The Many Ways to Put Away Tomatoes

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August 26, 2013 at 4:07 pm

Eat Local Tomatoes Later

caputo - tomatoes - august 2013

When I tell people I’m a locavore now, it hardly gets a response.  When I tell them I’m eating local six months from now, I’m asked how.  I say it can be done with a combination of put-up food, winter markets and a timely CSA delivery.  We do not have to think about winter markets for a good time.  We should be thinking about putting away food now. We’ll soon re-post our popular guide to Making the Most of the Seasonal Bounty to assist you in your preservation efforts.   Still, we know you need to get moving putting away probably the most common, and almost for sure the best food of summer.  We’re talking tomatoes.   With a little effort now, you can have the taste of summer all year.

We believe there is no one way for tomatoes.  Tomatoes take to many ways, and the way you choose to preserve your tomatoes depends on your time and your resources.  You can also preserve tomatoes many ways.  We describe below the many ways to put up tomatoes.

There’s something primal, classic about putting up tomatoes.  Every time I think of putting up tomatoes I am drawn to the image of David “Hat” Hammond, swigging red wine from the jug, making sauce: Sinatra on the turntable, striped down to his strap shoulder t-shirt and boxer shorts, black socks (with garters) showing, black wingtips of course, crucifix proudly against the chest hair, yet still wearing his trade mark black hat–a true story, now apparently washed away from the archives of Chowhound.  Making buckets of sauce for storage is cool, very cool.  Without such panache, it can also be a well remembered family activity.  Turning a bushel or two into several jars of red certainly leaves a well-deserved sense of accomplishment.

There’s also many good reasons for putting away your tomatoes.  I can think of four.  Foremost, as displayed below, tomatoes take to many forms of preservation; you can find one that works for your needs and situation.  Second and related, tomatoes do not lose much in the process.  Sure, you cannot replace that sensation of a sensational seasonal fruit, but this is no canned pea.  So, the third reason, preserved tomatoes fit nicely into your kitchen.  You will use what you put away.  From the simple pasta sauces to classic French sauces, tomato products are your kitchen friend.  In fact, I’ve come to believe that the best time for canned tomatoes is in the summer, where they are the ideal partner to slow cooked zucchini or a mess of green beans. Finally, at this time of year, we find ourselves, hopefully, in a surplus of tomatoes.  If you grow your own, you cannot eat them all.  If you have a friend that grows her own, she cannot eat them all and has given some to you.  If you have neither, you still find tomato deals. Fly me to the moon, do-b-do-b-doo and get a-workin’ with or with out the socks and garters.

The many ways to put away tomatoes include

  • Canning
  • Freezing
  • Drying
  • Cold storage/root cellaring
  • Fermentation

Canning

When people think putting away tomatoes they tend to think first of canning.  There are those who will tell you that canning best captures the essence of tomatoes.  We’re not willing to make that unqualified assessment, but we know we have canned tomatoes with great success.  We’ve also had success getting a real tomato expert, Damien Casten, to write about canning tomatoes in the past for the Local Beet.

When we use the term canning, we mean putting a tomato product in glass jars, sealed with a metal lid and stored for later use in a non-refrigerated environment.  When we use the term canning we also mean a two step process that makes food safe for long term keeping and keeps food safe during that long term keeping.   The heat of the water kills bacteria, yeasts, molds and fungus that would harm food as well as deactivate enzymes that can cause food to deteriorate.  Then, the heat and the design of the can form a vacuum seal that prevents any new bad stuff from entering.  The action of letting the can and lid do its thing is called “processing.”

Many foods are canned with boiling water alone (“hot water canner”).  Hot water canning can be done when there is enough acid present, in the food, the syrup or the brine to inhibit the growth of micro-organisms.  Without this acid, water must be heated to higher temperatures to keep things safe.  Boiling water under pressure (“pressure canning”) creates water that boils hotter than 212 degrees, and this hotter temperature is necessary when there is no acid around to help.  Most tomato recipes can be canned using a hot water canner.  Some salsas, for instance because they includes low acid vegetables need to be canned with a pressure canner.  Still, the USDA states, “Use of a pressure canner will result in higher quality and more nutritious canned tomato products.”  Follow directions.  If you do not have a pressure canner, you cannot pressure can.  Period.  In these situations, you usually need to add some form of acid, like lemon juice, when non-pressure canning.

Canning can seem seem scary.  There is no safety of a refrigerator, and sometimes no good way of knowing if the process worked.  Thing is, just give in.  Canning is about mindlessly following directions.  In fact, with canning you have to follow directions.  You cannot “wing it” when it comes to canning.  Recipes matter.  Processing times matter.  The Ball Jar people is the best place to start for canning recipes.  The USDA’s Center for Home Food Preservation is the other place to go.

Canning often requires a good amount of time.  It also requires the investment in equipment including a canning pot (“canner”), jars and lids as well as funnel, lifters and other paraphernalia.  Canning is an excellent option for people without access to big freezers such as people living in apartments.

And there’s more!  Not only can canning get your summer tomatoes put away very well, it can allow you to do all sorts of interesting things with your tomatoes for later use.  For instance, Melissa Graham has posted on making a tomato marmalade.   Our friends (and sponsor) Tomato Mountain use their supply of summer tomatoes as base for most of their salsas, but the product that always stops market samplers in their tracks is their sungold tomato jam.

Freezing

Like canning, freezing keeps food safe two ways.  The action of freezing food, making it frozen, makes food last.  Reducing food to zero degrees, or colder, does not kill bacteria, molds, etc., but it stops the growth of such organisms.  Then, the freezer keeps those little guys from getting going again by keeping the food frozen.  Once food thaws, it is able to spoil again.

Freezing is said to dull certain flavors and make other flavors, including garlic and some herbs, bitter or harsh.  Think about this with your tomato recipes.  As noted above, there are plenty of people that think canned tomatoes taste better.   Where the freezer comes in especially handy is for items that you can’t or don’t want to can.  Remember those warnings about pressure canning?  If you want to put away green beans in a thick tomato sauce or caponata cooked with local tomato paste, you would probably need to pressure can, if canning.  So, use your freezer.

Freezing, obviously, requires freezer capacity.  The use of vacuum sealers and related products can make freezing easier and provide for fresher products, but such equipment is not necessary.

 

Drying

Micro-organisms need water to thrive.  Reduce water in food and you reduce the chance microorganisms will thrive and spoil your food.  Drying reduces that water.  Drying can be done in a dehydrator, an oven or in the open (depending on where you live and what you are drying).  Drying will only get you so far in food preservation; rather dried food will only last so long unless other actions are not also taken.  Dried tomatoes are often kept in oil to extend their life–the oil acts as a barrier for many microorganisms.  Dried tomatoes can also be kept in the freezer.  Last year, Wendy had great success oven drying tomatoes.

Even if you plan on putting the dried tomatoes in your freezer, the act of drying greatly reduces the space the tomatoes take in your world.

Speaking of your world, remember when there was no such thing as sun-dried tomatoes?  Methinks it was some time in the early 1980′s when Nouvelle Cuisine had us putting the sauce underneath the meat and splaying green and pink peppercorns across our plates that “sun-dried tomatoes” became a hot food item.  They were nearly always used as a condiment or accent, something akin to a roasted pepper; for instance as a garnish on sub sandwiches.  You can use your dried tomatoes this way, but you can also use them the way they were intended, re-hydrated, as an actual tomato in dishes.

Cold Storage/Root Cellaring

In general, the easiest way to store and preserve produce is to just put them in some place where they won’t rot.  A “root cellar” works because it is cold enough to slow down mold and other bad items and moist enough to keep food palatable.  You do not need an actual cellar, you just need a space that reproduces those two conditions, nor do you just need to use it solely for roots.  The two most common items for cold storage are probably not roots but a fruit (apples) and a tuber (potatoes).  Did you know that you can also store tomatoes for future use?  This can be done by letting unripe fruits slowly come to color inside, and it can happen by procuring special “keeper” tomatoes that are meant to last for extended periods.

There are two facets involved in cellaring tomatoes.  Most important, you cannot expect a tomato too green to ever ripen.  Only tomatoes that have nudged their way forward will continue in your house or apartment.  Second, you may want to consider the varieties of tomatoes bred for storage.

For the tomatoes that never turn red, we have a few recipes here and here.

Fermenting

Fermenting creates lasting food by replacing harmful bacteria with good bacteria.  Good bacteria is allowed to grow in foods through the application of salt, sugar or other “starters”.   Before the invention canning, fermentation was the primary way to extend the life of fruits and vegetables. 

Green tomatoes are commonly fermented “deli style”, but red tomatoes can be fermented too.  In Russia and other Eastern European countries, it is common to ferment cherry tomatoes. Here’s a couple of other ideas for fermented tomatoes.

From sweet jam to sour pickles, you can see there’s much you can do with your local tomatoes.  As we’ve shown, there’s no one way or best way to put away tomatoes.  Rather, you decide what you want to do, or least what you are able to do.  It may be nothing more than an excuse to get Sinatra on the speakers, but there’s a lot more to putting away tomatoes that making the season last.

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3 Comments

  1. ChristinaBakes says:

    I canned tomatoes for the first times last year… in Seattle. Now that I’ve returned to Chicago, I’m not sure where to get local canning tomatoes. I usually hit the Daley Plaza farmers market during lunch hour. I can’t see myself lugging 25-50 lb back to the office on foot. Any suggestions for which farmers to work with at the Wicker Park or Logan Square farmers markets? Thanks

  2. Rob Gardner says:

    I can think of several good options/ideas. At Wicker, Nichol’s usually has a good selection of canning tomatoes, especially this time of year. At Logan, the farm where my wife works, Tomato Mountain, may have a San Marzano that can be special ordered for canning. Ask them. In addition, Brockway there is a good source for a large volume of canning tomatoes. Finally, consider a trip out to Caputo’s in Elmwood Park where they have 1/2 bushels of Michigan tomatoes at good prices.

  3. ChristinaBakes says:

    Terrific, thank you, I will look into these suggestions.

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