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Preserve Them for Winter

This has been, knock on wood, a great year for tomatoes. I planted my seeds indoors earlier than I usually do, which meant that my plants went into the ground earlier, and bigger. And there were no late frosts, so I’m eating tomatoes earlier than most years. Cherry tomatoes started producing in early July, and I picked my first full-sized tomato on July 16. Lots of sun and adequate rain have pushed them along. Barring an attack of late blight, I will have more than I need to feed myself all winter, if I process them now.

My mother and grandmother canned tomatoes. They worked in a hot kitchen in August and September turning homegrown tomatoes into canned tomatoes and sauce. In order to avoid the deadly disease, botulism, they boiled jars seemingly forever. But now, in the day of chest freezers, we can make sauce and not have to go through the canning process. You can make sauce and freeze it for use in the winter. And there are lots of other ways to save the harvest.

First, my favorite technique: freezing tomatoes whole. I call it the “no-work” method. Just place clean dry tomatoes in gallon freezer bags, suck out any excess air with an ordinary straw, and place the bags in the freezer on a cookie sheet. I generally get nine large tomatoes into a gallon bag. After the tomatoes are frozen, you can take them off the cookie sheets and stack the bags.

When you are ready to use the tomatoes for a soup or stew, you can remove the skins easily, if you wish, by running them under hot water and giving them a quick rub. Halve the tomatoes and cut out their attachment points, chop and cook. If you let the tomatoes thaw they will be mushy and no good for sandwiches. But cooked? They’re great.

Last summer I tried roasting tomatoes in the oven, and was very pleased with the results. I cut tomatoes in half, put them in a shallow roasting pan and placed them in the oven at 350 degrees. I cooked them until the tomatoes caramelized and lost most of their moisture. Then I placed them in zipper bags, one layer thick and put them in the freezer. To avoid the need for scrubbing the roasting pan, I cooked them on a sheet of aluminum foil. These tomatoes worked fine in sandwiches in winter. I just put the frozen tomatoes in the toaster oven to thaw and heat, and put them on bread. Yum!

I grow a lot of cherry tomatoes each year — 10 plants or more. I eat them every meal in season, and snack on them between meals. My favorite variety is Sun Gold, a hybrid. What do I do with the vast numbers of these sweet cuties? For years I have been cutting them in half and dehydrating them. I’ve tried all sorts of dehydrators, and think I have found the best.

The machine I use is the Excalibur (www.excaliburdehydrator.com). This machine has nine square trays, a heating element, a thermostat, a timer and a fan that sits behind the trays. The fan and heater location are key. This machine blows hot air across the trays as opposed to all the others I have used, which send hot air up from the bottom or down from the top. Either way, the tomatoes closest to the fan and heating element dry first, and those farther away dry more slowly. So one must rotate the trays, or take out the dry ones and continue to dry those that are still not fully dried.

The Excalibur also uses less electricity — 660 watts an hour, while the NESCO unit I used for years uses 1,000 watts — but takes about the same time to dry a batch of tomatoes as my dehydrators of old. The Excalibur also can hold more fruit per tray as the trays are square and the others are round.

I store the dried cherry tomatoes in zipper bags. They are fine on a shelf in the pantry, in the fridge, or, for long term storage, in the freezer. When I want to use them, I just toss them into a stir fry or stew, and these little nuggets bring a “Wow!” to the lips of my guests. If you don’t dry them to the crispy stage, but leave them a little chewy, you can even use them in salads and sandwiches.

Lastly, I make a lot of tomato paste. It’s easy and allows me to use chunks of tomatoes that had bad spots that needed to be cut out. I core tomatoes over the sink and squeeze out juice and seeds. Then I pop them into the food processor and puree them, skins and all. I pour the liquid into a heavy enameled cast iron pot, and slowly boil the slurry until it is thick enough to stand up a spoon in it. I let it cool all night, uncovered, and spoon the paste into ice cube trays. Once it’s frozen I bag it in zipper bags. Then I can get just the right amount of tomato paste and never waste any. I just use 1, 2 or 3 cubes, depending on my recipe.

It is still work to put up the harvest, but the methods above are a lot less work than canning tomatoes in jars in a hot-water bath. And come winter? There is nothing better than eating your own tomatoes.

Henry Homeyer is the author of four gardening books. His website is www.Gardening-Guy.com.