Preserving tomatoes is one of the easiest ways to get a homemade larder started. Over summer and autumn, tomatoes are so abundant, whether you grow them yourself or buy them by the box from your favourite fruit and veg shop or market. If you’re organised and ready to give preserving tomatoes a go, it’s quite possible to bottle, dry and brew up a year’s supply of tomato sauces and condiments in a timely fashion. Yes, you may well be splashed red by the end of the process, but that’s what summer preserving is all about, isn’t it?
Both big and small tomatoes are fine for preserving, but you may want to approach them in different ways. There are ‘sauce tomatoes’ like Roma and San Marzano; tomatoes that have been bred to be fleshy instead of juicy, so you get more sauce per tomato. But any tomato will work for the below techniques, so use whatever you can get hold of.
If you’re growing tomatoes, preserving needs to fit in with your schedule as you’ll be doing a bit here, a bit there, as they ripen over the season. If you’re buying tomatoes by the box, it’s more a case of setting aside a few days to get it all done at once. Go, go, tomato!
You don’t need any fancy gear to preserve tomatoes. Everything you need can usually be found at op-shops or already in your own house. Jars are a big part of preserving and you’ll need a lot of these, with metal lids that fit well. You can use proper preserving jars like Vacola or Ball Mason, or just good old recycled jars and bottles (beer bottles, juice bottles, passata bottles—if it can be sealed with a metal lid, is clean and available to you, you’re in business). If you can, try and get jars or bottles that are roughly the same size.
Drying tomatoes is possibly the easiest way to deal with small harvests. For small tomatoes, you can slice them in half, and for larger tomatoes, segments or slices are a better idea to ensure thorough drying. Dry them in the sun on a rack for 2–3 days (bring them in at night to guard against moisture absorption). Trampolines make great drying rack holders, as does the dashboard of your car, parked in the sun. If there’s no sun, use an electric dehydrator on its fruit setting.
Dried tomatoes should be stored in a jar, and will keep for a year. Rehydrate them in a little water for salads, sandwiches, pizza, pasta dishes and more. You can also preserve the dried tomatoes in vinegar or oil. There are loads of recipes online.
Clockwise from above: Making passata is great for young and old; Tomato passata, preserved for use later in the year; Sundried Tomatoes; Pomodori Verdi Sott’Olio.
The basics of bottling tomatoes is to pulverise them and load into sterilised jars along with a good teaspoon of salt per litre, allow 2 cm headroom at the top of the jar and then seal, (wipe the jar neck to ensure it’s clean so that the lid will seal tightly). Then the tomatoes are water bathed at 85ÅãC for between 30–60 minutes (depending on how the tomatoes have been prepared) and then cooled and labelled. Job done, and a year’s supply of tomato sauce for you.
There are many different ways to bottle tomatoes. Which way you choose depends on your available equipment, time, bottles, and tomato varieties, and also how you like to eat them. Here are a few classic approaches:
Passata is simply tomatoes which have had their skins and seeds removed, have been boiled in a big pot to reduce their volume with added salt, and then poured into sterilised bottles and capped. The passata is then sterilised using a water bath. You can remove the seeds and skins by scalding the whole tomatoes in boiling water to loosen the skins and then put through a Mouli grater or a hand-cranked passata machine. Grab some friends and make a day or two of passata making on a grand scale. With enough bottles, tomatoes and big cooking pots, you can make enough for everyone.
Rough, quick and easy. Great if you’re working with organic or homegrown tomatoes; this is the sauce we make at home. Clean tomatoes, pulverise whole in a blender (skins, seeds and all), pour straight into bottles with a basil leaf in the bottom and a teaspoon of salt, and then cap and water bath for 40 minutes at 85 °C.
This technique is best done in wide necked bottles. We use it for whole small tomatoes, like Tommy Toe and Yellow Pear, but you can also use it for big tomatoes that have been quartered. Clean tomatoes and place directly into jars with a few basil leaves and a teaspoon of salt. Smash the tomatoes down with the end of a rolling pin or similar. Keep adding tomatoes until jar is full, leaving a few centimetres headroom, then cap and water bath for 40 minutes at 85 °C.
Herbed pasta sauce
This is a variation on the classic or rogue passata recipe above, and results in a homemade, ready-to-go pasta sauce. Make either a classic or rogue passata mix in a pot on the stove, and then add to it things like grated carrot, zucchini, diced olives or eggplant (remembering the mix needs to fit into the neck of your jars). Add lots of herbs too. Once the mix is bubbling and boiling, simmer for 10 minutes and then proceed to bottle, adding a teaspoon of salt to each litre bottle, and water bath as per the passata instructions above.
PASTE AND THICK SAUCE
To make tomato paste, you’ll need to simmer your passata in a pot until it reaches a saucy consistency, which can take many hours. Have a think about how you can do this with minimum energy; maybe it’s time to make a mini DIY rocket stove? Only add salt at the end of this process once the sauce/paste is as thick as you like.
RELISHES + PICKLES
These techniques are great for the end of tomato season, as you can throw in both green and red tomatoes. The relish and pickle possibilities of tomatoes are vast. Our personal favourite recipe is Pomodori Verdi Sott’Olio, which is green tomatoes preserved in oil.
To make it, thinly slice green tomatoes and pack them into a bucket or bowl in layers, sprinkling salt between each layer. Put an upturned plate with a weight on it on the tomatoes (to weigh them down) for one day, then drain them of the brine that has formed. Next, pour equal parts apple cider vinegar and water over the tomato slices and weigh down once more for another day. Drain again and pack into clean jars along with sliced garlic and chilli, pouring olive oil over the lot, up to the jar neck. Let it stand somewhere cool for two weeks, and then enjoy! This pickle keeps for months unopened, but is best used within a month or so.
Then there’s the wonderful world of tomato ferments! Start with a simple and delicious fermented tomato salsa (you can find the recipe for our favourite salsa on the March page of the 2018 Pip Calendar). Simply chop up tomatoes and put in a clean jar, add spices, . cup of active whey, and 2% brine (enough to barely cover the tomatoes). Leave lightly lidded on the benchtop for a day or two, stirring a few times a day. Then eat with everything. You can also make a full-flavoured fermented tomato sauce that you can use like regular tomato sauce and store in the fridge; look online for multiple options for this recipe.
The above ideas are just the tip of a gigantic tomato-shaped iceberg of possibilities. But one thing is certain: you’ll spend the rest of the year feeling happy that you preserved those tomatoes. Good luck and we wish you many months of preserved tomato goodness.
Kirsten Bradley is the co-founder of Milkwood – permaculture skills for living like it matters. She wrangles goats, vegetables, pickles and writing at Melliodora in Hepburn. Her first book, Milkwood, is out in September. www.milkwood.net