If you’re like me, this time of year you might be wondering: why did I think it was such an excellent idea to plant five times as many tomatoes as I actually need? I’m never going to complain about too many tomatoes, but sometimes the heat hits, they all ripen at once, and you need a few good tricks up your sleeve to deal with this most precious of summer bounty.
While all tomatoes may be delicious, some types are better for certain processing projects than others. Here’s a rundown on some different types of tomatoes and how you can best utilize each in this time of sweet summer abundance. Note that within each category of tomato, there are a ton of different varieties available.
Cherry and grape tomatoes are similar though not identical. Cherry tomatoes tend to be rounder, a bit sweeter, and to have a slightly shorter shelf life. Grape tomatoes are more oblong (think, grape-shaped), tend to be a bit firmer, and might be easier to find in the grocery store for their longer shelf life.
Regardless of what kind you’re growing, cherry and grape tomatoes are often the earliest to be ready for harvest. Their small size means they grow and ripen quickly, and their easy snackablity and sweetness means they don’t often last long! Fresh tomatoes in this category are great for adding to salads, appetizers, garnish, and more.
If you’re lucky enough to find yourself with too many cherry or grape tomatoes to eat fresh, drying them is a great way to go. Their small size and sweetness translate well to dehydration and is a tasty reminder of summer later in the year, whether you add them to soups, pizzas, use them as garnish, or just eat them as a snack.
You can dry cherry tomatoes via sun-drying or with a dehydrator. To sun-dry, halve the tomatoes, then lay them out on screens in a sunny place, cut side up. Sun-drying can take anywhere between a few days to a week, depending on the size of your tomatoes and the intensity of the sun. You’ll want to bring the screens in at night and may consider covering them loosely with cheesecloth to keep away bugs and other critters. You can also flip the tomatoes part-way through if it seems like they’re not drying evenly. If your tomatoes aren’t evenly sized to begin with, some might be ready sooner than others, so you might take a few off the rack and let the rest keep going. Once they’ve lost all their moisture, label them and seal them up in an airtight container or ziplock.
To dry tomatoes in a dehydrator, prepare them the same as sun drying, slice them down the middle, and arrange them cut side up on your dehydrator screens. You’ll want to set your dehydrator between 135 to 140ºF, then sit back and get ready for your house to smell like sweet, drying tomatoes. Start checking your tomatoes after about 6 or 7 hours. Tomatoes usually take anywhere from 6 to 15 hours in a dehydrator, depending on the size of your slices. You’ll know they’re ready when they’re no longer sticky or moist but not yet brittle. If you’re planning to store them for long, be sure all the soft pockets and moisture is fully dehydrated before letting them cool and sealing them up in an airtight bag or container.
I’m lumping all these tomato types into one category because it could be argued they are all slicer tomatoes with similar uses regarding bulk quantities. Beefsteak tomatoes are generally on the larger side, often have ribbed sides, and are known for their “meaty” texture. Oxheart are very similar to beefsteak tomatoes except they have elongated, tapered bottoms and relatively small seed cavities. Globe Tomatoes are your picture-perfect tomato—round, even, and uniform. Cocktail tomatoes are similar to globe tomatoes but usually a bit smaller. Tomatoes with these shapes are some of the most commonly found in grocery stores, with many hybrid varieties known for their disease resistance and longer shelf life.
These tomatoes are great for just about anything you’d want to use a tomato for. They’re delicious fresh on sandwiches, excellent grilled or stuffed, and work well cooked into sauces, roasts, pasta, and soups.
When I have an overabundance of tomatoes in this category, my go-to preservation method is chopping them up in bulk and cooking them down into a tomato-based sauce to can for later winter consumption. Think of pots bubbling for hours on the stove, making the whole house smell like summer. There’s an abundance of recipes out there for canning tomato sauce using the simple boiling-water method. If you’re going to can, be sure to follow a recipe made specifically for canning, don’t add any extra oil or veggies, and make sure to include enough lemon juice to keep the acidity in a safe range.
My favorite recipes for canning big batches of tomatoes in this category are plain marinara sauce (great because it can be easily modified for whatever recipe you’re making once you open it the fall or winter), simple tomato puree (same as above), and bloody mary mix, the later which makes great gifts. I mean, who doesn’t love a home-grown bloody mary!
Plum tomatoes are medium-sized tomatoes that are oval, oblong, or cylindrical shaped. They can also be called paste tomatoes. They typically have thick walls and skin and firm, dense flesh. Roma tomatoes are a very popular, determinate type of plum, but the many varieties in this category can be either determinate or indeterminate.
In general, plum tomato varieties usually have a lower moisture content and fewer seeds than some other popular tomato types, as well as thicker flesh. All of this together makes them especially good for processing as whole canned tomatoes, as well as cooked down into thick sauces, ketchup, and paste. They also do very well with dehydration, per the instructions above. Note determinate tomatoes such as Romas will all ripen at once rather than gradually over the summer, which is another reason these varieties are especially popular for large batch processing.
Beyond sauces, ketchups, and drying, another great way to preserve large quantities of plum tomatoes is roasting and freezing them. Simply half your tomatoes (the long way works best), drizzle a few baking sheets with olive oil, salt, pepper and any dried herbs you’d like, then arrange your tomatoes on the sheets in a single layer, cut side down. Drizzle more olive oil on top and cook at 200 ºF for 8 to 10 hours, or until the tomatoes collapse and the skins look shriveled or blistered. Pick the tomato skins off the top (they should come off quite easily), let everything cool, then pack your tomatoes into labeled freezer bags. Roasted tomatoes are delicious in all sorts of recipes, including soups, stews, roasts, and another great reminder of summer abundance later in the year.
Heirloom varieties are open-pollinated, true-breeding tomato varieties that can be traced back for generations. It’s important to note that you might be growing heirloom varieties of many if not all of the tomato types of above. Still, I give them their own category here for several reasons.
Heirlooms differ from hybrid tomato varieties in that they’re often bred for taste, color, and other characteristics rather than long shelf life or disease resistance. They tend to be more varied in shape and can sometimes crack more easily. What you might lose in standardization you more than gain in taste, color, and overall personality. Heirlooms are often sweeter than hybrids and other genetically modified tomatoes and will have more distinct flavor profiles. One variety might be known for its low acid content, while another might be revered for its tangy brightness. Whatever their characteristics, heirlooms tend to be the most delicious tomatoes out there, which their price at any market will reflect.
If you’ve grown an overabundance of heirloom tomatoes, no matter what type, the best advice is to use them quickly, which shouldn’t be too hard to do. Fresh, they’re ideal for snacking, slicing on sandwiches, cutting into salads, adorning appetizers, stuffing, and more. These are the tomatoes you want to feature fresh and season lightly because their taste will generally stand on its own.
If you have enough to think about processing, I suggest using your heirloom tomatoes in a capacity that really lets them shine. Rather than cooking them down into a huge pot of sauce with my other tomatoes, I like to make my heirlooms in bright salsas that really accentuate their flavor and color. Most salsa recipes can also be canned, using the same boiling water method mentioned above for later use.
As a reminder, no matter what type of tomato you have on hand, be sure never to do a tomato the injustice of sticking it in the refrigerator. Tomatoes do best sitting on the counter at room temperature and will quickly lose their taste and texture if you refrigerate them. Best to use them fresh within a few days or make them into something delicious. Happy projecting!