With bumper crops and unpredictable weather conditions, figuring out what to do with your pile of tomatoes can sometimes be a challenge. Being creative and having a variety of methods to put away and store the value of that wonderful fruit will give you months' (if not years') worth of enjoyment from your Summer and Fall harvests. Here are five ways to store your tomatoes for future use and to ease you through the cold winter months with tomato goodness.
It is inevitable in cold-weather areas to awaken one morning to find out that weather report was horribly wrong and the threat of frost has turned out to be seriously detrimental to your garden. If there is a threat of freezing temperatures that could wipe out your plants and leave you with frozen-fruit-on-the-vine, consider pulling the entire plant from the ground before those freezing temperatures hit (if the plants are not too unwieldy) and hanging them upside down in a place that is cool and dry. This could be an area of the garage or basement that you won't mind getting a little dirty as you allow the remaining fruit to ripen on the vine. This method will allow fruit to continue to be viable for a few additional weeks, extending your harvest and outsmarting the frost.
You can also pick the unripe fruit en masse and ripen it in a number of ways:
- Wrap green tomatoes in tissue or newspaper and place them in a box with a lid. Don't stack them more than two layers deep, as the weight will damage the ones on the bottom as they ripen (which can lead to things getting ugly and wet in the bottom of the box, and eventually spoilage). Place the box in a dark, dry spot, check on it periodically, and cull any tomatoes with "soft spots," cracks, mold, or signs of rot, to prevent the spoil from spreading throughout the box.
- Place green tomatoes in a brown paper bag with a ripe apple or any other fruit that produces ethylene gas. The gas will speed up ripening, so check the contents often and remove tomatoes as they ripen.
If fruit flies become an issue, keep ripe tomatoes covered with a cloth and place a fruit-fly trap nearby. Mash a few tablespoons of tomato or other sweet fruit and place in the bottom of a jar or bottle. Curl an index card or 3-4" square piece of paper into a cone shape with a small hole at the point. Tape the cone point-down into the top of the jar or bottle, being sure to tape or otherwise seal all points of entry other than the cone. The fermenting pulp with attract the fruit flies; they fly down through the cone, but cannot easily find their way back out.
A simple and easy method to store your tomatoes is to dehydrate them, either via the sun or with an electric dehydrator (whether you own or borrow it.) Tomato varieties with a greater pulp-to-seed ratio will give you a "meatier" dried tomato. Cherry tomatoes work best when sliced in half and an X is scored on the back of the skin. Bigger tomatoes should be dehydrated in 1/4-inch thick slices. They are great for snacking, on pizzas, in omelets, and in pilaf or risotto. You may find them easiest to use in cooking after slightly re-hydrating them with oil or water. If tomatoes are properly dried – dry but pliable – and stored in airtight containers, they will last over a year and will be convenient and available for snacking and culinary use.
Sun drying can take a little extra effort and monitoring, as temperature fluctuations, humidity, and changing weather conditions can affect your end result. It can sometimes take a number of days to fully sun-dry tomatoes, but having a non-electric option for drying is a good way of adding resiliency to your food-preservation toolkit. With careful monitoring, you can also dry tomatoes in a low-heat oven with the door cracked open.
Freezing is another fast and simple way to store your tomatoes. You can either blanch them first and peel them beforehand, or peel them when you are ready to use them. To blanch, plunge whole tomatoes in boiling water for 30 seconds or so. Drain and gently place them into a bowl of ice water for about 30 seconds. The ice bath cools the tomatoes, making them easier to handle. The skins may split and should peel right off, but if not, just return them to boiling water for another 15-30 seconds. Tomatoes can also be frozen whole, or cored and sliced in halves or quarters. When ready to use, simply place the frozen, unpeeled tomatoes under warm water. The skins should peel right off.
Keep in mind that the more densely packed a freezer is, the more efficiently it will run. A simple trick for keeping a partly full freezer running at maximum efficiency is to fill plastic jugs 3/4 full with water and use them to fill the spaces between frozen items. (Be sure to leave headspace in the jugs for expansion as the water freezes). The resulting solid ice inside the jugs will help keep the contents of your freezer cool even when power is not actively being drawn to maintain the temperature. Your freezer will cycle on less frequently, using less electricity, and in a power outage your frozen goods will stay colder longer, increasing the chances that you will not lose that precious food to spoilage.
Canning is probably the most energy and labor-intensive way to store your tomatoes. It is also the one that will preserve your tomatoes the longest. Canning is a great way to put up whole, chopped, sauced, and paste tomatoes. Due to the high acid content of tomatoes, the water bath method of canning can be safely used, but if you add ingredients (as to sauce) be sure all are safe for water-bath canning and follow equipment instructions carefully. Pressure canning is also appropriate for tomatoes, with or without other ingredients. A classic reference book for safe canning is the Ball Blue Book. Make sure to always reference the most up-to-date recommendations you can find, as canning safety procedures are researched and updated on an ongoing basis.
Sharing with Community
I find that one of the best ways to store the wealth of my tomato harvest is to give the bounty of the vine to friends and neighbors. A gift of vine-ripened tomatoes can be a wonderful present for those who have not been able to garden for themselves. It can also open up folks to new varieties and flavors. I like to give an assortment of types (cherry; salad-sized; slicers) to give friends as much flexibility in preparation as possible. It provides a great opening for discussing ways to build resiliency, and sharing anything with neighbors is an opportunity to build community. Share a recipe or new method of cooking; ask if they have thought about growing tomatoes themselves. Sharing with a neighbor might inspire a garden patch to be planted or a gardener to switch to organic heirloom varieties (because they do taste better).
If you have additional surplus, consider sharing with strangers. If there is a food bank, homeless shelter, or soup kitchen in your area, ask if they will accept donations of homegrown produce. If you live in a densely-populated neighborhood, consider putting a sign on your door saying "Free tomatoes — knock and ask!" and see who you meet. There is something very rich about having surplus to share with others, whether that surplus comes in the form of tomatoes or personal connection and information.