Tomatoes, which can come in fast once they get rolling, can be hard to keep up with sometimes. Here are some ideas for ways to use up those tomatoes and enjoy them all year round.
If you’re really glutted with tomatoes, while you’re slicing, dicing, cooking, drying and canning, you may want to write yourself some notes about next year’s garden. Maybe you wound up with far more than you actually want and should rethink your planting strategy. You can spread out harvest time by choosing a variety of early and later tomatoes. I have limited growing space, so I’ve learned to plant cherry tomatoes exclusively, as my family can never get enough of them and we get plenty of slicers from our farm share. Most of our Sungolds and Sweet 100s just get gobbled up plain by kids and grown-ups alike. Some might make it into a salad or a simple pasta dish. Our CSA share gives us more slicer tomatoes than we can eat fresh, so some wind up cooked in ratatouilles that get frozen for winter and others are dried for holiday gifts.
The type of tomatoes you have will affect what you do with them. Cherry tomatoes will move quickly if you put them out for your family as snacks and add them to salads and pasta dishes. Your best bet for preserving cherry tomatoes is roasting and then freezing (see instructions below). Roma and paste tomatoes, which have lower water content, are best for sauces and canning, while those juicy slicers can be dried or frozen.
Here are some ideas for what to do with your tomato surplus in order of time and energy required. Bon appetit!
1. Eat them with everything!
2. Share (or barter) the surplus.
Some poor souls you know don’t grow their own tomatoes and will be delighted to get any you have to offer. Or maybe they’re awash in zucchinis while yours got knocked out by squash bugs, and you can make a trade. Or plan ahead for the holiday season by preparing dried tomatoes (see below) as a gift for your friends – anyone will appreciate these gems in a winter salad or recipe.
3. Make tomato-centric recipes.
Tomato soup, tomato sauce, and homemade ketchup can be used immediately or canned, dried, or frozen for later use. These projects are appropriate for the less succulent tomatoes, like roma or paste.
Someone at the farmers’ market last weekend was looking for tomato jelly, which she said was delicious. Mark Bittman must agree with her. Here’s his recipe from the New York Times.
Still have tomatoes left? Time to roll up your sleeves and start preserving!
4. Use that freezer.
There are some advantages and disadvantages to freezing tomatoes. Freezer real estate can be pretty limited in autumn, plus keeping things cold in your house takes energy. But freezing some tomatoes for later use is a simple beginner project and requires no special equipment. If you already use a chest freezer, throwing in a bunch of tomatoes might make sense.
Two freezing projects to try:
1. If you have a bounty of cherry tomatoes, try roasting them and freezing them for winter pizzas and pastas or in soups. Roasting concentrates the flavor, and bringing these little bursts of summer out in the depths of January feels downright indulgent.
How to: Simply halve the tomatoes, spread in a single layer on a cookie sheet and roast at 325° for about half an hour. They’ll lose a lot of their water and start to brown at the edges. Let them cool and put in small freezer containers. They will stick together, so you’ll have to defrost the whole container at once. Don’t put them all in a gallon bag if you don’t plan use them in one go.
2. You can also freeze whole tomatoes! Some people like the ease of just tossing their tomatoes into a bag in the freezer and dropping them into winter soups and sauces, when heating the kitchen with cooking is less of an issue and there’s no garden bounty to process. The skins slide off defrosted tomatoes easily, useful to know if you like to use them without skin. You can also dice tomatoes before freezing, and this also helps consolidate freezer space. Defrosted frozen tomatoes will be mushy and should only be used in cooked dishes. If you prefer, you can make your soup or sauce and then freeze it for a quick no-fuss meal on a night when you’re short on time.
Dried tomatoes are a wonderful treat on their own, or when used as a garnish in salads or as an ingredient in many recipes. All kinds of tomatoes can be dried in the oven, in a dehydrator, or in the direct sun on screens or using a solar dehydrator.
Dehydrating is pretty simple and doesn’t require much study beforehand, plus dried foods don’t take up much storage space. Dried tomatoes typically last about a year in an air-tight container. If you’re a camper, you can use leather-making disks to dehydrate your homemade tomato sauce and rehydrate it at your campsite.
Dehydrating your slicer or paste tomatoes is as simple as slicing them, placing them on your dehydrator trays, and leaving them to dry to chewy or crispy deliciousness for 8-10 hours. (Note that most ovens don’t have temperature settings as low as electric dehydrators, so oven-dried tomatoes will dry faster and need a little more attention. Sun-drying can take several days, depending on weather conditions.)
You can then use your dehydrated tomatoes for cooking, or you can eat them straight from the jar! Some people really like the taste of tomato chips, so consider putting some aside for easy holiday gifts. They look especially nice if you alternate stacks of red, orange, brown, or yellow tomatoes in a mason jar. Add a ribbon you have a gift ready to give which anyone can use.
6. Can-do canning.
Canning takes a little more know-how to get started, but as people have rediscovered the art of “putting up,” it’s become easier to find an experienced canner to help get you initiated. If you prefer hands-on learning to studying up from books or the internet, you could offer to pitch in on a friend’s canning day to learn the process. Check your community education calendar or local coop for a canning class as well.
There’s no shortage of books on canning out there, as well as a wealth of online information. The USDA National Center for Home Preservation has a comprehensive guide to home canning, and Eartheasy has some helpful suggestions from seasoned canners, including some you won’t see in the manuals that come with your canner.
Canning requires more precautions for food safety, as improper preparation can lead to dangerous spoilage, including growth of the bacteria botulinum, which can cause botulism, a deadly form of food poisoning. There are two canning methods you can try, hot bath canning and pressure canning.
Hot bath canning simply involves submerging your cans (glass jars) in boiling water for a prescribed period of time, so no specialized equipment is required. However, this method is only appropriate for high-acid foods that inhibit botulinum bacteria growth. Because tomatoes are not uniformly high in acid, if you choose the water bath method, you need to add additional acid, such as vinegar or lemon juice.
Pressure canning, on the other hand, allows you to can lower-acid foods safely by cooking them at the higher temperatures you need to destroy dangerous bacteria. Pressure cooking has several additional benefits, including reducing cooking time, which saves energy and preserves nutrients. A combination pressure canner/cooker allows you not only to can your low-acid foods safely, it can also benefit your everyday meal prep, so it’s a worthwhile investment.
If you’re new to food preservation, you can start small, with just a few things tucked in your freezer or dehydrated in your oven, or you can jump in and get the equipment you need to put up much of what you’ll eat in winter. Once you enjoy some of your summer tomatoes in January, you may decide you want to do more. Preserving your own food is a satisfying ritual of late summer, a valuable parent/child activity and a way to extend your garden harvest through winter when home grown foods are less available.
So let it rain tomatoes!