Sun Dried Tomato: Do It Yourself
A quick how-to for tomato lovers, cooks and those gardeners who've been too successful with their tomato crop.
I know, I know...sun-dried tomatoes are among the most recent of food cliches infesting the culinary arts, and at some point during the last couple of years, you probably felt like napalming every Roma tomato vine in California. So why the heck would you want or need to know how to dry them yourself?
Consider these points. Dried tomatoes retain more nutrients and flavor than those preserved by canning or freezing, they add a very special touch to a variety of recipes, drying is another way to deal with the embarrassment of riches many tomato gardeners face in late summer, and it can’t be long before another innovation...say, straw-bleached celery hearts bottled in organic pesto...replaces the current craze, and you won’t be able to find any stores that stock them. When that happens, you’ll be standing in your kitchen beaming smugly at your stash without a care in the world. (Okay, you probably have more serious issues to deal with than dried tomatoes, but you know what I mean.)
Step one is to select your tomatoes carefully. They need to be firm and just ripe, and the best variety to use for drying is the ubiquitous Roma, or plum tomato. Cut them in half lengthways and make a small cut in the underside skin of each half. It’s not necessary to seed or blanch tomatoes, but if the seeds bother you for some reason, by all means take them out. I’ve heard that some people sprinkle the halves with salt to draw out more moisture quickly, but I don’t add salt to any food I’m preparing. Taking it out is a great deal more difficult that putting it in.
Remove the racks in your oven and cover them with cheesecloth. You can anchor the cheesecloth with clothespins...the temperature will be too low to worry about either the cloth or the pins scorching...and I recommend using old-fashioned wooden pins as opposed to plastic ones. Heat the oven to 140 degrees, place the tomatoes cut side up on the racks about an inch apart, and put them in the oven with the door propped open a few inches. It’s a good idea to have a small fan directing air toward the opening, but I’ve had fairly good results just turning on the overhead vent fan in the kitchen. You do need to have good air circulation for the tomatoes to dry properly.
It’ll take about ten hours, during which time you’ll need to rotate the racks several times. When the tomatoes are done, they’ll be dark, not sticky, and leathery but still flexible. You can store your product in an empty coffee can lined with a plastic bag, sealable plastic food bags, or airtight jars, and they should keep for at least several months.
Obviously, oven-drying is only practical for small quantities. If you’re planning to dry a couple of bushels or so, you’ll need to invest in an electric dehydrator. Alternatively, if you have a wood stove you can slide your racks underneath it in the space between the hearth and the stove. Test the stability of the temperature level first, though. If it falls much below 90 or above 140, it won’t work very well.
Of course, you could sun-dry them. I wouldn’t know anything about that, however. We live in Seattle where the sun is pretty much a rumor, so if you want to go that direction you’re on your own.