How to Preserve 100+ lbs. of Tomatoes With Almost No Work

Tomatoes are one of the main crops that I preserve. Jam is all well and good, but face it: there’s a ton of sugar in those jars. Tomatoes, on the other hand, are incredibly good for you can go in just about anything. Home-grown tomatoes are also one of the food items that are so far superior to their grocery store counterparts that they are worth the time it takes to put them up.

Vegetables are so labor-intensive to grow that it makes me cringe when they finally ripen in such abundance that some are left to rot or are simply fed to animals.  I put literal blood, sweat and tears into our farm, and I’ll be damned if I’m letting anything go to waste.  It’s like they say, “there are starving children…”

The key is knowing which preserving methods involve the lowest amount of work at the front end and are the most versatile during the winter months.  I used to get swept up in strange recipes for chutneys and pickles, but when it comes down to it, we really don’t need any of that in the pantry. They make nice gifts, yes.  If you really want to grow and preserve your own food, however, you won’t get by on chutneys. It’s basics like tomatoes (or potatoes, carrots, onions, and cabbages, etc) that make up a well-stocked pantry for us.

So. Let’s get down to it. Last summer I preserved almost 2,000 lbs. of tomatoes and I intend on doing so again. Here’s everything I know about how to get it done.

First you’ll need to grow some tomatoes. You can also develop a relationship with local farmers. Hopefully you shop at farmers markets anyway. There is a certain time of year when busy farmers start feeding extra tomatoes to their chickens or giving them away to friends. This is the time of year that you want to go to the farmers markets just as they are ending, see what is left, and ask any of the following:

  • Haggle: “I’m interested in buying the rest of your tomatoes, can you make me a deal?”  For non-heirloom tomatoes, you should aim for $1/lb. or lower. $20 or lower for a huge box full of tomatoes is a good price.  Heirlooms will be slightly more expensive.
  • Barter, which is even better:  First ask the farmer what they are going to do with all the leftover tomatoes. Then you can tell them: “I do a lot of canning.  If you’re interested, I will take your tomatoes home, turn them into tomato sauce and can them.  In exchange, I keep 3/4 of the jars and will bring you back 1/4.  You will end up with beautiful jars of tomato sauce to eat during the winter without having to do any canning at all.”  A jar of high-end tomato sauce sells from $5-$9 per jar, so a farmer is essentially selling you a case of picked-over tomatoes for $10-$20, depending on how big the case is and the yield of your sauce. Most farmers will be quite happy with this, but will only do the trade if you’re buddies with them (which is why it’s good to be on a first-name basis with your favorite farmers).

Preserving options:

1. Freezing: I’m off the grid, but if you’re on the grid and have the freezer space, tomatoes are perfect for the freezer.  Wash them, let them dry, and either put them in ziploc bags suitable for freezing or vacuum seal them. Date them, and put them in the freezer.  You can take them out as you need them, and there’s absolutely no need to peel them; when you take them out of the freezer, the skins will slip off easily under some warm tap water.

2. Tomato Sauce For Busy People: So there’s this idea floating around that you have to peel and seed tomatoes to make a good sauce, and it’s 100% nonsense. It hurts my brain to think about peeling all those tomatoes.  And seedless sauce? Why? People who peel and seed tomatoes are the same people who peel potatoes and carrots, which I also don’t do and think is a waste of time. If you’re cooking at the French Laundry, then fine, peel and seed the tomatoes. Until then, don’t bother.The main argument for not peeling the tomatoes is that it often makes the difference between “I have time to can tomato sauce” and “Are you smoking crack? No way am I doing that!”

(Instead of photographing and writing out the whole tomato sauce process, you should go read about it on The Girls Guide to Guns and Butter.  Her recipe is for freezing, but all I do is add lemon juice and process the jars to make it safe for canning.  Keep reading for more instructions…)

All you need is a huge pot, tomatoes, salt, lemon juice, and a lot of big jars. Cut the stems and any damaged or rotten spots off the tomatoes,* put them in a pot, and cook it on very low heat until it gets to the consistency you want. Stir it every once in awhile.  I cooked mine for 36 hours. If you want, you can saute some onions, garlic, shallots and herbs in some olive oil and throw that in the pot with the tomatoes too.

If you like a smooth sauce, purée it in a blender or a food processor. I blended about half of my sauce because I like to have small chunks of tomatoes in it. Season with salt and pepper.

The summary: Instead of spending a ton of time peeling tomatoes, all you really do is throw whole tomatoes in a pot and then cook them forever.

To can the sauce: Add 1 tbs. of lemon juice to pint jars and 2 tbs. of lemon juice to quart jars. Fill the jars with hot tomato sauce using 1/2″ headspace. Process in a boiling water canner.  Pints get 40 minutes and quarts get 50 minutes. (Lemon juice is what makes the tomatoes acidic enough to be safe for the boiling water method).

NOTE: (brought up by a smart reader!) Processing times vary by altitude, so check this chart here to match your altitude to the right processing time for where you are. http://www.uga.edu/nchfp/how/can_03/tomato_sauce.html

Do NOT get all crazy and start doing stuff like adding ground beef or mushrooms or carrots or any of that. You absolutely must pressure-can a sauce with vegetables or meat in it. I add all of that fancy stuff later, in February, when I am making spaghetti and meatballs while it’s freezing cold outside.  This is a basic sauce to amend later.

3. Oven Dried Tomatoes

I like to dehydrate all of my heirlooms in the oven (I would use a dehydrator if I were on the grid).   They have such a wonderful flavor to begin with, but when you dry them with a little sprinkle of sea salt, they caramelize and turn into magic candy sweet salty tomato snacks. You can put the dried tomatoes in all kinds of stews, sauces, salsas, grain dishes, and jams for a wonderful burst of roasted tomato flavor.  I would challenge anyone to find a dried tomato from a grocery store that is half as delicious as a homegrown dried heirloom.

Cut the stems off and cut the tomatoes down into more manageable sizes: halved for smaller ones, quartered for larger ones. Lay them on a cookie sheet, skin side down. Sprinkle them with some sea salt. Add fresh herbs if you want; i like fresh thyme and wild bay laurel leaves. Put the oven on the lowest temperature it has. I roasted mine for 48 hours at 175 degrees, but you’ll want to just keep an half an eye on them. When they start looking almost done (shriveled up like any other type of dried fruit), you’ll need to check about every half an hour. Smaller tomatoes finish faster and I just pick them off the cookie sheet and put them in a jar as they are ready, letting the larger ones stay in the oven.

And there you have it- a case of heirloom tomatoes now fits in a quart mason jar. I dry them pretty thoroughly; they will still feel leathery and nice, not burnt and crunchy. Cover them and store in a cool, dark place. They should last for months, but I wouldn’t really know how long, we always eat them sooner. If you want to leave a little more moisture in them, I would throw them in the freezer to make sure they don’t spoil.

4. Last But Not Least, the Cherry Tomatoes: Cherry Tomato Bisque

I haven’t made it this year, but tomorrow these cherry tomatoes will go into a bisque. It’s so simple, but so bright and luscious.  Just saute some garlic, dump the cherry tomatoes in the soup pot, and cover with vegetable stock. Simmer for 30 minutes, then puree. Stir in some heavy cream and season with sea salt and black pepper.  This soup would freeze very well if you want to save it for later.

… And that is how to go through 6 cases of tomatoes in just a few days without losing any to rot or giving up and feeding them to the animals.

I would, however, be open to something like La Tomatina, the world’s largest food fight.  A small town in Spain started this tradition, where “over 100 metric tons of over-ripe tomatoes are thrown in the streets.”

That could be fun.

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69 responses to “How to Preserve 100+ lbs. of Tomatoes With Almost No Work

  1. Loved your post! I will have to spend some time here when I get the chance, which will likely be this winter ;)

  2. Great job! I’m going to try the canning tomato sauce. Sounds so good! I would love to have it and some basil and garlic over pasta right now :)

  3. I made my first batch of basil and tomato marina sauce this summer for the first time and am saving it for the cold winter months! It’s always refreshing to know all the ingredients in my food are natural, fresh and healthy. Also, you’ve inspired me to make my own oven dried tomatoes. Thanks for sharing and for the inspiration.

  4. This is the time of year – and the farmers got the tomatoes, let’s get canning…

  5. Great post, and fun to see all the ways you’re preserving your tomatoes. I just did a batch of tomato juice which is surprisingly little work as you just chunk up the tomatoes, toss them in the pot with some salt, peppercorns, a halved onion, and a stick or two of celery, then strain it out after it bubbles gently for about 15 minutes. Delish :) I’m going to keep making more and freeze it as my garden tomatoes continue to ripen.

  6. Love love love the info! Thank you so much. It’s our first year with a large enough crop to put up. So far, canned roasted tomatoes, tomato sauce, tomato/apple ketchup. Going to make your cherry tomato bisque tonight, as we still have trillions of those little guys left, and I’m getting worried!

    • jesse- I made that bisque this morning, it’s so good. I added a splash of white wine too. If your blender is feeling lame (mine was this morning) and there are too many little pieces of skin floating in it, you can run it through a fine mesh strainer and get rid of them right before you serve it. I also sprinkled some parmesan cheese and fresh parsley on top. I hope you love it! Its such a great way to use up all the extra cherry tomatoes… and such a bright flavor that you can never get from normal tomato soup.

  7. Thank you thank you thank you!!
    I like your no frills approach to canning- when I started, I never understood why you would skin a tomato… what’s wrong with the skin? why would you take the seeds out?! So for the last couple years, I have been roasting tomatoes in the oven with herbs and garlic and then pureeing them into a sauce (seeds, skins and all!) and canning. It’s good!
    Last night I threw a whole bunch on the bbq and then pureed and canned them. Easy, and fun!
    So glad Marisa from food in jars sent me your way… gonna check the rest of your blog now :)

  8. I soooo wish I had read your post two weeks ago when I put up tomatoes galore. Yeah, I stood there, over a piping hot stove and “cold”, which was lukewarm in no time, water for plunging and peeling 3 crates of tomatoes for sauce, canned tomatoes, salsa. So wish I had thought to cook and puree instead. It would have saved a lot of time and frustration. At the end of that day, I decided to never can tomatoes again no matter how good they taste over store bought. After reading your post, I may jump back on the fence again since finding that peeling is unnecessary. The dried heirloom tomatoes sound delicious. Thanks again!!!

  9. I soooo wish I had read your post two weeks ago when I put up tomatoes galore. Yeah, I stood there, over a piping hot stove and “cold”, which was lukewarm in no time, water for plunging and peeling 3 crates of tomatoes for sauce, canned tomatoes, salsa. So wish I had thought to cook and puree instead. It would have saved a lot of time and frustration. At the end of that day, I decided to never can tomatoes again no matter how good they taste over store bought. After reading your post, I may jump back on the fence again since finding that peeling is unnecessary. The dried heirloom tomatoes sound delicious. Thanks again!!!

  10. Hi there

    I do take the seeds out and the skins off, but that is cause I find the seeds make for a bitter sauce, and the skins are a bit rolly in my sauces. but my trick is to half the tomatoes, and throw them in the top of my steam juicer, and let’er rip. the juicer pulls out a lot of the juice, leaving the tomatoes all slumpy and ready to put through my food mill. then I have a smooth sauce, seed and skinless, and have not been running the stove for hours – only about an hour. then there is time to can and sleep, too!

  11. Thank you for the ideas! I make my own ragu – I put celery,onions,a carrots,garlic,fresh basil,oregano,and ripe tomatoes in the food processor (I leave all the skins on everything) and make a purree. I either freeze it in quart jars like that or I cook it down and then freeze it.

    I dry tomtoes too.

  12. This was a great post – thanks! I guess I should stop bragging about putting away 75lbs – I can’t even imagine processing 2000lbs!!!

  13. I always thought those people who peel carrots and potatoes were silly. Thanks for reassuring me that I don’t need to peel the tomatoes either! I wish I’d read this a few days ago, but I’ll be ready for next year.

  14. All I can say is I have 45 pounds of tomatoes and I am in love with you……I have planned two days and peeling and cooking why I would rather have another child in hard labor for 12 hours and and now life is good ….Thanx so much…..I am linking to this post thanx you thanx you thank uuuuuu

  15. I am with you all the way! Never peel or seed. Why?? Good work!

  16. I also throw my tomatoes in whole (just removing bad spots, stems, and the stem end if it’s tough and deep). But no need for a food processor. I use my stick blender right in the pot (move it off the heat first). I like to put in some bay leaves or other herbs (like rosemary spears) and the secret is to count them (write it down if you have to) so you know you get them all before stick blending.

  17. Oh my gosh, YES with the peeling and seeds! What is WITH the excess steps, people?! (And why on earth have you not added this post to the Patchwork Living Blogging Bee, yet? It’s perfect! ;) http://www.attainable-sustainable.net/patchwork-living-blogging-bee-4/)

  18. I have tons of freezer space, so it’s great to know that I can just freeze the tomatoes without doing anything to them — I had no idea that they would be so easy to de-skin after freezing. THANKS!

  19. diane (the wandering chicken and mini-farm)

    tooo many tomatoes here!!! one day i boiled 24 qts of “blendered” tomatoes down to 7.5qts!! i added a touch of salt, sugar, n fresh garden basil n scallions… canned it! i can easily make sauce, soup or juice and its all condensed down to conserve space!!!

  20. Thanks for this post, Caroline. I’m on my way home from Alaska (in the Seattle airport as I type this) and when I get there I hope to find a garden full of tomatoes ready for processing. (Remember back in January when I was just getting them started?) I am most definitely taking your advice about reducing the work involved, and I especially look forward to the oven-dried delectables.

  21. Wonderful site – I cannot wait to reach this stage, though some way off just now. Thank you for sharing.

  22. Did it ,,,,,,and posted the results on my website with a link to you thank you so much…no seeding iam in heaven

  23. Can someone tell me why I peeled all those tomatoes this year?

  24. Thank you! I only wish I had read this post this morning before I strained tomato sauce through a sieve to get out the seeds and skin. Now I know what to do when my tomatoes are really rocking in a few weeks.

  25. When making tomato sauce or paste you can put your pot in the oven and let it bake down. That way you only have to stir it once in a great while. Remember, no lid. You want it to bake down. This saves a lot of having to be right there all the time to stir so it will not scorch. You can even enjoy a good nights sleep without worrying about the sauce.

  26. You have some great ideas here. But please, make sure you are using safe canning techniques. The times you give for water bath canning are not right for everyone. Canning times need to be adjusted for altitude. One of the best sources on the web is the National Center for Home Food Preservation. This will bring you to their home page: http://www.uga.edu/nchfp/how/can_home.html. For correct canning times at different altitudes for tomatoes, this is the link: http://www.uga.edu/nchfp/how/can_03/tomato_sauce.html.

    • eva, thanks so much for bringing this to my attention! sometimes I forget that people in the mountains might like to can too :) i’m going to add in this link in the post right away.

  27. Loved the ideas and suggestions about freezing. Wonder why you cook the sauce for 36 hours. Was that right? Barb@ drdob.com

    • barb- it cooked for 36 hours because it was almost 60 lbs. of tomatoes crammed into a big pot, and the water just took a really long time to cook off. A smaller batch would take a much shorter time. (i’ll try to add that into the post as a note for anyone else that might be wondering)

  28. Slow cooker + food mill

  29. FYI if you throw it all in a crockpot prop the lid open the sauce can reduce at a low temp without scorching and heating up your house(I live in Arizona 110degrees). Once it is at the right consistancy you are ready to can. I just canned 50lbs and wish I had known it wouldnt hurt to leave seeds and skin on. I am canning another 100lbs this weekend so guess what NO FOOD MILL!!! thanks SOOOO much!!!!

  30. would this work in the crockpot doyathink?

  31. nevermind, I posted before I saw the recent posts! thanks

  32. I blend the raw tomatoes, skins and all, in my vitamix, add the lemon and salt, and bring to boil, add to jars, process, and they are FAntastic! No waste, fast, and I add the spices later depending on what I am making.

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  34. @MM, to ensure the proper acidity in each jar, the lemon juice should be added to each jar, as Caroline says in her instructions. It would be a shame to go to all the work of canning and then produce an unsafe product.

  35. I’m so excited! I just roasted my first batch of tomatoes. Live and learn. I cooked them too long, BUT there are enough that survived to tell that they are super yummy!

    I even threw a few into the first batch of tomato sauce that I cooked. :D I ended up with a lot of water. I drained it off and put the tomatoes in the food processor for just a bit. I’m a little disappointed at the small amount I have, but I’m looking at it as a learning experience. I used about half a box of tomatoes for both the roasted and sauce combined.

    Thank you so much for this site. I love it.

  36. Thank you so much! I tried canning for the first time this year and canned 300+ pounds of tomatoes (plus some other garden produce). I did a bunch of reading and determined it was easiest to just thrown everything in the food processor, cook it for a few minutes, add lemon juice and then can it, even though I didn’t see anyone doing that when I Googled it. It would’ve made me feel much better knowing that someone who cans so much also believes in cutting out all the extra work. I am definitely sharing this with others — thank you for your encouragement! We CAN can! :-)

  37. I can’t begin to tell you how much I enjoyed reading your article and your comment about peeling the tomatoes. Up until a week ago I was a full time working single mom who spent many of my days off canning this summer. It’s been rough since I lost my job, but your article and comments made me laugh until the tears rolled down my face. Thank you so much! Have a blessed day!

    • Thank you so much lesly! Sorry it took me so long to write back, but it makes me so happy that something I write could brighten someone’s day.

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  39. I have been cannng tomatoes for about 30 years and I think I’ve perfected it (for me). I’ll tell you right off, that I do NOT like the skin or seeds in my sauce. I’ve found the easiest way to do this. I don’t like all the extra watery juice either, so instead of cooking them “down”, sometimes I cut the fresh tomatoes in quarters and leave them in big bowls or pots in the frig overnight. The next morning, the pots are full of clear liquid, that I just pour off. I then cook the tomatoes over low heat till they come to a gentle boil. Cook till soft. Take off heat and let cool somewhat. I then pour approx. 6 cups at a time in a blender. Blend well. Then pour through cone shaped colander that has a wooden pestle. I work the pestle a couple times and all the seeds and skins stay in the colander. Whaaaallaaah I have great smooth, thick sauce. I usually put the sauce back in large pans and bring to a boil again, but I don’t know if that’s really necessary since I process them for so long anyway. I add 1/2 tsp. salt per pint and 1 tsp. per quart. Oh yeah, I have never added lemon juice and it never seemed to matter.

  40. The only reason to add lemon juice (or vinegar) is to bring down the pH. It really doesn’t make sense to guess at this. The tomatoes themselves vary widely in pH so you will always be wondering if you added too little acid or if you added more than you needed to (and possibly threw off the flavor of your sauce without cause).

    Just buy pH paper. It’s super easy to use. Stir the sauce and put some on a small spoon. Dip the paper and read following the directions on the package. Discard the contents of the spoon.

    The magic number is 4.6. If you’re below that, you’re good to water bath can. If it’s higher, then you need to add acid to bring the pH down or use a pressure canner. For anyone unfamiliar, the pH scale runs from 0 (insanely acid) to 14 (insanely basic aka alkaline). Water is considered neutral, at 7 (some water can be slightly off).

    Last time I made sauce it was below pH 4.6 without adding any acid. That may not be the case next time. But I’ll check it. Be sure to get paper that does the range you want, because each paper will do different ranges. You can get a roll to last you years for less than $10.

  41. AWESOME post — thanks!! Just what I needed, as my tomatoes are really starting to pop now, and I expect to try my hand at canning (and drying) for the first time this year. I especially appreciate the tip about just cleaning them well and putting them in the freezer for future use since that is what I need most: a regular supply of “cooking tomatoes” throughout the year. Great additional education in the comments too :)

  42. Mary Anne Medlock

    I oven-dried 26 pounds of cherry tomatoes. I put them in what I thought was air-tight container on my island. For the first few days, we’d all get a handful every time we walked past the jar. Then I opened the jar and found mold growing. It broke my heart. So much work and effort only to ruin. The next batch I made, I froze. I would still like to be able to have some in jars. What is your suggestion on how to store? I’ve seen other posts about soaking them in oil. But I don’t want to do that. Help!

    • Tate Allyn Peterson

      Did you wash them in water and vinegar?

      • Mary Anne Medlock

        No, I didn’t. Should I do that after the come out of the oven?

      • Tate Allyn Peterson

        No, before you process. It kills the yucky stuff on the fruit and veggies so you don’t get mold. For that matter dish soap would work as long as it is well rinsed but vinegar is more food friendly. With that large of an amount I would freeze some and put some in oil if I was doing it because even if you kill all the mold there is mold in the air and on your fingers.

      • Mary Anne Medlock

        How ingenious! Thanks for the tip, I can’t wait to try!

      • Tate Allyn Peterson

        Just passing it on. It would have save me a bunch of lemons if I had seen it before they came down!

    • I tried to post this days ago but it has not come through even though others have been approved since. I tried to resend a couple days ago but it said it was a duplicate. I’m not sure what’s going on but it appears to have been lost. I will try again.

      Mary Anne, you absolutely can’t stick your hand in a jar. That is probably what caused the mold to grow (or bacteria). Also opening and closing the jar a lot. Open a jar once to pull out what you need for the day or a couple days. Use a fork or tongs, then stick your hand all you want into the container you created.

      The main cause is likely leaving too much water in the fruit (tomatoes are just a less sweet fruit). Tomatoes should be almost brittle when you dry them.

      • Mary Anne Medlock

        Thanks! Lessons learned. I’ve made a couple more trays over the weekend and then froze them. I had visions that simply in line with food safety. Thanks for the advice!

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  45. Just a note to let you know that your method for making tomato sauce worked beautifully! Loved it! Thanks so much.
    Diana

  46. Oven dried/slow-roasted tomatoes are the best! Thanks for all of these other tips, too!

  47. Pingback: How To Pull Off Your Own DIY Wedding, Pt 2: The Food! | grow it cook it can it

  48. Nice post. I learn something new and challenging
    on websites I stumbleupon on a daily basis. It will always be interesting to read through articles from other authors
    and use something from other websites.

  49. Terri Gottschalk

    love reading your ideas :) thank you
    But I have to add that last year I used my crock pots 3 of them to make tomato sauce. I cut in quarters cook on high for a couple of hours, When they get soft I put in my blender and blend. Than I put back in crock pot and continue cooking on low to the desired consistency and than can them in pint jars. I put the jar half way on so the water can evaporate. Add your salt or lemon juice to your jars when you start to can. Easy as pie :)

  50. Timing is everything. I just now came upstairs to get my sandals on to go to the shed to get the tomatoes out of the freezer to start canning them. going to add lime juice with the lemon. Some home grown herbs and I’m good to go.

  51. Pingback: How to Preserve 100+ lbs. of Tomatoes With Almost No Work - Plant Care Today

  52. Reblogged this on Gardengal Bevy and commented:
    boy do i need this! mine are rotting on the vines for lack of time!

  53. I am so excited to try your method. I am new to canning this year and have put up almost 100 pounds of tomatoes already (peeled but not seeded). I have probably 30-40 pounds that are waiting in the garden right now to be canned. I will definitely try this method. I love your writing style and your realism :) I can’t imagine putting up 2000lbs of tomatoes! Thank so you much for this and I am not dreading canning the rest of those tomatoes as much as I was before I read your article!

  54. Almost no work… took me hours :) but it was worth it.

    Oven dried tomatoes were wonderful, will use this method again

  55. 140 lbs this year. I need a couple three more s.s. stock pots.

  56. I all the time emailed this website post page to all my associates,
    because if like to read it afterward my friends will too.

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