If there’s a poster child for the virtues and rewards of home gardening, it’s the homegrown tomato. As tomato season winds down, why wouldn’t we want to save some of that summer goodness for the dark and cold ahead? Tomatoes can be frozen, canned or dehydrated, but for casual snacking and salad topping, dehydrating is the best bet.
Commercially prepared sundried tomatoes are treated with salt and sulfur and left in the sun for up to two weeks. (That is, if they are actually dried in the sun; most are not.) While tasty and as nutritious as fresh tomatoes, commercially prepared versions pack a huge wallop of salt — over 1100mg per serving. Although people in some regions can replicate this process at home, it’s too humid in North Alabama to dehydrate outdoors. For us, we need a little technology.
Dehydrators come in two general flavors. The first is usually sold in big box stores, is under $50 in price and is essentially a hair dryer with a dome on it. These have the virtue of being small and affordable, but have significant hot spots, dry unevenly, and require a lot of baby sitting. The high heat can lend a burnt taste to the final product and cannot be used for herbs at all. These are suitable for small, infrequent batches. Check thrift stores for used units: people who buy dehydrators often want to make fruit leather, and these do not perform that task well.
The second flavor is a unit with a recirculating fan and thermostat, like the Excalibur dehydrators. (No affiliation, just a 2nd generation happy customer.) These units have a much larger capacity. The thermostat allows you to control the temperature: very low for herbs and yogurt, high for beef jerky, one of the settings in between for everything else. The fan reduces (but does not totally eliminate) uneven drying in the unit. On the downside, they are large and more expensive: from $150-$250. If you want to dry large batches or use a dehydrator frequently, this is the appliance for you.
[Editor’s note: If you, like me, are reading this and wondering if an oven would work instead…the answer is no. Nicole informs me that they get too hot so you end up having to leave the oven door propped open, heating your house. Which is the last thing an Alabama summer needs.]
Preparing the Tomatoes
Start with fully ripe tomatoes. You can blanch them to remove skins and de-seed the tomatoes if you like. Personally, I do neither, but some people don’t like the seeds, and leaving the skins on will increase drying time — but add to the chewiness of the final product.
- Core the tomatoes and remove any blemished or soft spots.
- Cut the tomatoes into slices or wedges, or for cherry tomatoes, cut them in half.
- Arrange on the dehydrator trays.
Set the thermostat to the low range of vegetables, about 120F
Start checking the tomatoes at about 5 hours. You may need to flip or rotate items. Tomatoes are done when all parts of the piece are dry to the touch, barely pliable and crack a little when bent. Every piece won’t finish at the same time, and be careful to check around the skins if you left them on.
Let dried pieces cool briefly, then place in an airtight bag or container. This will equalize the moisture levels and slightly soften the tomatoes. If you see any condensation on the walls of the bag or container, they need to go back in the dehydrator.
When your batch is 100% complete, label and store the tomatoes. I use glass canning jars. Glass is impermeable to oxygen that can discolor your dried products. Plastic is not. Dried tomatoes store safely in glass or freezer containers at room temperature for about 6 months at 60F or 3 months at 80F; for storing up to about 9 months, put them in the refrigerator. Discard if there is any sign of fungus or other ick.
The Final Product
Beefsteak or Roma style tomatoes will lose about 93% of their weight in water, and cherry or grape tomatoes about 88%. (Note that smaller varieties like cherry tomatoes take longer to dry since there is more skin covering the surface.) That means you will get about 1 1/2 ounce of dried tomato for each pound of fresh tomato. Tomatoes are mostly water!
When dehydrated, the flavor and sweetness of the tomatoes is concentrated. If your original tomatoes are tangy and acidic, your dried tomatoes will have a bite. If your tomatoes are sweet, they’ll be even sweeter.
In a few months, when the weather has turned frosty, you just need to open a jar to get the delicious aroma and taste of homegrown tomato. Eat straight from the jar, add to soups and salads, or make up your own recipes!