Homemade sun-dried tomatoes are the way to preserve the delectable taste of sun-warmed, perfectly ripe, heirloom tomatoes plucked straight from the garden. Sun drying is a method that has been used to preserve and intensify that great tomato flavor for centuries, but store-bought sun-dried tomatoes are expensive and sun-drying at home can be problematic.
The sun doesn’t always cooperate and there are those pesky critters to worry about, it seems they like tomatoes too. Fortunately, for those with a supply of garden-fresh tomatoes, oven drying is an easy and cost-effective way to put the delicious taste of sun-dried tomatoes in our pantries.
Anyone with access to an oven can prepare high-quality, oven-dried tomatoes (see nutritional information for them HERE), and when compared to preservation methods like canning, oven drying takes minimal effort.
Benefits of Homemade Sun-Dried Tomatoes
Drying your own tomatoes will give you a much fresher product for a fraction of the cost of purchased sun-dried tomatoes. They will be infinitely better than the unknown produce quality of store-bought dried tomatoes.
The commercial process for sun drying involves adding sulfur to deter rodents and uneven temperatures, which create variables in the end product. By drying your tomatoes at home, you have complete control over the quality, flavor, and ingredients.”
THE BEST TOMATO VARIETIES FOR DRYING
Almost any variety of tomato can be oven-dried successfully; however, the varieties that are best for drying are solid, meaty, and thick-walled. This makes plum or cherry tomatoes tops for drying. Among them, it’s best to choose varieties that have low moisture content, few seeds, and rich flavor. Using smaller fruited, uniform size varieties also promotes more uniform drying.
It takes about five pounds of plum tomatoes to yield two cups of dried tomatoes, so growing indeterminate tomato varieties for drying is a good idea. Indeterminate varieties produce a steady, manageable harvest over a long period rather than a big crop all at once like determinate varieties. San Marzano, Napoli, and Roma are all tasty, open-pollinated, indeterminate tomato varieties that are typically well suited to drying.
HOW TO GET GET THEM READY FOR DRYING
Preparing tomatoes for oven drying can be as simple as washing, drying, and cutting them in half, or can be more labor-intensive if the seeds and skin are removed (most store-bought sun-dried tomatoes retain the skin and seeds).
Select fully ripe, firm tomatoes with no blemishes. Wash and dry the tomatoes to remove any dirt and chemicals, and remove the tomato stems. If drying with the skins and seeds intact, simply cut plum or cherry tomatoes in half, or cut slicing tomatoes into ¼” thick slices.
If the skins are to be removed prior to drying, lightly cut an “X” through the skin on the bottom end of each tomato, drop them into boiling water, and blanch for 20 to 30 seconds. Use a slotted spoon to remove the tomatoes from the boiling water, and then immerse them in ice water. The skins will then slip off the tomatoes easily. To remove the seeds, simply scoop them out with a spoon or your finger, being sure to leave the flesh.
OVEN DRYING THE TOMATOES
To oven dry tomatoes, preheat the oven to 200°F and lay the tomatoes out on a baking sheet or slotted tray so that the edges don’t touch. Using slotted trays and convection ovens help promote better air circulation and more uniform drying, but are not required for good results.
Plum tomatoes should be laid out with the skin side down. Cherry tomatoes are better dried with the cut side down. Some people prefer to season the tomatoes with salt and Italian seasoning prior to drying them for a more authentic “sun-dried” flavor, but by leaving them plain you have more versatility for the end-use.
Place the tomato-filled trays in the oven and bake the tomatoes uncovered until dried. It takes approximately 12 hours depending on the type and size of tomatoes used. Smaller tomatoes will dry faster, so it’s best to check them every few hours. Cherry tomatoes may dry in as little as 3 – 4 hours whereas plum or slicing tomatoes typically take 12 hours or longer.
When done, the tomatoes should be flexible (not brittle) but leathery with a deep red color. It’s a good idea to check them frequently toward the end of the drying time, and individually begin removing any that are ready until they’ve all dried adequately.
STORING HOMEMADE SUN-DRIED TOMATOES
After cooling completely, dried tomatoes can be stored long-term in either the pantry or the freezer. But, freezer storage maintains their flavor and texture best. If completely moisture-free, dried tomatoes stored in airtight containers in a cool, dry, dark pantry will maintain texture and flavor for about a year; however, most home-dried tomatoes still contain some moisture and tend to mold in the pantry.
The best method for packaging dried tomatoes for freezer storage is to vacuum seal them in bags. Or, they can be stored in airtight containers like zippered plastic freezer bags, jars, or plastic containers with tightly fitting lids. The goal is to minimize air exposure, so use the smallest container possible to hold the prepared tomatoes. Squeeze out any excess air if using freezer bags. Dried tomatoes properly stored in the freezer will maintain flavor and texture for about 18 months.
USING THE BOUNTY
Home dried tomatoes can be used in any recipe calling for sun-dried tomatoes, but they usually need to be rehydrated before use. Or, dried tomatoes can be added directly to recipes for soups or stews where the liquid in the recipe will rehydrate the tomatoes. You can also pulse dried tomatoes in a coffee grinder into a fine powder. This can serve as both a flavor enhancer and a thickener for soups and stews.
Dried tomatoes can be rehydrated in plain olive oil, or in a mason jar of olive oil and either Italian seasoning or pesto sauce. When rehydrating tomatoes in olive oil with or without spices, you will need to refrigerate them. Let them soak overnight; they are ready the next day. You should use dried tomatoes rehydrated in olive oil within two weeks.
Dried tomatoes can also be rehydrated by soaking in water, stock, or wine. Allow the tomatoes to steep in the liquid until they are soft, about 30 – 60 minutes. Then drain the tomatoes (save the liquid for another use – it contains lots of vitamins), and use as directed in the recipe. If you’re looking for some inspiration on how to use your homemade sun-dried tomatoes, try this delicious Sun-Dried Tomato Dip!
As fresh garden produce production peaks in the fall, it’s comforting to know that there is an easy, economical, labor-saving way to preserve fresh tomatoes. Their intense tomato flavor will add a gourmet touch and rich taste to countless recipes. Once oven-dried tomatoes are in your pantry or freezer, the ways to use them are limited only by your imagination.