Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Dried Tomatoes

When people talk about food preservation, they usually talk about canning and freezing.  These are two of the most entertaining, time-honored food preservation techniques, but they are also the newest.  What we call canning goes back to what used to be called bottling, when homemakers would place food in glassware and seal it with fat, cloth, dough, corks, or later parafin or canning lids.  Freezing is even newer in most locales, going back primarily to Clarence Birdseye and his work in getting consumers to accept frozen foods.  Prior to that, freezing really only was used in areas with naturally frozen areas, so places with permafrost or places where one could easily build an ice house, and it was not widely used for a complete range of products.

Even older, however, are cellaring and drying, both methods that control bacterial growth by using temperature or water content.  Drying is one of my favorites, because it requires almost no attention, and the end product is typically much smaller than the original food to be dried, a bonus when you are storing multiple crops.

The traditional way to dry foods is to hang them on a rack or place them in a solar drier.  Rack drying is great for herbs if you are processing them in small amounts, which is not true in my house; I regularly grow and store at least enough dried herbs to supply my family, my parents, and my in-laws.  Solar drying, which I haven't tried, appears to work best in areas with lower humidity than the Midwest.

That leaves the electric drier as your best option.  (You can use your oven on a low heat setting, but I dislike having the oven run all day.)  The one I use is a $40, five-tray model from Ronco (yes, that Ronco) that I bought at the local mega-mart about five years ago.  It works like a dream, and I figure since it is basically a low-wattage element at the bottom of a plastic bowl with trays on top, I should be able to keep the thing running more or less indefinitely.

What we have above is a tray of tomatoes waiting to be dried (plus some marjoram to round out this tray).  Dried tomatoes are one of the best products you can make in the summer, as the jars of "sundried tomatoes" are uber-expensive, and a few add a lot of flavor to dishes.  I like to chop up a handful and add to pizza and pasta dishes in the fall until they are gone.  There are never enough dried tomatoes.

To dry tomatoes:  Select salsa-type or other fleshy tomatoes.  Above, you can see I have used some salsa-type paste tomatoes (the ligher colored ones) and some black tomatoes (Black Truffle or Black Russian), the darker tomatoes.  Wash and cut into half inch rounds.  Place on dryer tray and salt with sea salt.  Then put them in the drier and wait.  Depending on the water content, it could take a day or two until they reach leathery consistency; flip them periodically to hastent the drying and keep them from sticking to the try.

Your drier does not need to run continuously; just unplug it at night or when you leave the house.  Store in a freezer container in the freezer, and pull out this winter when you need a concentrated burst of summer.

The Analysis

Fast:  Drying takes a while, but you don't have to participate very much.  It takes me about 5 minutes to cut tomatoes for drying and then store them on the other end. 

Cheap:  Dried tomatoes from your garden are very low cost, depending on cost of plant (mine were $2-3 depending on variety, so if I get at least two dozen tomatoes per plant, I am down to about 10 cents per tomato) and amount of electricity you use in drying (minimal).  By contrast, a small jar of dried tomatoes in oil is usually $3 or more.

Good:  Dried tomatoes are sweet, a little smokey or deep in flavor, and a few go a long way.  You really can never have enough.
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