Into the Autumn: Preserving Tomatoes

Preserving tomatoes.
Last week you learned about preserving garden herbs to last through the heat of summer’s last days. What about the most  common garden pick of all, the one to chop, puree, can, sauce, and savor – the tomato?

If you’ve been gardening for at least a year or two, by now you are probably familiar with the technique of canning tomatoes, by which tomatoes are cooked down to a delicious sauce and canned for the off-season. It’s a fantastic way to keep your homegrown tomatoes around for months after their harvest, but in all truth, it gets a bit old. Hearty tomato-based stews and sauces can be satisfying for a time, but there is a way to diversify your tomato preservation methods. There are two simple ways (not canning!) to make your tomatoes last well into planting season next spring.

Fresh tomatoes can be frozen whether left whole, chopped, sliced, or pureed. They will become soft and mushy when they thaw, so freeze tomatoes when using them for sauces purees, stir-fries, or any other cooked tomato dishes. To freeze tomatoes, prepare them as you so choose (whole, chopped, etc.) and simple place in the freezer until frozen. Transfer into individual airtight containers, bags, or wrappings, and keep stored in freezer for up to 9 months. Thaw a few at a time, as needed. Couldn’t be easier.

Drying tomatoes is a great way to preserve fresh tomatoes that will later be used in salads, pastas, pureed sauces, and more “fresh” dishes. Plan on using dried tomatoes as-are in pastas and salads, as once you reconstitute them in water, them will become soft and water-bound. Drying tomatoes can be done simply in two ways: in the oven or in the sun (tomatoes can also be dried in a dehydrator, but this requires special equipment).  If using plum or cherry tomatoes, halve them and scoop out the seeds. If using larger varieties, slice them into ½-inch thick slices. The seeds and pulp may be left in these slices or removed – it’s really a matter of preference. Some believe that dried seeds can impart a bitter flavor to tomatoes, but the difference is only slight, if noticeable at all. It can be tricky to create a well-dried tomato – it should be dried at a high enough temperature so that bacteria doesn’t grow, but also low enough that the tomato doesn’t burn and crisp out. An ideal temperature range for drying would fall between 100°F and 150°F.

To dry tomatoes in the oven, preheat the oven to 130º F, or the oven’s lowest setting – if your oven is much higher than this, leave the jar proper ajar while drying. Place prepared tomatoes on foil-lined cookie sheets and place in oven to dry for 6 to 12 hours, checking for doneness along the way. Tomatoes are done when they are no longer wet or sticky, but still have a slight chew to them – think al dente, as with pasta. Remove and place on cooling racks to dry completely.

To dry tomatoes in the sun (yes, real sun-dried tomatoes!) place prepared tomatoes on a cheesecloth-lined oven rack or cooling rack, making sure cloth is secured. Add salt if you would like – this helps to bring out moisture from the tomatoes as they dry, and also helps to prevent bacteria growth while outside. A few generous pinches over your batch should be ample – just eyeball it and learn as you go. Place in the sun and leave outside to dry until the desired dryness is reached. This can take 4 to 12 days – so be patient! – and the tomatoes will need to be brought inside during the night.

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