.
Once the seeds are clean, knock the strainer against the sink to remove excess water, and wipe the strainer bottom with an absorbent paper towel.
Quickly flip the strainer over, smacking it on a paper plate, and deposit the seeds. (Practice helps to improve your aim.) Spread the seeds out on the plate, gently pour off drops of water, and label the plate with the variety name and the date. Allow the seeds to dry for three to four weeks in a well-ventilated place at room temperature. Then put them in labeled paper packets. Place these in an airtight container, and store in a dark, dry place. If refrigerated, tomato seeds can last for 20 years.
Text by Amy Goldman; photographs by Victor Schrager
Reproduced with permission of the publisher, Bloomsbury USA, from "The Heirloom Tomato: From Garden to Table -- Recipes, Portraits, and History of the World's Most Beautiful Fruit," published by Amy Goldman. Copyright 2008 by Amy Goldman.