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Gardening Articles: Edibles :: Vegetables

Drying Tomatoes

by Shila Patel

Few pleasures match the satisfaction of tasting summer's fruits long after the season has passed--appreciation seems to increase the further the calendar is from summer. Although the intense aroma and flavor of a tomato just picked from the vine are almost intoxicating, by season's end, dealing with the bounty is almost a burden. After all, there are only so many friends to share the harvest with.

Preserving these garden treasures, an art born of necessity, allows you to extend the season in several ways. Freezing fresh tomatoes is quick and easy, but the defrosted fruit can have a mealy texture. Canning offers easy, economical storage, though the method is anything but simple.

Unlike the temperature extremes essential for freezing and canning, drying tomatoes requires a gentler approach that is both simple and amply rewarding. Drying draws out the fruit's moisture, concentrating its flavor and bringing out its berrylike essence. It can even enhance the taste of less than flavorful fresh tomatoes.

Drying is the oldest preservation method, traditionally requiringonly the sun's energy over several days. The result is chewy, sweet-tart fruit of intense flavor and incredible versatility.

Selecting and Preparing Fruits

Any tomato can be dried, but for best results, begin with plum-type tomatoes; they have thick, meaty walls, fewer seeds, and less gel than salad or beefsteak types. Good choices for drying include 'La Roma', the standard for paste; 'San Marzano', prized by Italians for sauce; and 'Principe Borghese', a traditional variety best suited for drying. Vibrant yellow 'Lemon Boy' and bright orange 'Italian Gold' offer colorful variations. Cherry tomatoes, such as 'Sungold' and 'Sweet 100', tend to hold more sugars and acids than other types and are also excellent for drying; the result is piquant candylike fruits.

Choose firm, ripe, unblemished tomatoes; damaged or overripe fruits will spoil easily and cause others to do so, too. It's not necessary to blanch the fruits, but wash them well and pat dry. To ensure even drying, slice fruits as uniformly as possible. Half or quarter plum-type tomatoes lengthwise, and cut cherry tomatoes in half or leave whole. Slice other types 1/2- to 1/4-inch thick, depending on your preference. Expect a pound of fresh fruit to yield a little more than an ounce of dried tomatoes.

Traditional Sun-Drying

Traditional Sun-Drying
'La Roma' paste tomatoes drying in sun

This method requires a cooperative climate: a string of dry, sunny days with temperatures in the 90s and low relative humidity (less than 20 percent). Select an area that receives full sun, ideally one that also reflects the sun's rays (such as a paved area or flagstone patio).

Use clean plastic-mesh screens (available from cookware stores); metal wire may react with the acid in tomatoes to produce an off-flavor. Place the cut tomatoes in a single layer, allowing about an inch of space between the pieces for air circulation. Place a layer of cheesecloth on the fruits as a barrier against insects and birds, and set the trays at least a foot above the ground so air circulates freely underneath them. Bring the trays indoors each evening and if rain is forecast. Depending on their thickness, moisture content, and the weather, the tomatoes should dry to a leathery but soft consistency in three days to a week.

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