OSU Professor James Myers holds a Midnight Roma plant. Courtesy of James Myers

OSU professor develops new Midnight Roma tomato

James Myers, professor of vegetable breeding and vegetable genetics at the Oregon State University College of Agricultural Sciences, has developed a new dark purple antioxidant-rich tomato called the Midnight Roma.


The Midnight Roma is a result of crossbreeding the tomato varieties Indigo Rose, another purple tomato also developed at OSU, and Oregon Star, according to The Oregonian.


The Midnight Roma is unique in many respects, especially with regard to its antioxidant-rich skin. The Midnight Roma, like other so-called “indigo” tomatoes, contains a high concentration of anthocyanins, often found in blueberries. “The anthocyanins, in addition to being anti-oxidants, they’re also anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial, anti-corrosive,” Myers said. “They have many different health properties.”


The Midnight Roma is also unique in that it is the first indigo Roma-type tomato Myers and his team have developed. Previously, Myers has bred Indigo Cherry Drops, Indigo Pear Drops and Indigo Kiwi, all of which are cherry tomatoes.


Roma tomatoes, also known as “paste” or “plum” tomatoes, are “bred for processing,” Myers said. “They tend to have very thick walls, and the gel where the seeds are, that tends to be fairly small.” Lower in water weight and higher in solid mass, Roma tomatoes are best cooking down, such as in sauces.


“Roma tomatoes, in general, are not going to be very flavorful,” Myers explained, because most of the flavor in tomatoes comes from the acidic gel around the seeds. But the flavor of the Midnight Roma tomatoes seemed to be much more intense than that of other Roma tomatoes. “I get this comment from chefs saying that they really like the flavor, because it is much more vibrant than what you normally get out of a paste tomato,” Myers said.


The development of indigo tomatoes began around 2000, when Myers and his students began to study tomato breeding and tomatoes’ effect on human health. “We arrived at working with tomatoes because we knew of all these different types of carotenoids that tomatoes have,” Myers said. Carotenoids are red, yellow and orange pigments synthesized by plants, and some studies have suggested that diets high in carotenoid-rich fruits and vegetables are associated with lower risk of developing cardiovascular disease and some cancers.


“We were studying those and this graduate student, Carl Jones, noticed that there was some material in the tomato collection that had a little bit of purple on it,” Myers explained. “That was about the time that people were beginning to recognize anthocyanins for their health benefits. And so Carl said, ‘well, let’s get some of this material and look at it.’”


Myers said that he’s heard most chefs like to use the Midnight Roma for cooking or preserving, and he shared one of his own favorite ways to use it: “One of the ways I like to do it, it’s a pizzaiola steak…you’re basically cooking a steak in olive oil and then putting tomatoes with garlic and oregano on that and cooking down the tomato. That makes a really nice sauce, very pleasant to eat.”


The dark color of the tomato makes for a pleasant burgundy hue in sauces. Myers said it’s “definitely a darker color than a normal tomato sauce.” He also noted that the Midnight Roma seems to have a high amount of pectin, which means sauces made with it thicken very quickly.


Because the anthocyanins in the tomato are stored in its skin, it’s important to eat the skin if you want to gain the health benefits. “What chefs have been doing when they make a sauce is they put it through a food mill,” Myers said. This is in order to break up the skin and keep it in the finished product.


Serious Pie in Seattle has been using Midnight Roma tomatoes for their sauces, and Myers himself got to taste the varietal in a pizza sauce. “We had a pizza party in Portland back before the pandemic, and it was held at the Fora…Dan Barber from the Blue Hill restaurant in New York, and we had…basically two meals, two platings done with them [Midnight Roma],” he said. “It was a fantastic meal.”


Dan Barber is the founder of Row 7 Seed Company, which currently sells seeds for the Midnight Roma on its website for $3.75 per 20 seeds.