During the past five years, I’ve reinvented preserving tomatoes.
This method has developed from two concepts. First, when your tomatoes are ripe, you might not have enough to bother with the process of canning. And second, you might not feel like canning when your tomatoes do.
When I make this, I feel like I am cheating the tomato canning gods. I don’t know if I have bastardized the whole process or invented a better way to make tomato sauce in the 21st century?
Seasonal Eating Meets Real-Life
I eat seasonal vegetables most of the time. It helps to work on a farm, and I’m lucky to live in a place where I can get fresh produce year-round. But eating seasonally also means respecting the traditions of preservation. Here is the convergence that brought me to this recipe.
I like canned tomatoes.
I don’t mind buying canned tomatoes in the winter.
Cooked tomatoes boost up your cooking with an umami flavor that enables your taste buds.
I have always wanted to preserve my own tomatoes to get me through the winter.
I don’t really like fresh tomatoes.
Fresh tomatoes need bacon and mayonnaise or onions, peppers, and cilantro for me to enjoy them. Enough basil, salt, and olive oil might do the trick too.
I missed the gene that makes you eat tomatoes like an apple. I can enjoy the sweetness, but they still taste like tomatoes.
Bringing home tomatoes in my farm box from work, meant knowing I couldn’t eat them all fresh. I would set them on the counter to ripen, and then need to save them from spoiling a few days later.
I don’t want to waste anything.
At times in the summer, we might have an extra 20 pounds of tomatoes hanging around after packing. The tomatoes weren’t going anywhere, so I would take them home.
I had hoped to preserve them later when I had time. But time never came.
So, I started freezing whole tomatoes.
If it had a large stem, I would cut out the core and throw the tomatoes in gallon-size plastic zip-top bags. Cherry tomatoes went in by the basket full. No matter the color, orange, red, yellow, and purple, if they were ripe, into the freezer they went.
Then sometime in October, the freezer would be full, and I would have a new problem to solve.
The Cheater’s Recipe
Here is the official unofficial process. I’ve shared bits of this recipe with my farm box members, but this is the first time documenting the entire process.
Feedback is welcome, but remember the point is to get people who have limited time resources, cooking real food in the kitchen.
Thaw and Drain
When your freezer is full, take out the tomatoes, place them in a huge soup pot until it is heaping-full, and thaw at room temperature for several hours. Put a towel under the pot to absorb water. The frozen tomatoes will attract moisture from the air, and it will condense on the pot and make a mess.
As the tomatoes thaw, they lose their structure and fill in the air spaces between them, so the overall volume reduces.
As the water from the tomatoes comes out of the skin, drain off most of the liquid (you don’t have to get it all).
This liquid is the water that is inside the cell walls when the tomato is fresh. When the tomato freezes, the water expands and causes the cell wall to break. When you thaw the tomatoes, the water melts and separates from the pulp.
I have thought about the flavor in the tomato water, but I have never saved it. If there was a drought and our water resources were limited, this would be useful to consume.
I use it to water my garden. It would be an exciting experiment to cook pasta or rice in the water and see if you notice a difference, but I have never actually done this myself.
Cook and Blend
Once the tomatoes have thawed, and you have drained off the liquid, heat your pot of tomatoes on the stovetop until it reaches a low simmer. Let the tomatoes cook for about 20 minutes, occasionally stirring, until the skins start to break up.
Turn the heat off on the stove. Blend the tomatoes with an immersion blender until nearly smooth.
You could use the tomato sauce at this point, but a strained sauce is more textually pleasing for most people.
Strain and Preserve
Strain the tomato sauce through a large-hole strainer. The sauce will easily pass through at first, but the flow will slow as the holes become clogged.
Gently push the tomato sauce through the holes with a spoon, scraping the skins from the strainer holes, stirring and then applying pressure to the holes again.
Repeat until most of the sauce has gone through, and only seeds and skins remain in the strainer.
You can dehydrate the seeds and skins and then grind them up and use the tomato powder as a seasoning, but I have never done this. I just throw the remaining skins in the compost pile.
It defeats the purpose of saving labor.
At this point, you will want to save your sauce. I use a water-bath canner to process it in jars or freeze in zip-top freezer bags. Pour the sauce into sterilized jars, acidify it with lemon juice or citric acid, then process the jars in a water-bath for 40 minutes, according to the USDA’s Complete Guide to Home Canning.
Are you ready to maximize your time in the kitchen?
I understand that jars of whole peeled tomatoes are worth the time to preserve. That’s why I buy them in the store. I even spend the money on the Italian San Marzano’s.
But in real life, your tomato harvest might not come in all at the same time. It might not make sense to spend a day in the kitchen at the exact time that the tomatoes are ready.
By freezing and thawing the tomatoes first, you can remove much of the water and save time reducing your sauce on the stovetop. An immersion blender does quick work of pureeing the sauce. And the strainer removes the seeds and skins.
When you have a few ripe tomatoes on the counter and no place for them to go, send them to the freezer and come back when you are ready.
Julie Moreno is a chef and writer, now trying to get more people to cook their own food and understand where it comes from. She lives in the middle of California, where she’s learning to landscape with fruits and vegetables. Find her blog at The Wooden Cutting Board on Twitter @juliehouse and Facebook @thewoodencuttingboard