When I think of summer, one of the first things that comes to mind is the taste of vine-ripened tomatoes, straight from the garden, often gobbled up before I even get back to the kitchen. Much like everyone else, when I first started our vegetable garden, tomatoes were at the top of the list. That first year, I purchased a few plants from a local nursery and it wasn’t long before I was growing all of my own transplants from seed. The number of varieties I grew quickly multiplied. It’s easy to go overboard when starting tomatoes from seed — there are just too many enticing new varieties to try in addition to the tried-and-true favorites that must be included in the tomato bed each year (I wouldn’t be without Brandywine!).
Here in Southern Ontario, the tomato harvest usually begins in late July. Anyone that’s grown tomatoes knows the drill. The harvest starts with a single cherry tomato or perhaps an early salad type, picked off the vine and eaten right there in the garden. I’ll admit, I’m a bit selfish when it comes to that first tomato — thoughts of sharing don’t even enter my mind.
A day or two later, another tomato ripens up…and then the pace quickens. Some years, it seems as if I go from harvesting a small bowlful — just enough for a mixed salad — to a full basket in the blink of an eye. By the middle of August, even a basket isn’t enough and out comes a box. It’s at this point that the focus changes from fresh eating to preserving the harvest.
This year I grew 15 varieties of tomato (25 plants in total). Cherry, salad, paste and slicing — they are all represented. While paste tomatoes are usually top of mind when it comes to preserving the harvest, I use all of the varieties I grow, from cherries all the way up to large slicers.
Three basic methods are used to preserve tomatoes: Canning, freezing and dehydrating. Within these methods, however, there are a multitude of options.
Benefits: This is the method that usually comes to mind first. After the initial learning curve, canning tomatoes is relatively simple and doesn’t require expensive equipment such as a pressure canner, which is a big plus. The biggest advantage of canning is, without doubt, the fact that it allows for long-term storage at room temperature.
Downsides: Although you don’t need a pressure canner, you do need to purchase proper canning jars and lids. Also, I found that a canning pot was a necessary purchase due to it's overall size. Typical pots found in most kitchens, even stock pots, are not tall enough for processing anything but the smallest jars as you need at least 1 inch of water covering the jars plus an additional 2-3 inch allowance for the boiling water. Canning is also a lot of work — it’s not something you can squeeze into a spare hour in the afternoon. Be prepared to set aside a few hours each time you do a “canning session.” And lastly, since canning is so time consuming, it’s not the best choice if you only have a small quantity of tomatoes to preserve. In my case, anything less than 3 or 4 pounds of tomatoes would not be worth breaking out the canning pot for.
Plain tomatoes can be canned whole, diced or pureed. These are the most versatile staple in my pantry as they can be transformed into anything from chili to gazpacho. This trio essentially replaces any form of canned tomato that you would purchase at the grocery store.
When you need a can of tomato sauce for a quick meal, nothing beats the feeling of reaching into your pantry and pulling out a jar of homegrown deliciousness. Unlike plain tomatoes, tomato sauce is cooked down into a thicker consistency and is seasoned with herbs and spices, to create a “ready to use” sauce, a real time-saver in the kitchen. Beyond the traditional spaghetti topping, tomato sauce can also make quick work of a myriad of other dishes such as stuffed peppers, eggplant parmigiana or lasagna, just to name a few.
Salsa is a favorite at our house and there are so many variations! Chunky or smooth, spicy or mild, different combinations of herbs and spices – the sky is the limit. Want a quick, healthy after-school snack that the kids will love and is easy enough for them to prepare themselves? Grab a jar of salsa and pour it into a bowl. Then cut a whole grain Greek pita into wedges to scoop it up– done.
A cautionary note: While it may be tempting to use grandma’s canning recipe or the one in your mom’s cookbook from the 70’s, safety procedures have changed quite a lot over the years so it’s a good idea to stick to the most recent canning recommendations provided by the National Center for Home Food Preservation. The same thing goes for salsa – stick with recipes written in the past few years from trusted sources.
Benefits: Firstly, there is no processing. This is not only a huge time saver but it also minimizes the amount of time spent standing in front of a hot stove in the middle of summer. Secondly, you can freeze raw tomatoes that have not been touched by the heat of processing which means that you can make sauces that have a “fresh” tomato flavor in the middle of winter (more on that below). And lastly, no specialized equipment is required — all you need are storage containers and/or freezer storage bags, which most of us already have in our kitchen.
Downsides: First and foremost is the issue of freezer space — you need a lot of it if you want to freeze a good chunk of your harvest. Secondly, a freezer uses energy, which costs both in terms of dollars and the environment (although environmentally, it’s a far cry from the inputs needed to produce those jars of sauce at the grocery store, not to mention the bland tomatoes sitting in the produce section in January). And while a power outage will have zero impact on the canned tomatoes in your pantry, the contents of your freezer may not be so lucky.
As mentioned above, you likely already have containers that can be used to store your freezer tomatoes and sauces. Choose container sizes based on how much sauce you typically use in recipes. I pack purees and sauces in 1, 2 and 3 cup portions. And while plastic containers and zipper bags are the most commonly used vessels for freezer storage, freezer-safe glass containers are now available as well – just make sure to allow for plenty of head-room for expansion otherwise you may have an explosive mess to clean up!
Tomato puree/sauce is prepared in exactly the same way as when canning without the water bath. If you want to skip the stove top altogether, roasting tomatoes in the oven and then whizzing them in the blender also works and concentrates the flavor beautifully. Once the sauce is made, I let it cool in the refrigerator overnight before packing it up for the freezer. The great thing about freezing is that you can add practically anything you want to the sauce without compromising safety, as would be the case with canning.
I LOVE frozen raw, chopped tomatoes, especially for making “fresh” tomato sauce (check out the mini-recipe at the end of this post). The fact that the tomatoes are not subjected to prolonged cooking gives them a completely different flavor. Preparing them for freezing does take a bit of work up front but the convenience of grabbing a packet of chopped, fresh, vine-ripened tomatoes when I’m making a sauce is worth it. For this method, the tomatoes are cored, peeled and chopped before being packaged into one or two cup portions. Do note that freezing changes the structure of raw tomatoes and they will lose their firmness and be liquidy when defrosted. Once they spend a couple of minutes in a hot skillet, however, you would be hard pressed to taste the difference between fresh or frozen tomatoes.
If, like me, you often end up with an avalanche of cherry tomatoes just as other delicious varieties are also ripening up, this is the perfect way of preserving them. I use roasted cherry tomatoes much like I would sun-dried tomatoes packed in oil. They are amazing on pizza, in soups, in sandwiches, pureed into dips — you name it. They are so good, I’ll often sneak one (or ten!) as they are cooling on the baking sheet. For this method, you slice the cherry tomatoes in half, lay them (cut-side up) in a shallow baking tray, drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt, pepper and whatever combination of herbs you desire. Bake for about 2 hours at 225 degrees F or until they are somewhat shriveled and caramelized around the edges. Allow to cool, then place in a container and freeze. Some people freeze them in a single layer on a baking sheet before transferring them to a freezer storage bag but I find that if you pack them loosely, this extra step isn’t necessary.
I first heard of freezing whole tomatoes from my aunt who purchases vine-ripened tomatoes when they are in season, then plonks them in the freezer, to use later. One of the best things about this method, other than the fact that it requires zero effort up front, is that the tediousness of peeling the tomato when you use it is virtually eliminated — simply run the frozen tomato under warm water and the skin slips right off. I can’t tell you how amazed I was the first time I tried this — and I’ve been spreading the word ever since.
Dehydrating Tomatoes (aka Sun-Dried Tomatoes without the ‘Sun’)
The final method that I use when preserving the tomato harvest is dehydrating, the cheaters version of sun-dried tomatoes when you don’t live in a climate that is conducive to drying tomatoes in the sun. Dehydrated tomatoes can be used in exactly the same way as sun-dried tomatoes (i.e. soaked & chopped before adding to a dish). Or how about creating your own “sun-dried tomatoes in oil” by tossing a handful into a jar of olive oil. I also add them to soups, stews or any liquidy concoction that will re-hydrate them during the cooking process.
Benefits: Dehydrated tomatoes are shelf stable for up to 6 months & no special containers necessary for storage. You can also pack a LOT of tomatoes into a small space as they shrink significantly when dehydrated. Lastly, there is virtually no prep other than rinsing and slicing.
Downsides: The biggest drawback to dehydrating is, of course, the cost of the dehydrator but, as with most things, you can start small — a relatively inexpensive unit can be had for less than $100. It’s up to you to decide whether the cost is worth it. Dehydrators can also be bulky and heavy; I have an Excalibur unit which I would rather not have to move around, so it has a permanent spot in the basement.
When dehydrating tomatoes, I slice or quarter them or, in the case of cherry tomatoes, cut them in half. You can add seasonings if you like, but I generally leave them plain which allows for greater flexibility when I use them. How long they take to dry can vary significantly depending on the dehydrator, the humidity levels, the type of tomato (low moisture tomatoes such as Roma work best, of course), and the size of the tomato slices/halves. And lastly, when you dry your first batch, be sure to take notes for next time. You may think you’ll remember what temperature you used and how long you set the timer for but you won’t — trust me on that.
Tomatoes are one of the most versatile vegetables in the garden, and nowhere is this more evident than in the myriad of ways in which they can be preserved. No matter how much (or little) effort you put into preserving the tomato harvest, one thing is certain. You and your family will appreciate the taste of summer come January as you crack open that jar of salsa or whip up a batch of “fresh” tomato sauce.
My Super-Quick “Fresh” Tomato Sauce
My go-to fresh tomato sauce is not only delicious, it’s ready in the same amount of time it takes you to boil a pot of water and cook some pasta! Sauté chopped onions or shallots until just starting to caramelize, then add frozen, chopped “fresh” tomatoes, a bit of salt, pepper and whatever herbs you choose. Let simmer for a few minutes until most (but not all) of the liquid has evaporated, then finish off with a touch of cream (either half & half or full fat) and voila — so delicious & totally different from traditional, slow simmered sauce.