The 10.0 Brix Tomato Challenge

Emmett Watson

Emmett Watson

The late Emmett Watson, long time columnist and Seattle culture chronicler for the Seattle P-I and then the Seattle Times, railed until his death against the inadequacy of local tomatoes.

He covered the Seattle Mariners’ spring training in Florida. Once he tasted a really great tomato, there was no going back. Washington tomatoes didn’t make the cut when he came home. Emmett asked me once if I could do for tomatoes what I did for peaches with Metropolitan Market’s Peach-O-Rama. Years have gone by but it feels like the time, with the farmer’s market farming movement, is right for a great local tomato quest. My whole life and career seem to have involved a series of quests. Peach-O-Rama was the result of a two year quest to find the best West Coast peaches. Peaches and Peach-O-Rama will be the subject of a future post but now it is tomatoes.
Farmers Market tomatoes

For the past three weeks I have been stalking farmer’s markets looking for great tomatoes, really good tomatoes that exceed 10.0 Brix, without success. The season is growing short. That is why I am offering $100 for a 10.0 Brix commercially grown 2.5″ or larger uncut tomato. Blueacre Seafood and Steelhead Diner will give you their tomato business. emmer & rye, The Herbfarm, and Blueacre Seafood, and Campagne will buy you dinner. Kevin Davis at Blueacre knows 10-Brix tomatoes. He has worked with them in California. I have grown them but not on a commercial scale.

Brix is a measurement of the percentage of sugars in fruits or vegetables as measured by a refractometer. You can find inexpensive refractometers on eBay for about $30.

The ones I use come from Atago (model Master Alpha) and Vee Gee (model BX-1) in Kirkland. Vee Gee RefractometerIt is a simple instrument. All you do is put a drop of juice on a lens and then look through the viewfinder to get the instant reading. I’m forever befuddled why every farmer, fruit grower, buyer and home cook doesn’t have one.

So what does a Brix measurement tell us? A high brix reading (each fruit and vegetable has a different Brix range) indicates the fruit came from a successful plant and that the farmer has soil, watering, air and sun working together optimally. A plants primary job is photosynthesis. photosynthesis formulaEverything manufactured in the plant uses glucose as a building block. If if a plant has high brix it has more of everything, especially taste.

Moreso than a simple sweet taste, high brix usually comes across as a deeper, more satisfying varietal flavor.

I have tasted and brixed (we’ll use brix as a verb) countless tomatoes. Cherry tomatoes are always sweeter but the taste is one-dimensional sweetness. In many cases, but not always, the larger the tomato variety, the more complex the tomato flavor. Here’s a scale I came up with to provide taste reference points for brix measurements.

  • 4.0-5.0 The majority of commercial tomatoes seem to fall into this range. Undistinguished flavor.
  • 6.0 This is where the tomato starts to taste like a tomato. Brightness comes into good tomato flavor.
  • 8.0 Denser, more intensity and bright, concentrated flavor, a noticeably good tomato

    Brandywine

    14.0 Brix Brandywine

  • 10.0 Dense, solid, tremendous varietal flavor. We are experiencing a truly great tomato.
  • 12.0 You will remember this tomato taste for a long time.
  • 14.0 The highest brix tomato (Brandywine) I have tasted. Unbelievable. A flavor to make an Italian grandmother weep with joy.

Perhaps 10.0 Brix is raising the bar too high but we shall see. Emmett, the 10.0 Brix Tomato Challenge is dedicated to you. Let’s cross our fingers.

Tomatoes with refractometer

Photo: Ron Zimmerman, The Herbfarm

And here’s a little something Ron Zimmerman of The Herbfarm was inspired to create for the 10.0 Brix Tomato Challenge:

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13 Responses to The 10.0 Brix Tomato Challenge

  1. Melanie rovens says:

    I am familiar with refractors and brix only because of my brothers vineyard. Walking the vineyard and checking the grapes in sections. It makes total sense to use them with any fruit (or vegetable?) Knowing the peak harvest time. Maybe It will become common place in the future. You have me thinking of a thick slice of tomato eaten like a steak………………

  2. Jon, great challenge. I brixed several tomatoes today and got to 8.0, but came up short on your quest for 10. As I mentioned earlier on Twitter, The Herbfarm will gladly add a dinner for 2 to your great prize package. The hunt is on! Ron

  3. cookiecrumb says:

    You and I agree that cherry tomatoes, high in sugar, can be boring and disappointing. But. Brix measures sugar. You are arguing that a tomato higher in sugar will be superior. Brix, alas, doesn’t measure diameter. Not that diameter has any flavor. Sometimes size doesn’t count.

    • jonrowley says:

      Cookiecrumb,
      It is my experience that high brix does amount to better flavor for the reasons explained above and consistantly so. Most people can detect 1/2 point difference in Brix in the flavor. The challenge is for larger tomatoes just so we are comparing apples to apples. Smaller tomatoes are often sweeter but don’t have the complex tomato flavor large tomatoes have. A 10.0 Brix Brandywine is really something; a 10 Brix Sungold is something else all together.

      I can’t wait to see what we get from the Challenge. Maybe the bar is too high. This has been a bum year. I have 10 and 12 Brix reports from California but that is outside the Challenge Boundaries.

      • cookiecrumb says:

        I hope your challenge brings wonderful results. We are having, by the way, a terrible tomato summer in my part of California.

      • Smr says:

        Thanks for sharing! Last year I had peushacrd a heavy duty triangle cage and even it had to be reinforced by tying the tomato plant to my fence. both of these look like good options, one being easy to store and the other being inexpensive.

  4. Sharon Miro says:

    You know that tomato I use as my twitter avatar? A 2 lb+ Brandywine–and she did make a good sauce!!

  5. Pingback: Line-up for this weekend’s Artisan Food Festival « Slow Food Seattle

  6. Pingback: 2010 Tomato Challenge « Grouse Mt. Farm's Blog

  7. Steven says:

    Who is known for growing the best tasteing tomato – Escalon’s “Bonta” or Stanislaus “Saparito”? Your opinion and why?

  8. In year 1997 we sold one of our water treatment system Max Grow to a customer who irrigated with salinity water (10000 microzimens).The purpose was to avoid the calcium carbonate deposit problems.The results,among many other benefits,to eat tomatoes of wonderful taste that I use to eat 60 years ego as a child.More information please see to our website:www.salinitysolution.com

  9. catherine says:

    so what happen if the brix value is less than 4.0

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