Sunday, September 16, 2007

Oven dried tomatoes - tis the season!

Tomatoes everywhere! From friends at the market everywhere you look. We love the huge misshapen local varieties which taste delicious, but they're only available for a few weeks. Thinking of that & thinking of how to preserve summer I came up with the idea of drying my own tomatoes. Hardly original.

Sun dried tomatoes have become over the years almost a cliche, but when done properly they are still delicious and can remind one of summer whenever eaten. My problem has been in finding really good ones. Occasionally our market would have packets from Italy that weren't bad. Most of the time, however they were either too hard & chewy and resisted all efforts at re- hydration or were so soft that they just fall apart. So I decided that I couldn't do worse if I tried to dry tomatoes myself.

Before doing anything else I searched the net for recipes, tips, tricks & experiences. As you can imagine there was a ton of information. It seemed to boil down to three major techniques: Real sun drying; dehydrating; and oven drying. There were lots of variations within each technique. I don't own a dehydrator so I ruled that technique out. Sun drying was tempting as it is the original technique and we were having nice hot sunny weather, but having read about making drying racks and muslin/cheesecloth covers; bringing the fruit in & out during the day/night my inherent laziness kicked in. So, oven drying it was to be.

In oven drying tomatoes there seemed to be two schools of thought. Proper drying and slow roasting. Proper drying takes place at very low (110- 140 F) temperatures over a long period of time with the oven door propped open to let the moisture out. It is supposed to yield a fully dry leathery tomato. Slow roasting takes place at a higher temperature (220- 250 F) over a shorter period and is supposed to yield soft tomatoes that are slightly chewy. Having read all I could find I decided that I'd do it my own way. This was a compromise between proper drying and slow roasting. I wanted full chewyness (not sure that's a word?), but not leather either. I also wanted to add some herbs & garlic to my dried tomatoes.

Here's what I did:

  1. I bought 20 plum (Roma variety) tomatoes.
  2. Let them sit out on the counter to ripen for several days. (They'll never get there in the fridge. They may rot, but they won't ripen.)
  3. When ripe I cut them in half length ways, scraped out the seeds and cut out the vein.
  4. I very lightly oiled a cookie sheet and turned the oven to 110C (about 225F).
  5. Placed the tomato halves cut side up on the cookie tray(s) and gave each one a small pinch of Herbs de Provence and then an even smaller pinch of dried garlic grains. (do not use fresh garlic as it can promote bacteria later on.)
  6. I put a light grinding of salt & pepper over all of them and put them in the oven.

Timing was the unknown. Slow roasting was supposed to take 2-3 hours. Proper drying 8-10 hours. I monitored my tomatoes about every half hours after the first 4 hours. I did some turning and swapping of shelves to get even cooking. In my case I judged the tomatoes to be ready after about 6 1/2 hours. They were soft, but chewy just as I had hoped. I suspect that the timing will very from batch to batch dependent upon ripeness, temperature and other factors.

As they were cooling Linda came in and pinched one, pronounced it delicious, pinched another one and disappeared before I could grab her.

I sterilized a jar and packed the tomatoes into it as tightly as I could using a wooden spoon. I then filled the jar with olive oil; just until the tomatoes were fully covered. Then wanting to be sure there would be no spoilage I put the jar in the fridge.

A few days later we had friends over & I served the tomatoes cut in half ,with a basil leaf on top & placed upon a toasted round of French bread. They were a rousing success. The flavour & texture turned out as I'd hoped they would.

Now the hard part. Repeat the recipe and achieve the same results.

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