It is that time of year when the garden is bursting with its bounty, and I am regularly giving thanks to our Creator for His provision and kindness in giving us a diverse and pleasurable taste and texture smorgasbord for our palates as well as the necessities of nature, mind, and body to work the land and see its fruit come forth. He created the very earth from which they came and provides the balance of nature– the appropriate amount of sun so that the plants don’t freeze or burn, have enough oxygen, and have water and nourishment from the soil. Sure, we also do a lot of work, too, but we couldn’t do it without Him, since our very beings are immensely complex organisms that He puts together so perfectly and gave us intelligence to not only plant, water, weed, and pick plants but to make tools and irrigation systems that simplify this process. What a great God to give us not only all that we need to survive but also the pleasure of a diverse and beautiful world!
With that said, one of the mainstays in our garden is tomatoes. We use fresh tomatoes for salads, sandwiches, pizza, casseroles, and more. However, tomato sauce goes in many, many of our dishes, whether as a major ingredient or as a minor one. As a result, we require literally gallons of the stuff each year, and our tomato plants are bursting with tomatoes right now! I thought my approach to long-term tomato storage might be helpful to some of you, so I am going to share it in detail here.
Picking the Tomatoes
We grow a variety of tomatoes, though most of our tomatoes are Roma/San Marzano type, because those are the best for paste. I have grown the same heirloom plants using my own harvested seeds for at least six years now and maybe longer. (I have lost track of when I first started collecting the seeds and fermenting them in pots outside during the winter. The first year I did so thinking they would be good food for the birds during the winter, but then in the spring I was given a multitude of tomato plants, and that was the beginning of a beautiful process that has continued. I was “accidentally” blessed with learning how to produce more tomato plants than I can handle and to have to give some away each year. Rather than my “cup” overflowing, it has been my many flower pots that overflow with tiny tomato plants anxious to be transplanted where they can spread their roots and produce.) When picking tomatoes, we keep the varieties separated to make it easier to keep the seeds separate for this re-potting process. This way, I can label the pots by the types of tomato seeds going into them. Processing of each variety is done separately also. To pick, we use plastic one-gallon buckets with handles. I have found that using anything larger tends to get too much weight on the top that can crush very ripe tomatoes placed in the bottom. I believe it is better to use five one-gallon buckets than to use one five-gallon bucket for this reason. Additionally, the one-gallon buckets are small enough that they can be easily cleaned in the kitchen sink or even run through the dishwasher. They can sit in my sink filled with water to let the tomatoes soak a bit before their thorough washing.
To wash the tomatoes, I begin with soaking the bucket of tomatoes in lukewarm water. While I only use organic gardening-approved sprays and fertilizers in our garden, I do use Neem oil products to deter tomato worms and grasshoppers. (I prefer something called Neemix, but it is pricey and difficult to find. I get mine from groworganic.com. A bottle is more than enough for a growing season, even though I spray weekly.) I use it all over my garden and only lightly on the tomatoes, since the borage and marigolds usually do a great job of keeping the tomato worms away from the plants near them, but there are usually some areas of the tomato garden a bit distant from the borage and marigolds that benefit from the spray. When you spray the tomato plants, some of the spray is going to get on the tomatoes themselves, and Neem oil is bitter! We want to be sure to get it off any of the tomatoes. After soaking for at least a couple of minutes, I rinse each tomato and inspect it. That’s all that is required, since we don’t use harsh, toxic chemicals in any of our gardens.
Large, beefy tomatoes- Some large, unblemished, and well-ripened tomatoes are always kept aside for slicing on sandwiches. The others are stacked to be processed into sauce.
Small, cherry tomatoes- Some small, unblemished, and well-ripened cherry (Sweet 100) tomatoes are put in bowls for eating on the counter and for use in salads and soups. (In soups or stews, we call them “sweet bombs”. Just be careful not to serve them too hot or they will burn your mouth when you bite into them and the hot inner liquid squirts out.) The others are set aside to be included in the sauce-making process also. Though they are filled with liquid, it is very sweet and adds more sweetness to our sauce.
Medium, meaty Roma/San Marzano/plum tomatoes- Some unblemish, well-ripened San Marzano tomatoes are set aside to be diced and freeze-dried for future use in casseroles and dishes, but most are designated for sauce processing.
Those that are going to be used for sauce are stacked back in clean buckets next to the sink.
Storing for Sandwiches and Salads
Whole tomatoes store best outside of the refrigerator at room temperature. Those that I am keeping for sandwiches or salads are placed on my counter in a corner out of direct sunlight until I am ready to cut and place a large one on sandwiches or grab a handful of cherry tomatoes for a salad or snacking.
Dicing and Drying
I have had good success with freeze-drying diced tomatoes. (While I have not dehydrated them, I strongly suspect it is practical to do so at a low temperature until they are fully crisp and can be powdered. Just don’t powder them, except to test their doneness.) For long-term storage, all of the moisture must be removed! They are full of sugar and, therefore, can easily spoil if not dried and vacuum sealed properly.
I do not peel the tomatoes; I simply dice them into 1/3-inch cubes. Though I freeze dry diced tomatoes that are cut to about 1/3 inch, they shrink down to about 1/4-inch cubes but plump back up with rehydration.
I lay then in a single layer on our stainless steel freeze dryer trays and put them in our Harvest Right Freeze Dryer. Because there is so much moisture, it usually takes about 36 hours for them to completely dry. (The time varies, depending upon various factors, including condition of oil, humidity, size of tomato cubes, water content of tomatoes, et cetera.)
Then, I store the dried tomato cubes in quart size wide mouth Mason jars, using a vacuum sealing system and FoodSaver jar attachment. I always mark the lids of all of my jars using a black Sharpie permanent marker so that even in a dark situation, I can shine a dim light and read the tops of a box of the jars to find what I need without having to lift jars and look. (I recommend using a black marker, because some of the other colors fade over time or in sunlight.) In this example, I might write on the label: “Freeze-dried Diced Tomatoes 8/16”. On the labels, I always say what kind of processing was used (canned, freeze dried, dehydrated/dried), the contents (including how it is sliced/diced/crushed/ground/shredded, if pertinent), and when the contents were first processed and packaged. This helps me with rotation and to find what I need quickly. Jar lids can be reused and relabeled. To remove old permanent marker, use Goof Off and a paper towel. There is sometimes a faint shadow of the former writing, but the new writing is prominent and easy to distinguish. (I use the lids first for liquid canning and then once I have opened a canned jar of something I re-use that lid for dry vacuum storage, again and again.) As long as you are careful in how you break the lid’s seal, the lid remains in “like new” condition. To remove the lid, I simply use the dull side of a table knife and follow the threads up with the knife in a horizontal position so that as the threads raise the back of the knife up, it breaks the seal. Then the flat side of the knife does not bend the lid to enable any air to get into the jar the next time I put the contents under a vacuum. I can remove a few tablespoons of dried, diced tomatoes and re-vacuum seal the jar to keep the contents good for another five or ten years, if need be. However, it just will not last that long! We do love our tomatoes!
In Part 2, I will share my sauce-making and storage processes. Meanwhile, I hope you are harvesting some delicious tomatoes are your home, whether in bulk on the farm, in a small garden with just a few plants, or from just one or two plants on the patio. Learning to grow, process, and store tomatoes (or any fruits and vegetables) requires that we get started and work at it, and most of us continue learning, adjusting, and improving our processes as time goes by.