Dear Aggie: We have too many tomatoes in our garden. What can I do with them all?
Answer: Gardening in the north country seems to be feast or famine. We wait all year for vine-ripened tomatoes, spend months growing them, eat a few, and then wonder what to do with the rest. Even those of us without gardens may be tempted by the bushels of tomatoes to be had at local stands for as low as $15. Fortunately, there are many options to keep these beauties from going to waste and preserving their flavor into the winter. Basic methods include canning, freezing, and drying.
Regardless of the preservation method chosen, we strongly advise following U.S,. Department of Agriculture guidelines and using only tested recipes. As methods have been tweaked in recent years, using the most recent guidance is important to both safety and quality. Most importantly, botulism in improperly canned foods has the potential to kill!
A free source of up-to-date information is the USDA’s National Center for Home Food Preservation at the University of Georgia; their website is https://nchfp.uga.edu/. Tested recipes, ranging from bruschetta sauce to salsa, are available for free on Ball’s website, www.freshpreserving.com/. If the internet is not your thing, the Ball Blue Book is the traditional “go-to” publication for canning — but be sure to use the most recent edition (37th published in 2016). For tested recipes, consider The All-New Ball Book of Canning and Preserving (2016).
Whether you can, freeze, or dry tomatoes is largely a matter of preference. Each method has their pros and cons. Canning requires the greatest attention to detail and heats up the house during the hottest part of the year — but results in the most versatile products. Canned tomatoes can be stored at room temperature and used at a moment’s notice in a variety of dishes. One problem with canning in 2021 is the continued lack of lids in local stores; they must often be purchased online. Freezing skinned tomatoes or tomato pulp is much easier and is growing in popularity, but it consumes precious space in the freezer. Frozen tomatoes can also be compromised during power outages. Drying might be an option for those with small cherry or paste tomatoes, but the uses for dried tomatoes are limited — typically as pizza toppings or with pasta. Regardless of which method you use, the USDA has detailed instructions for each.
The USDA recommends acidifying canned tomatoes to prevent the growth of botulism. Traditionally, lemon juice was added, but we find that this imparts a lemony flavor. Instead, we recommend citric acid, which is more precise, inexpensive, and now widely available. For those with small gardens that want to can tomatoes but don’t necessarily have enough fruit at one time, one tip is to core ripe tomatoes, freeze them on a sheet tray, and save them for a few weeks in a gallon freezer bag until you have enough to can. Finally, if your pressure canner does not have a weight and features only a gauge, we recommend that you test the gauge annually. Extension staff is happy to do this for you — just give us a call and schedule a time to bring it in.
If you are truly overwhelmed with tomatoes, consider donating produce to the needy. Our Master Gardeners, for example, donate hundreds of pounds of produce annually to the Watertown Urban Mission. Nonprofit kitchens often welcome fresh produce as well. I’ve personally taken good-quality excess produce to senior housing facilities and left it for residents. Many seniors are unable to garden, either because of disability or lack of space, but welcome having fresh products in their kitchens again.
Question answered by Mike Nuckols, Ag Team Leader, firstname.lastname@example.org.