September 2012
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Home-dried tomatoes

Tomatoes drying in the sun,covered by cheesecloth.

Given the options for preserving the bounty of tomatoes –canning,freezing or drying –I prefer the method that combines the most flavor for the least amount of energy and storage space. Tomatoes dried in the sun (with a little help from a dehydrator) meet these criteria with a chewy rush of tomato essence available year round.

A food dehydrator can be a useful tool for drying tomatoes,but I use it sparingly,preferring instead,the power of clear,breezy sun-drenched days that so often grace late August and September.  My old, inexpensive dehydrator,the Snack Master Jr. from American Harvest,with only four,round drying trays,wouldn’t provide sufficient capacity for anyone ambitious about drying vegetables,but it’s just right for my needs of fitting food preservation into scraps of time here and there.  If you don’t have a dehydrator,you can supplement sun-drying with oven drying on the lowest temperature possible.

When a stretch of two or more sunny days are forecast,I select the ripest cherry tomatoes and small plum tomatoes like my favorite, Juliet.  Then wash and cut them,laying the skin side down on the drying tray.  The littlest tomatoes are cut in half but the larger ones dry faster if cut in quarters.  While this results in tiny pieces of dried tomatoes,it saves time later in the kitchen since the tomatoes are already pre-sliced to a size suitable for most uses. I remove the core while cutting too,though there is very little core to remove when the tomatoes are optimally ripe.

Most sources recommend removing the seeds and pulp before drying.  This would certainly speed the drying process but the pulp contains much of the best tomato flavor so I leave it in and put up with the longer drying time. Depending on the weather and humidity,the size of the tomatoes being dried,and the amount of indoor drying you bother to do,the tomatoes are usually ready  in 24 –36 hours.

Many drying directions also recommend sprinkling salt on the cut surfaces of the tomatoes.  I’ve never used salt but it probably helps speed the drying and prevents spoilage so might be worthwhile if you need to sun-dry tomatoes in sub-optimal conditions. Otherwise,why add salt if it’s not necessary?

After first preparing the tomatoes on the trays on a sunny morning,I like warming up the tomatoes in the dehydrator while the dew is burning off to jump-start the drying.  Then the trays are laid out on a table outside and covered with cheese cloth to keep flies off.  To prevent the cloth from sticking to the cut surfaces of the tomatoes,an inverted jar can be placed over the central hole of the tray and the cheese cloth tented over it,tucking the sides of the cloth under the edges of the trays.

In the evenings,I’ll usually run the dehydrator until bedtime but avoid running the dehydrator overnight.  Most nights are cool enough to leave the half-dried tomatoes at room temperature.

By the way,half-dried tomatoes are really delicious —still soft but with an intensely concentrated flavor.  I haven’t tried using them in a meal yet but it’s fun to sample the tomatoes at various stages of drying.

When the tomatoes are no longer tacky but still pliable,I store them in clean jars and keep them in the pantry at room temperature.  I had a problem with mold once after carelessly storing some under-dried tomatoes. Otherwise,dried tomatoes keep nicely for a year or more —I really don’t know how long they might last since they get used up pretty fast in our household.

During winter months when garden fresh tomatoes are distant dream, we break out the dried tomato pieces,re-hydrate them briefly in warm water and add to pizzas, omelettes,pastas,or any dish that wants a bright red,sweetly acidic note.  They even make tasty little snacks as-is,right out of the jar.

 

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