It's Drying Time Again

Exquisite Hazelfield Farm Tomatoes, Kentucky

Exquisite Hazelfield Farm Tomatoes, Kentucky

Some of the best foods require very little prep time, but benefit from hours of slow cooking. Dried fruits and vegetables aren't exactly cooked, but they need several hours in a warm, dry spot so some of their fluids can leave the building. I have only recently learned the wonders of what's left behind: chewy, intensely flavored bites that seem a lot more exotic than their origins.

Dried apples and dried green beans -- shucky beans -- are delicious parts of Kentucky's food heritage and its present. Dried tomatoes, though - those came to me as a bolt of red lightning.

Becca Self, Education Director for Seedleaf, Inc., passionate advocate for preserving local food for year-round local eating, first clued me in to the delights of home-dried tomatoes. Becca says she keeps a dehydrator going round the clock during the peak of summer, because the people in her household eat dried tomatoes as if they were candy.

I bring this up because it's time to be drying. Fruits and vegetables are maturing earlier than most people can ever remember this year. While flavor is at its peak -- that's drying time.

I tried drying tomatoes for the first time last year, and my whole yield lasted until, maybe, November. It is hard to stop eating them, just as Becca reported.

I don't have a dehydrator, and it turns out a slow oven works, too. In fact, by googling around, I learned that people have a wide range of approaches to drying tomatoes, and that pretty much all the approaches lead to success.

The process is so simple it feels almost foolish to break it into steps, but I needed guidance, so you may, too. Most of the steps involve doing something else while the tomatoes dry.

  1. Choose dead-ripe tomatoes from your backyard or a local market. Any size or type will work; plum or paste tomatoes make the most meaty/chewy dried slices.
  2. Turn your oven on to its lowest temperature. For my oven, that means 170 degrees F. A lower temperature would be fine, and people report success at 200 degrees, too.
  3. Wash your tomatoes, and pat them dry with clean cloths.
  4. Line flat sheet pans with parchment paper or silicon baking sheets. The lining helps you remove the tomatoes once they are dry, and helps some with clean-up.
  5. Cut your tomatoes into halves, if small, or quarters, if larger.
  6. Place the sliced tomatoes on the lined pans, cut side up. (Or cut side down - either way works.)
  7. Put the pans in the oven. Fill the oven as full of pans of tomatoes as possible to make best use of the energy you will use.
  8. Close the oven door, and go have fun or be useful (or both) for six hours. Set an alarm if needed.
  9. Check the tomatoes. The aim is to have chewy but not brittle or dried-out slices -- essentially, tomato leather. If the tomato slices still have soft, wet-looking spots anywhere, return to the oven for an hour, and check hourly after that. Sometimes I yield to the temptation to turn some soggy tomatoes over before returning the pans to the oven. Some tomatoes seem to need turning, and most do not.
  10. Once your tomatoes are dried to your satisfaction, let them cool completely.
  11. The simplest storage system involves putting the dried slices in gallon-size plastic bags and freezing them.  You can also use clean, dry glass jars that have close fitting lids. If possible, keep these cool. Tomato slices that still contain moisture can spoil at room temperature.

This is Savory Kentucky Bite number 15 of 116 Savory Bites created in honor of the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games.