How to preserve summer tomatoes.

After a long, incredibly hot and dry summer here in the Midwest, it seems like it’s only now, in late September (on the Equinox, no less) that the tomatoes are really in full swing. We’ve been picking Early Girls regularly in the garden for about 2 weeks, and the farmers markets are full of Burpee favorites and heirloom varieties.

I decided to take advantage of the bounty and preserve some of this sunny, gorgeous tastiness for colder, darker days. I went three routes:

freezing whole tomatoes

This is incredibly easy, and I’ve been quite happy with the results. Start with as many tomatoes as you’d like. Bring a large pot of water to the boil, and have an ice bath (or a sink full of ice water, if you’re working in quantity) handy. Cut a small X with a paring knife in the blossom end of each tomato. When the water is rolling, drop 4 to 6 (as many as your pot holds easily) into the water; boil for 10 seconds. Remove with a slotted spoon to the ice bath. The skins will slip off easily.

Then, line a large rimmed baking sheet (or several) with parchment. Place peeled tomatoes on the sheet, cover with plastic wrap and freeze until firm. Remove from baking sheet and place into zippered freezer bags for storage. To use: Remove however many tomatoes you need from the freezer about 30 minutes before cooking, just to allow them to thaw enough for easy chopping. Frozen tomatoes make wonderful sauce or additions to soups.

oven-dried tomatoes

I like cooking with sundried tomatoes, but I find that the store-bought ones are either preserved with sulfites (and a dark, unattractive color) or too oily. So I decided to try making my own in the oven. I found several recipes calling for baking times ranging from 4 hours to 16, and oven temps from 150 to 300. I split the difference and came up with this technique. This, too, could not be easier.

Choose ripe tomatoes of your favorite variety, of similar size. I used 8 nice Early Girls, about cue-ball size. Cut in half, run a paring knife around the inside to remove the seeds, and place in a mixing bowl. Add 2 Tbsp. olive oil, 1/4 tsp. dried thyme (or herb of your choice) and 1/4 tsp. salt. Toss gently to combine. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. Heat oven to your lowest setting (mine is 170 degrees). Place tomato halves, cut side up, on the baking sheet. Place in the oven before you go to bed and you’ll wake up to perfectly concentrated, tomato yumminess. You don’t want these babies totally desiccated, but still plump. (I put the tray in the oven around 10:15 p.m. and the tomatoes were just right when I woke up at 6:00 the following morning.) To store: Place in a sterilized glass jar and cover with olive oil; keeps for about 2 weeks. For longer storage, place in a zippered freezer bag and drizzle with a bit of oil to prevent sticking.

canning

Because canning and preserving require proper technique for food safety, I’ll refer you to the Ball Blue Book instead of posting a recipe here. Several years ago, Grandma gave me a copy of the Blue Book, a huge spatterware canning pot and some accessories for my birthday, and I’ve come to enjoy the process of canning. And it IS a process. This year, I’m putting up tomato sauce and salsa.

For the tomato sauce, I have no idea how many pounds of tomatoes I started with … nearly a full bushel basket. I used some Early Girls and some Romas; I peeled, seeded and chopped about half of them and ran the rest through a tomato press. (I use an Italian Tomato Press that I’ve had for years … super easy!)  I sauteed a head of garlic, chopped, in some olive oil and dumped in the tomatoes; the whole mess filled my 5-quart stock pot to the rim. I reduced the sauce until it thickened, and wound up with 6 pints of sauce to put in the canner. It was about 4 hours worth of work … a lot of effort, but a lot of fun.