Cherry vs. Grape Tomatoes: What’s the Difference?

Sweet, acidic, and bursting with flavor, there’s perhaps no other type of produce more emblematic of summer—at least for me—than the tomato. When the last frost date finally passes, I look forward to digging my hands into the dormant raised garden beds in my yard and breaking up the hardened soil that’s weathered the long and hostile Midwestern winter. After preparing every bed and convincing myself each is ready to grow a healthy summer crop again, the first plants in the ground are, without question, tomatoes.

I’ve always planted classic beefsteak tomatoes in my garden, but for the past few years, I’ve convinced my family to grow an abundance of cherry tomatoes as well, including Sungold, Sugar Rush, and chocolate cherry tomatoes. I’ve always noticed the little tomatoes I get from the grocery store, though, are labeled as “grape” tomatoes, and I wondered: Was there any difference between grape tomatoes and the cherry tomatoes I was more familiar with?

To learn more about the differences between cherry and grape tomatoes and to dive into the best uses for each, I reached out to tomato expert and gardening author Craig LeHoullier, whose book Epic Tomatoes is now in its seventh printing with more than 80,000 copies in print.

How Cherry Tomatoes and Grape Tomatoes Are Different

To understand the key differences between cherry and grape tomatoes, we first need to understand more about tomatoes in general. Botanically speaking, tomatoes are considered fruits, which are defined as the fleshy part of a flowering plant that envelops one or multiple seeds. For this reason, botanists consider tomatoes a type of berry that belongs to the genus Solanum, which is the largest genus within the plant family Solanaceae. These plants are commonly referred to as nightshades, and the larger plant family includes tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and potatoes. 

Cherry tomatoes.

Getty Images / Rosa María Fernández

LeHoullier explained to me that tomatoes, which are native to South America—most likely present day Peru and Ecuador—are thousands of years old and, like many crops we enjoy today, grew wild before earlier civilizations cultivated them for consumption. Ancient peoples domesticated and selectively bred ancient tomatoes for the best flavor. Ancient wild tomatoes resembled today’s cherry tomatoes in size, shape, and colors, appearing in red, yellow, orange, and possibly other hues as well. There are still wild tomatoes that grow in the Andes mountains today, though due to their slightly smaller size and muted flavor, they aren’t a popular ingredient. 

Compared to cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes are extremely recent on the culinary scene in the US. “Grape tomatoes really didn’t appear until the 1990s,” says LeHoullier. They made their global appearance first in mainland China and before hitting the American market shortly afterwards. It was only after Andrew Chu, owner of the self-named Chu Farms in Wimauma, Florida, received a seed packet from his friend, a Taiwanese plant breeder, that America learned of the grape tomato. Chu’s friend challenged him to grow the grape tomato on his Florida farm, which Chu did to an astounding success. The grape tomato variety Chu first planted was the Santa. According to LeHoullier, there have been two varieties of grape tomatoes from around the world that both originated from this initial class of grape tomatoes and have had the biggest hold on the grape tomato market ever since: Santa and Juliet grape tomatoes.

LeHoullier attributes the grape tomato’s popularity in the US at least in part to its sweetness and robust flavor, especially when compared to globe tomatoes—the standard, baseball-sized tomatoes most people find at the grocery store. “People who are sick of tasting bland, tasteless tomatoes will buy a pack of grape tomatoes, take them home, and think, ‘Wow, it’s pretty sweet. They’re pretty good,’” says LeHouillier.

Grape tomatoes.

Getty Images / duckycards

Cherry tomatoes and grape tomatoes share several key similarities, but are distinct in important ways. Here’s a breakdown of how they compare side-by-side.

Appearance: The classic red cherry tomato is petite and round, similar to its namesake cherry. Grape tomatoes, on the other hand, are oblong and oval. Since cherry tomatoes are thousands of years older than their younger grape tomato cousins, there are more varieties that sport an array of tomato skin colors, including red, yellow, orange, purple, striped, and more. Although grape tomatoes these days can sometimes be found in yellow and orange, too, red is still the most common. 

Flavor: Both cherry and grape tomatoes are beloved for their sweet, acidic flavor. Grape tomatoes, however, typically have a higher sugar content and are therefore sweeter than many cherry tomatoes. That said, since cherry tomatoes have been around much longer and have been selectively bred for different characteristics, there are some incredibly sweet cherry tomatoes. For example, the Sungold is a favorite among chefs, home cooks, and gardeners, including LeHoullier, because of its intense sweetness and deep, rich flavor.

Texture: Cherry tomatoes are rounder, plumper, and a little juicier than grape tomatoes. This is due to several factors. One consideration is how much locular gel—the jelly-like substance that contains the seeds—there is relative to the amount of internal flesh of the tomato. Another is the volumetric capacity of cherry tomatoes, which are spheres, compared to grape tomatoes, which are ellipses; the elongated shape of grape tomatoes reduces the overall internal space for locular gel, which is the single juiciest element of a tomato besides juices stored within the flesh itself. Grape tomatoes also have a thicker skin than cherry tomatoes, which contributes to their longer shelf life. 

Cultivation: As far as cultivation is concerned, both tomatoes are typically straightforward and fruitful endeavors for home gardeners. “One of the best things about cherry and grape tomatoes is they open the flexibility of a gardener up to less than perfect growing conditions, and they do well in containers,” says LeHoullier. “Let’s say you’ve got a deck and you only get three hours of sun. Grow it in a five gallon pot, keep it fed and watered, and you’ll have nice, delicious, fresh-tasting tomatoes right out your back door.”

Does It Matter Which Tomato You Use?

Despite how much more recent of a development grape tomatoes are than cherry tomatoes, the two varieties are largely interchangeable.

“I would say the use of cherry tomatoes and grape tomatoes can probably be similar,” says LeHoullier. “If people either eat them off the vine or in the garden, or they blister them, or sauté them in olive oil until the skin chars a little bit and then put them in pasta, the flavor just pops out.” Cooks spoiled with an abundance of cherry or grape tomatoes can also make a quick pasta sauce, or preserve them as tomato jam to savor their flavor during the cold months. 

“I would overall say I have preferred more cherry tomatoes I’ve met in my life than grape (generalizing very broadly here given the number of different varieties), but from a practical standpoint, I consider them more or less interchangeable,” says Serious Eats editorial director Daniel Gritzer. “Given that cherry tomatoes tend towards being seedier and juicier, I think they’re a better bet if you want to do something like a burst-tomato pasta sauce, since they’ll break down more quickly and release more juices than most grape tomatoes.”  

Culinary editor Genevieve Yam echoes Daniel’s sentiments, noting her favorite variety of cherry tomatoes are Sungolds. “They’re sweet and tangy, making them a versatile tomato for enjoying raw or cooked.” 

Both cherry and grape tomatoes are sweeter than classic globe tomatoes, and also higher in pectin, so swapping either of the small tomatoes in for globe tomatoes will yield a sweeter and thicker final product. Between the two smaller tomatoes themselves, grape tomatoes will produce the sweetest and thickest result, as grape tomatoes are typically even sweeter than cherry tomatoes and contain less liquid. To maximize yield in sauces, cherry tomatoes may be better suited. Grape tomatoes, on the other hand, will hold their shape better and release fewer juices when roasted, which is ideal for keeping oven dishes flavorful without having too much liquid accumulate in the pan.

Perhaps the most noticeable difference between the two types of tomatoes in the kitchen would be when slicing them. Since grape tomatoes are firmer and slightly less juicy than cherry tomatoes, they tend to hold up better under the average knife. Cherry tomatoes, on the other hand, are more susceptible to losing their shape or bursting under the pressure, especially if the knife is dull. However, cherry tomatoes offer more options for a diversity of flavors, like juicy, tangy Sungolds and smoky, earthy chocolate cherry tomatoes—and they offer more colorful choices in terms of presentation, including green, purple, pink, gold, black, and striped variations.

The Takeaway

Both cherry and grape tomatoes are delicious and easy to cultivate in a home garden, or even an apartment fire escape. However, cherry tomatoes provide more options, both in terms of appearance and flavor, than grape tomatoes. The latter, on the other hand, is a little sturdier and typically sweeter than many cherry tomatoes, especially the ones you’ll find at a grocery store. Either can be easily swapped for the other, so it ultimately comes down to what you want your summer to taste like.

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By Mahir

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