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.
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).
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.
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.
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.