Photo: A.E. Dwyer
FeaturesStories from The Takeout about food, drink, and how we live.  

The other day on Twitter, two of that website’s biggest food personalities engaged in a very brief back-and-forth about tomato usage in BLT sandwiches:

David Chang’s central thesis was that peak-season tomatoes are perhaps too much of a good thing for a BLT, and that a commodity supermarket tomato helps in the overall balance. The Food Lab author J. Kenji Lopez-Alt appears to think otherwise. The only way to settle this debate is to try it ourselves—also, it’s an excuse to make a BLT sandwich.

For this experiment we made BLTs three ways with three different types of tomatoes: a standard supermarket beefsteak tomato, a fried green tomato, and an heirloom from the farmer’s market.

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Supermarket beefsteak tomato

Photo: A.E. Dwyer

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For my control, I opted for the standard red beefsteak tomato—David Chang’s tomato of choice. I crossed my fingers it was naturally ripened somewhere nearby, not gassed with ethylene on a cross-country drive.

It’s tasty. There is nothing wrong with this type of tomato in a BLT. In fact, it’s nostalgic and comforting to eat it. It reminds me of lazy summer dinners, before heirlooms were ubiquitous and Americans were shamed for buying tomatoes in winter. They are drier with a sturdier texture than heirlooms, which helps maintain the sandwich’s integrity, rather than turning to mush in between the bread. I like this version. I have known this version for a long time. I would have been content with this sandwich, had I not tried the next tomato.

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Heirloom tomato

Photo: A.E. Dwyer

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Kenji was right. An heirloom tomato completely elevates the BLT. If you haven’t made a BLT in a while, now is the time. Now! Get yourself to a farmer’s market.

Yellow/orange heirloom tomatoes are lower-acids tomatoes, so I would go for a purple or deep-red tomato, something that when you cut it open looks like the heart of an ox. Even if it weighs two pounds and costs you $11—get it. Think of it as the main ingredient in your sandwich, even more integral than the bacon.

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I think I may now even feel—and this is a bold statement—that the heirloom tomato’s highest calling is in a BLT sandwich. I know, I know, what about the bruschetta? The caprese salads? The fresh salsas and tomato sauces? But the depth of sweetness an heirloom offers illuminates the salty bacon and creamy mayonnaise. It was perfection.


Fried green tomato

Photo: A.E. Dwyer

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Green tomatoes on their own are too tart to eat straight-up. Like a good Southern cook, I salted them and let them mellow in some buttermilk, then dragged the tomatoes through cornmeal-flour mix, before shallow-frying them in bacon fat.

Fried green tomatoes make a great version of a BLT, though it’s certainly more work in a hot kitchen. The fried green tomato slices were crisp, tangy, almost lemony. It’s a great partner for bacon and mayo, subtle but still zingy enough to assert its presence. The greenness of their flavor actually lent a more garden-like essence to the sandwich. Do I still prefer fried green tomatoes on their own, preferably with a creamy dip of sorts? Yes. In the winter, would I choose to deep fry tomatoes to make a worthy BLT, if only for the briefest nod to summer? Yes.

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My tomato ranking for BLT’s

  1. Heirloom
  2. Fried green
  3. Supermarket beefsteak

It’s mid-August as I’m typing this, right at the start of tomato season in the Midwest, and there are plenty of options to test on your own BLT sandwich. It’s just that the heirloom tomato makes the competition wildly unfair.

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