Learn how to dry and freeze tomatoes and preserve fresh garden tomato flavor using these two simple methods.
How to dry and freeze tomatoes. When the summer harvest is abundant, try these simple preservation techniques. You'll be glad you did when a tomato craving hits in December!
“Putting up tomatoes” has been part of my life since the ’50s, when I helped my mother and grandmother prep them for the freezer. Not too many folks had a freezer in those days, but my dad worked for General Electric, so our house had all the latest appliances. Like most food preservation events I’ve been part of, it was a group effort. Dad and the kids harvested tomatoes from his garden, then one of us washed them in the sink. Then my mom and grandmother took over. They skinned, seeded and chopped tomatoes for stewing, or cooked them down into sauces. By the end of the day the kitchen table was stacked with square containers, which we carried to the chest freezer in the basement. In the winter, those containers of summer goodness were transformed into lovely tomato soups, rich spaghetti sauces, thick meatloaf sauces and — my favorite — stewed tomatoes served with a big pat of butter in the middle.
In the ’60s, I married into a big-time canning family. I still remember those sweltering Pennsylvania days with baskets of tomatoes lined up on the kitchen table and a room full of busy, knowing women preparing tomatoes in large steaming kettles. By the end of the day, dozens of pints of stewed tomatoes and quarts of juice were ready for the pantry.
In the ’70s, my husband and I moved to California. I wanted a vegetable garden but our new back yard was shady — no place for tomatoes — and edible landscaping hadn’t yet occurred to me, so taking out the front lawn wasn’t an option. Soon an opportunity arrived to garden with my neighbor. With four children between us, we decided we could help our collective food budgets if we put a large garden in her back yard and bought a chest freezer to preserve our shared harvest. For four years, we enjoyed lots of beans, zucchini and corn, and hundreds of pounds of tomatoes. We usually turned the tomatoes into plain sauce, but at home I’d make a few batches of stewed tomatoes and tomato juice for old time’s sake.
California and the cooking of the times started to creep into our kitchen. My family now liked salsa and enchiladas. Dried tomatoes became a hit on pizzas, salads and bruschetta. A neighbor donated a dehydrator to our cause, and we dried even more tomatoes, as well as chilies from our garden and apples from her tree.
In 1984, I took the leap and removed the front lawn to grow more edibles, including dozens of tomato plants. So now I have tons of fresh garden tomatoes to put by each year, and over time I’ve developed some wonderful recipes and techniques. You may choose to can part of your harvest, but don’t overlook drying and freezing, two easy methods for storing a bountiful harvest that are especially good for preserving the flavors of ripe summer tomatoes.
Dried tomatoes have an intense flavor, are versatile, and keep for months in a cool, dry and dark spot. Just wash and drain tomatoes, then pat dry. Cut cherry tomatoes in half, slice paste tomatoes into a few pieces, and place them on a dehydrator tray. Follow the directions for your solar or electric food dryer. For more drying tips, see Reap the Garden & Market Bounty: How to Dry Food.
Dried tomatoes are generally rehydrated before eating. To rehydrate, pour boiling water or vegetable stock over them and let them sit for a few minutes, or until the skins are soft. Drain them in a strainer over a bowl. Add the leftover liquid to dressings, soups and sauces to zip up their flavor and nutrition.
Rehydrated tomatoes can be used whole in lasagna or pizzas, and are delicious served with fresh chevre on crusty bread. They also can be chopped or sliced for use in salad dressings, marinara, pasta and risotto, or made into a paste to add richness to hummus, pesto, cream sauces and soft cheeses. My favorite way to serve them is to add them to a garlic-and-herb olive oil marinade for fresh mozzarella.
Tomatoes can be frozen in many forms, from whole to a finished marinara sauce. Let’s start with the fastest technique, which is to freeze them whole, a great solution when time is short or the harvest ramps up. To prevent individual fruits from sticking together, I freeze them on a cookie sheet first, then package them in zippered freezer bags when they’re solid.
Frozen whole tomatoes turn mushy when thawed, so their use is limited to cooked recipes. To use them in sauces, simply thaw them, put them through a food mill to remove seeds and skins, and cook the sauce down to thicken it.
Individual frozen tomatoes are easy to use a few at a time, peeled and chopped, to add fresh garden flavor to a winter soup. Or chop half a dozen to combine with wilted winter greens and garlic, and serve over fresh pasta with Parmesan cheese. To prepare, thaw them slightly and twist the skins; they’ll slip right off. Then let them thaw completely, and squeeze the tomatoes one at a time to expel the seeds. Drain slightly, and chop or add the pulp whole to a sauce.
Another great way to preserve tomatoes is to make a simple sauce and freeze it by the pint in bags. I cool the sauce to room temperature, then freeze bags of sauce flat on a cookie sheet. Flat packages are easy to stack in the freezer when it gets full.
But my favorite tomato treasures in the winter are stewed tomatoes, pre-made tomato-onion soup and a sauce I use for huevos rancheros, which I make every New Year’s Day with eggs from my hens.
•Use only healthy, unbruised fruits to prevent spoilage and off flavors.
•Fully ripe tomatoes are the most flavorful and nutritious.
•Tomato seeds get tough and bitter when you cook them a long time. For sauces and juices, strain out the seeds with a food mill or strainer after you cook them.
•To save cooking time when you want to thicken your sauce, first simmer quartered tomatoes for 15 minutes, then put them through a food mill and refrigerate the strained liquid overnight. Much of the watery part will rise to the top, and the next morning it can be poured off as tomato juice. Then freeze or can the pulp for sauces.
•Always label your container with the contents and date. (If you don’t, I promise you won’t remember.)
•When not enough storage space is an issue, dried tomatoes take up the least amount of room.
•The fastest way to preserve a large harvest is to freeze the tomatoes whole.
•When you make tomato soups, sauces and other prepared dishes, you are not only storing tomatoes, but also time in a bottle — making quick but garden-fresh meals a delicious possibility.
There are four basic types of tomatoes, each with its own preserving virtues.
•Meaty paste tomatoes (sometimes called Romas), such as ‘Italian Red Pear,’ ‘Principe Borghese,’ ‘Roma’ and ‘San Marzano,’ are great choices for drying. You can also freeze them — whole, roasted or in sauces.
•Cherry tomatoes, such as ‘Red Cherry,’ ‘Sungold,’ ‘Sweet Chelsea’ and ‘Sweet 100,’ are smaller and sweeter than other tomato types. They're great for drying or freezing as a puréed sauce.
•Standard slicing tomatoes, such as ‘Early Girl,’ ‘Celebrity,’ ‘Ace,’ ‘Better Boy,’ ‘Homestead 24’ and ‘Rutgers,’ are great for cutting into chunks to freeze or can, and make great juice and sauces, but are generally too big and juicy for drying.
•Beefsteak tomatoes such as ‘Brandywine,’ ‘Beefmaster,’ ‘Mortgage Lifter’ and ‘Super Beefsteak’ are super juicy, which makes them a great choice for tomato juice to be canned or frozen. They’re also good roasted or stewed.
Rosalind Creasy has written many cookbooks, and you don’t have to look hard to find garden tomatoes featured in any of them! Her newest book is called Recipes from the Garden: 200 Exciting Recipes from the Author of the Complete Book of Edible Landscaping.