After you have celebrated your first ripe tomatoes with drippy sandwiches and bowls of gazpacho, it’s time to get busy preserving the harvest. Don’t jump to the conclusion that you must bottle all of your darlings in jars, because that may not be the best use for your tomatoes. Depending on type, you could be better off preserving certain tomatoes by drying, freezing, or pickling.
Preserving Cherry Tomatoes
Prolific cherry tomatoes are often your first preservation challenge. As tomatoes go, cherries are seedy little berries with thin flesh, so they produce unacceptably thin, often bitter juices or sauces. Whole cherry tomatoes make great refrigerator pickles when left to marinate in a vinegar and sugar brine, and larger ones can be cut in half and dehydrated into tomato “raisins.” Because they still have some moisture left in them, cherry tomatoes that are dried to the chewy stage should be stored in the freezer.
The best and easiest way to preserve cherry tomatoes is to freeze them by adding handfuls to re-closable freezer bags. Wash and pat dry the fruits before freezing so they can be added to cooked dishes straight from the bag. Freezing and thawing softens cherry tomatoes, which is not a bad thing when they are popped into pasta dishes at the last minute.
Preserving Slicing Tomatoes
Many of best-tasting tomatoes are bursting with juice, both from the flesh and from the gel that surrounds the seeds. This is what you want in a fresh eating tomato, but all that liquid can become a liability when you bottle them. While I do include heritage varieties grown for their colours and flavours in some of my bottling projects, my favourite way to preserve them is by drying them. Dehydration concentrates the flavours, and because tomatoes are dried raw, with their skins intact, dried tomatoes are a minimally processed food. Every year I find myself drying more tomatoes because they are so versatile in the kitchen. Any dish that cooks for more than 30 minutes, which includes all winter soups and stews, can be enriched with dried tomatoes. Some people use a spice grinder to pulverise dried tomatoes into powders used to boost the flavour and nutrition of sauces and broths.
Preserving Salad Tomatoes
Every year I grow ‘Roma’ or a small-fruited saladette variety like ‘Juliet’ to make into half-dried tomatoes, which I then freeze for long-term storage. I try to accumulate a good store of these delights, because they are the best off-season substitute for fresh tomatoes in salads and sandwiches. Frozen half-dried tomatoes thaw into flavourful, chewy tomatoes because of their reduced water content.
Ideally, you would start by using a dehydrator to remove about half of the moisture from cut tomato halves, but it can be done in an oven that is warmed no higher than 150°F (65°C), and ventilated, over a period of many hours. After four to five hours in a dehydrator or 12 to 18 hours in a monitored warm oven, the tomatoes collapse. I then freeze the half-dried tomatoes on cookie sheets and store the frozen tomatoes in plastic bags.
Canning Garden Tomatoes
The best tomatoes for bottling have thick flesh and very little juice, so they naturally stay chunky in salsa or hold together as canned diced tomatoes. I grow several plants of a dry-fleshed tomato variety like ‘Plum Regal’ just for bottling, but you can certainly use a mix of tomatoes to make tomato sauce, marinara sauce, or salsa. If most of the batch is juicy heirlooms, place some of the cut tomatoes in a strainer for a few minutes to remove some of the clear juice.
Bottling tomatoes is an art that takes practice, and in the interests of safety it is always wise to acidify canned tomato products with vinegar, lemon juice or citric acid. You can use a water bath or steam canner for tomato products, but a pressure canner is faster and easier.
Preserving Green Tomatoes
Storm damage, rampaging animals or the arrival of cold weather can leave you with a quantity of green tomatoes which are perfect for making the thick, sweet and sour relishes we call chutneys. Small batches of green tomato chutney done up in little jars make wonderful gifts, if you can bring yourself to part with them.