It’s the end of the summer of 2020 and many Americans are finding themselves with a thriving pandemic garden right about now. Although I had planned a garden this year anyway, it turned out to be a lot bigger than I anticipated—mostly because, by the time April rolled around this past spring, we needed a project to keep us occupied. I ordered way too many seeds and let the kids go crazy planting and nurturing them. Well, guess what? The tomato seedlings completely thrived. I ended up with over 50 plants (six varieties) and now have an abundance of garden tomatoes.
Luckily, it wasn’t completely unplanned and I am not completely clueless in this category. I am an avid canner and food preserver, and have been canning tomatoes with my mom since I could see over the countertop. If you don’t have a garden but love tomatoes, you can get canner tomatoes and Romas by the half bushel or bushel at most farmers markets right now and for the next several weeks. It’s best to order ahead if possible to ensure your favorite vendor has enough for you. To follow are all of my favorite ways to use garden tomatoes—and how to make sure you are using every last bit to get the most out of your harvest.
Roasting is one of the tastiest ways to use garden tomatoes year-round. The key here is a slow roast. Cut tomatoes in half lengthwise, place on a parchment paper-lined cookie sheet, drizzle with olive oil and a little bit of honey if desired, then crack some salt and pepper over top to taste. You can also add garlic cloves, onion quarters, and other seasonings if desired. Roast at 225 degrees for four to six hours. The depth of flavor these take on is incredible…I have to stop myself from just eating them like candy. They are wonderful in pasta, with goat cheese, on a grilled cheese sandwich, pureed into a delicious sauce, and more. You can also freeze these for later use.
I live in a house with no air conditioning. Most of the canning I do is the result of produce that is frozen at harvest time and pulled out when the temperatures cool down a bit and I can handle standing in a hot kitchen for hours on end. You can freeze garden tomatoes whole or diced (without the need for blanching) for later use in sauces and soups.
In fact, freezing tomatoes is a really simple shortcut for removing the skins. Simply core tomatoes and, for canner/large-sized tomatoes, make a small (approximately half-inch) X in the bottom of the tomato after coring. For Romas, simply core and freeze. When thawed, skins will slip right off.
Cherry tomatoes can also be frozen whole (no need to core) and made into sauce, although getting the skins off is quite labor intensive. I usually toss into a pot, let them simmer, and then use my stick blender to blend in the skins.
I have probably tried nearly a hundred different ways to can garden tomatoes in my lifetime. The most important part with canning is to make sure you are following safe recipes and procedures. I mean it—you do not want to mess around with botulism. It is a common misconception that tomatoes are highly acidic, but in reality, they are not quite as acidic as most fruits, so need to be canned carefully. Some recipes will require a pressure canner, some will use a longer water bath canning time, and some will use the addition of acid like citric acid or lemon juice.
If you are a new canner, start with tomato recipes from the National Center for Home Food Preservation (NCHFP) as they will give the most safe recipes as well as in-depth instructions. There are many great sites out there, but know that not every blog on the internet is canning safely. Recipes from sources like Ball or Bernardin, Food in Jars or Healthy Canning, are a few of the known safe canning recipes. Follow all the steps, and don’t change or skip ingredients, and you will do just fine. Realize that, even though your grandma might have heated her jars in the oven or inverted them to get them to seal, these have been found to be unsafe methods and should no longer be used.
My very favorite recipes that are tried and true, used year after year, are:
- Tomato Jam | This is a delicious recipe I have made many times. Our great grandmothers used to use something similar before it evolved into the ketchup we know today. If you are a meatloaf family, this is a must try! I like to mix a bit into my meatloaf, then top the meatloaf with bacon and cover with tomato jam before baking. Also great on any grilled chicken or pork, used as a sauce in the crockpot with meatballs, smeared on a grilled cheese, or anywhere you would use ketchup.
- Stewed Tomatoes | This is my mom’s specialty. Most years she makes at least four dozen quarts of stewed tomatoes and gives a dozen each to my brother and I for Christmas. This is the base for chili, tomato soup, sauces, and more. (My mom’s recipe is top secret, but this one is similar. She strongly suggests omitting sugar, which is a safe canning omission in this case.) One of our family favorites using these is a simple soup that uses a couple quarts of stewed tomatoes heated to just bubbling, then adding a block of Swiss (or Jarlsberg) cheese, cut into rough chunks a quarter inch to half inch in size, then tossing in a bag of fresh spinach and stirring until wilted. Easy and delicious!
- Basil Garlic Tomato Sauce | If you’ve ever had Trader Joe’s Tomato Basil Marinara, this is similar. I like a lot of basil and garlic in my tomato sauce, and this is the best recipe I’ve found. Give yourself lots of time with this one, I have had it take hours to cook down to sauce consistency. In fact, last year, I quadrupled the recipe and let the sauce cook for two days before I felt it was ready. 100% worth the time and effort, in my opinion.
- Mrs. Wages Salsa | I’ll be honest, I am totally a fresh salsa or pico de Gallo person, not a huge fan of canned salsa. My mom has made this Mrs. Wages salsa for several years, and it’s one of the only canned salsas I like. In the dead of a Michigan winter, you aren’t always going to find the best produce to make fresh salsa, and this is the next best thing. At first, I turned my nose up at the thought of using a packet of ingredients, but it really is a wonderful tasting salsa.
Save the Scraps
Sometimes people think I am loony, but I save as many scraps as possible with anything I can or preserve. You might be surprised at just how many ways you can use fruit and vegetable scraps. My favorite ways to use tomato scraps are:
- Stock | After you cut the cores out of your garden tomatoes, save them all in a bag and pop into the freezer or use right away. You can actually save any and all parts of the tomato, including skins and seeds, to make a wonderful stock. Simply cover with water, simmer for a few hours, and strain out solids. You can use this as a soup base, water for cooking rice, and more. If it’s more than you can use in one recipe, it’s absolutely freezable.
- Tomato Powder | Since almost all canning recipes call for removal of skins, you will be left with a bunch. Additionally, some recipes, like tomato juice, call for use of a food strainer which will produce a lot of pulp. You can place skins and pulp into your food dehydrator, oven, or even the microwave. Once totally dried and cooled, use your coffee grinder or Ninja-type blender to grind into a fine powder. This powder is fabulous for flavoring or thickening sauces and soups. Keep refrigerated in an air-tight container to prevent caking.
Don’t forget about green tomatoes! Sometimes, when you’re harvesting, a green tomato might fall off the vine. Just pop it into the freezer until fall when you can add to the rest of your green garden tomatoes. Healthy tomato plants will continue to produce well into September until it starts to get too cold at night for them to properly ripen. Be sure to pick all of those green tomatoes—they are useable! A couple of years ago, I had just eight tomato plants and ended up with about 30 pounds of green tomatoes in the fall. Here are some of the ways I put them to use:
- Canned Green Tomato Salsa | This is a great, vinegar-based salsa. Lots of tang! I normally quadruple the cumin as I think it gives a great flavor. (The addition or increase of dried herbs and spices is considered a safe canning practice.)
- Fried Green Tomatoes | Fried green tomatoes are an awesome side dish or addition to a burger. If you have a lot of green tomatoes, you can even freeze them for later use.
- Pickled Green Tomatoes | These are a great addition to salads, relish trays, and burgers.
- Piccalilli | For the sweet relish lovers (which is not me), piccalilli is a great way to use up green garden tomatoes.
To read more of my suggestions for food preservation, check out 3 Kitchen Hobbies to Pass the Time. You can also always feel free to reach out to me via my Facebook page or Instagram if you have any questions. If I haven’t made it myself, I can at least point you in the right direction. Happy preserving!