One of the most challenging and time-consuming aspects of gardening is the harvesting, preservation, and consumption phase. After spending so much time and money on your garden, the last thing you want to do is see any of your precious produce go to waste.
After eating our fill from both our fall and spring gardens and after giving away as much as we could to family and friends (next time we’ll try to recoup some dollars at the local farmer’s markets), we still had a surplus. While the freezer was the easiest and least time-consuming method for most of our excess peas, corn, green beans, spinach, carrots and apples, the extra tomatoes posed a somewhat different challenge. While freezing them or canning them in jars is a viable option, their high water content makes them a rather bulky item to store that way and the freezing and canning process seriously affects the flavor and consistency of the final product. We needed a storage method that would both concentrate the tomatoes and preserve their color and flavor.
Although we had never done it before, we decided to dry our excess tomatoes in an electric food dehydrator. The model we used is called the Magic Aire II and retails for around $120. It has twelve trays which will dry a large volume of tomatoes at a time. The trays are not very tall, so your tomatoes need to be properly prepped in order to be able to stack the trays for drying. Removing the seeds and excess juice before placing them on the trays will greatly reduce the drying time and result a more attractive finished product. After several trials runs, we figured out the best methods for prepping the tomatoes for drying.
If you are drying medium to large tomatoes such as Big Boy, Early Girl, or other table-type tomatoes, it is not necessary to remove the skins prior to drying. Be sure to wash the tomatoes well and placing them on their sides, you will make 3 cross-wise cuts, slicing off the stem end, a small amount of the blossom end, and cutting the tomato in half. The cross-wise cutting of the tomato allows easy removal of the seeds and juice and creates attractively shaped dried tomatoes. Place the prepped tomato halves centers up and approximately 1″ apart on the dehydrator trays.
On the other hand, if you are drying smaller Roma-type tomatoes, we found it best to remove the skins prior to drying. Place the washed tomatoes in a pot of boiling water for approximately 45 seconds or until the skins start to loosen. Remove from water, cool and peel. Slice tomatoes length-wise in half, removing seeds and excess juice. Again, place on the dehydrator trays 1″ apart.
Our dehydrator has only one temperature–HOT. So we had to keep a watchful eye on their progress. The tomatoes on the bottom trays will dry faster because they are closer to the heating element. And not all of the tomatoes on the same tray will dry at the same rate. Therefore, after about 6 hours of drying, look at each tray and start to remove the ones that are dried. They should still be soft and flexible but not have any moist mushy areas. They will continue to dry after they are removed if left out before packaging. Over-drying will result in dark-colored, bitter tasting tomatoes. Check them every hour and remove the ones that are ready. Store in plastic bags or containers.
Dried tomatoes should keep for several months at room temperature or longer in the refrigerator. Just to be safe, we chose to package ours in freezer zip-loc bags in the freezer. Vacuum-sealed bags placed in the freezer would probably provide the best long-term storage.
Note: Frozen dried tomatoes are very brittle and easily broken up by hitting with a hard object such as a rolling pin (as opposed to chopping them after they thaw).
Pictured below are early girl (red) and golden boy (yellow) varieties.