Storing a season of vegetables from the garden for later use can be fun but hectic. When you're looking at piles of potatoes, baskets of tomatoes and enough hot peppers to start a forest fire, it can seem overwhelming. Harvest time is a great time to experiment with new recipes and take advantage of all those fresh ingredients. When the bounty starts taking over your countertops as you're trying to get everything indoors before the first hard frost, consider these methods for preserving your tomatoes:
- Maintaining - When you want to preserve your fresh tomatoes for as long as possible or ripen green tomatoes, remember to keep them at room temperature or just slightly cooler. A ripe tomato will stay viable for up to a week at room temperature in a spot that's out of direct sunlight. You can extend the life of a ripe tomato by refrigerating it, but wait as long as possible to do it because tomatoes stop ripening for good once they're refrigerated.
- Drying - Dried tomatoes don't have to be sun-dried to be tasty. Once you remove all the water, what's left is crammed full of flavor. You can dry sliced tomatoes in the oven, in a dehydrator or under a screen outdoors in the sun. After they're dry, reconstitute them for use in recipes, or grind them into a concentrated tomato seasoning for soups and stews. All you need is some time, patience and a little salt. Five pounds of tomatoes will yield about two cups of dried tomatoes. Store dried tomatoes in a plastic bag away from direct sunlight.
- Canning - Although canning isn't as popular as it used to be, it's a great way to preserve tomato-based dishes over the winter. Your secret-recipe barbecue sauce, marinara sauce and green tomato chutney will all last for months when properly canned. The process isn't as difficult or time consuming as it used to be, either. New style pressure canners are making traditional canning a lost art that has some real appeal for modern cooks who don't want to spend all day watching a pot boil.
- Freezing - When you have a huge tomato harvest, freeze some for use over the winter months. Freezer bags make for reliable storage blanched tomatoes, whole tomatoes or your fresh tomato-based recipes like spaghetti sauce. If you're not sure how you want to use your tomatoes later, peel and seed a batch, process the pulp in a blender or food processor and freeze the basic sauce in ice cube trays. Once frozen, transfer the cubes to plastic bags. You can add a cube or two to your soups, slow cooked stews, canned tomato products and other prepared sauces. A hint of garden goodness will enhance most of your winter recipes, and this is an easy way to do it.
- Ripening - When you want to fast-ripen green tomatoes, stick them in a bag together with a ripe apple or banana. Apples and bananas release ethylene gas, a natural ripening agent. Most vegetable gardeners have to deal with season-end green tomatoes. If a tomato has a light green color and feels slightly soft, you may still be able to ripen it artificially. If it's very green and hard, it may be too immature to ripen and good candidate for the compost pile. (Very green tomatoes are usually not ripe enough for use in fried-green tomato recipes.)
With so much going for them, it's no wonder tomatoes are a favorite of cooks, vegetable gardeners and foodies everywhere. Whether you grow new cultivars or stick to the old standbys, dried, stewed or thickened into a rich paste, garden tomatoes and the dishes you make from them will be a welcome addition to your family table this season.