Each year we plant what we think is a ton of tomato plants and each year we still need to buy more from the farmers market. While I do plan on being self-sufficient in that arena by next year due to our new garden spot, we were lucky to find a great source of the most beautiful roma tomatoes at our local farmers market this year. We ended up buying 4 bushels of red tomatoes and half a bushel of greens ones.
Today we are just going to deal with how to handle the red tomatoes so you can enjoy them all year. First, please eat as many as possible when they are fresh. This way you will be sick of them so you won’t be as sad when they disappear from the farm stands and the more mealy versions appear back on the grocery store shelves. Next, plan your method of attack. Really take time to consider how you will use the tomatoes over the next months. Do you like to make pasta with red sauce? When its colder out, do you like to make chili or stews? Is tomato soup and grilled cheese one of your guilty pleasures like it is for me? I ask these questions because it doesn’t make any sense at all for you to can a bunch of tomatoes just because everyone tells you that’s what you should do if you won’t actually use them.
In our home, we make “sun-dried” tomatoes, tomato paste, red pasta sauce, and can tomato chunks for later use. We use dehydrated tomatoes in lots of dishes like pasta or quiche so I quartered our roma tomatoes, casually removed the seeds, and threw them in the dehydrator overnight. Once they were dried, I threw them into a gallon sized ziplock and tossed them in the freezer. Our environment, and our unairconditioned home, is so humid that they tend to rehydrate and mold if I leave them out, even when they are in a baggie.
We also cook down an entire bushel of tomatoes into tomato paste and can it into those cute little 4 oz jars. Making tomato paste is a little bit of a time hog since all that liquid needs to be cooked off, so I really hope we made enough this summer to last two years so I can have a bit of a break. I see everywhere on Instagram that people have a terrible time with bitter tomato paste and sauce but we have never had a problem. We start with good tomatoes (read not grocery store tomatoes) which I think helps. We also only season our paste when absolutely necessary - this year I added a couple of bay leaves, 2 scant teaspoons of sugar for the entire bushel of tomatoes, and 1.5 teaspoons of salt. I recommend seasoning the paste or sauce towards the end since the tomatoes will cook down and any flavor you added at the beginning will get more concentrated. It also helps to remember that the acid in tomatoes is reactive and any metal pot you use can impart a flavor. Some metals are worse than others and I wonder if folks are using aluminum pots and pans for processing their tomatoes. Keep to stainless steel if possible and limit the amount of time the tomatoes spend in the pot by moving them to another plastic or enamel vessel if you must continue processing them the next day.
When the nights set in extra early like they do all winter, we tend to get lazier, but we have a plan for that! We have canned pre-made pizza and pasta sauce, so we have many easy meals to choose from. We learned to can the pizza sauce in half-pint jars and the pasta sauce in pint jars. These smaller sizes are the right size for our needs but if you have a larger family or cook more food at once, you may find that sizing up to quart jars works best for you. Our pizza sauce is thick like our tomato paste and has very intense flavors because we want to be able to taste it when it is spread thinly over the pizza crust. We use a lot of minced garlic, slices of basil and oregano from the garden, and add a touch of sugar since we like a sweeter sauce on pizza. Our pasta sauce is fairly traditional with onion, garlic, and basil with a few red pepper flakes. We can always change it up once its out of the jar to add variety to our winter meals. A bit of melted gorgonzola with hot Italian sausage over penne creates a totally different meal than adding the same sauce to wilted spinach and goat cheese over gnocchi. Are you getting hungry yet?
The greatest number of jars gets used up with canned tomato chunks. We use quart jars since the tomatoes get used in bulk. Most of our tomatoes get canned in summer and then repurposed into venison stew and chili once we collect the fruits of our hunt in October. If we have a few cans of tomatoes left at the start of the next canning season, that’s okay. We have known them to last safely in our basement for three years without issue. One tip I recommend to assure freshness is to remove the metal ring from all canned items. By removing the ring, nothing other than the pressure seal is keeping your lid on the jar. If it should spoil or the seal should fail, the lid will be loose on the jar and you will know to toss it out. No amount of cooking will cook out botulism so keep that in mind.
Hopefully you will find some of the methods we used to we process our summer tomato bounty helpful. Are there ways you preserve or use tomatoes that I didn’t mention? I would love to hear your tips for getting through summer tomatoes and staying sane!