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Extend summer with dried tomatoes

Oregon summers and the tomatoes we grow should never go to waste. The culinary aspects of tomato appreciation in these weeks of harvest are right up my alley.

For long-term enjoyment, one of my favorite treatments for preserving summer tomato flavor for later is to dry them. Home-dried tomatoes are a superior product compared to store-bought. And because they’re a fraction of the cost — as long as the tomatoes are coming out of your own garden — you’re more inclined to find uses for them beyond the obligatory toothpick appetizer and sandwich garnish.

Dried tomato tips

The meatier the tomato, the better it is for drying. Roma or Italian styles are preferred. But regular slicers, beefsteak, and even little cherry and golden pear tomatoes are good candidates. Just make sure the little guys are halved, and the bigger specimens are quartered or sliced lengthwise, from stem to stern.

Tomatoes packed in olive oil are safe to store at room temperature as long as you have not added any moist, low-acid ingredients such as fresh garlic or fresh herbs. Dried garlic and dried herbs are perfectly safe. But if you want to include fresh, moist garlic and herbs, you must refrigerate the jars.

Whether you’re using a food dehydrator or your oven to dry tomatoes, you’ll need to reposition the trays/baking sheets every few hours to encourage even drying.

Another other factor to consider to achieve a thoroughly dried tomato is its thickness. Tomatoes contain pockets of thick, juicy meat, which is always the last portion to dry. During the drying, I police my batch, and when I encounter one that has an especially plump portion, I pierce it with a knife and squash it to allow moisture to escape.

Although I like to season my tomatoes before drying — sometimes just with salt, other times, with salt and dried herbs — it isn’t necessary from a food safety standpoint. But I do think the flavor is richer when a tiny bit of salt is used.

I like to slosh each piece of dried tomato in a saucer of vinegar before storing in olive oil. This maneuver seems to preserve the oil so it is less likely to go rancid during long-term storage.

For a wonderful pesto-style spread, blend together about 1 cup of pesto with 1/2 cup of oil-packed dried tomatoes (drain them before adding to the blender or food processor) with 2 to 3 tablespoons of Balsamic vinegar. Run the motor until the tomatoes are finely chopped, but flecks are still visible. Will keep, refrigerated, for several weeks, or frozen for many months.

Jan’s Dried Tomatoes

Read about my “secret ingredient” in the note on vinegar below. It really does produce a superior oil-packed dried tomato.

7 or 8 pounds of firm, ripe Italian-style tomatoes

1 tablespoon dried seasoning (such as an Italian blend, or a mixture of dried basil, oregano and thyme), optional

2 teaspoons salt

Red or white wine vinegar (see note)

About 1-1/4 cups extra-virgin olive oil

Rinse the tomatoes and dry them. Cut out the stem and scar and the hard portion of core. Halve the tomatoes if they are less than 2 inches long; quarter them if they are larger. With the tip of a knife or your index finger, scrape out most of the seeds without removing the pulp.

Arrange the tomatoes, cut surface up, either on drying racks (if using a food dehydrator) or on nonstick cookie sheets (if drying in an oven). Combine the dried herbs, if using, with the salt, and sprinkle a small amount over the surface of each tomato.

Proceed with drying, as described by the manufacturer for your food dehydrator, or by using the oven method as described below. The tomatoes will not all dry at the same rate. As they reach the right degree of dryness, remove them from the oven or dehydrator. Dip them into a saucer of vinegar, shake off the excess, and pack in the olive oil. Make sure that no bits of tomato protrude from the oil because those portions will darken.

As the jars are filled, cap each one tightly and shelve it at cool room temperature for at least a month before serving the tomatoes. After removing the tomatoes from the jar, add more oil, if necessary, to keep the remaining tomatoes covered. Dried tomatoes stored in oil will keep for months at room temperature. Yields about 1 pint.

Oven-drying method: Bake at 170 degrees for about 3 hours. Leave the oven door propped open about 3 inches to allow moisture to escape. After 3 hours, turn the tomatoes over, cut-side down, and press flat with your hand or a spatula. Continue to dry, turning every few hours and gently pressing flatter and flatter, until the tomatoes are dried. This procedure may take about 12 hours, but often takes a significantly shorter amount of time, depending on the moisture content of the tomatoes. Avoid over-drying, because tomatoes will actually become brittle and crisp if dried too long. On the other hand, make sure they are dried to the point of being “leathery” when manipulated; if not dried enough, the tomatoes will mold at room temperature.

Note on vinegar: I’ve tried several methods, but the vinegar treatment is the difference between a good dried tomato and a great one. That extra bit of acid acts as a preservative, ensuring that your olive oil stays fresher longer (by months and months).

Avoiding the oil: Once the tomatoes are dried, simply store them in airtight jars, plastic bags or containers, and keep them in a cool, dry, dark place for up to a year. Dried tomatoes can also be frozen. Dried tomatoes not stored in oil can be snipped into pieces and added directly to soups, stews and sauces. But for some recipes, you’ll need to rehydrate them by soaking them in boiling water for 2 to 4 minutes; just long enough to soften. Then drain and pat dry.

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, artist and author of “Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit,” and four other cookbooks. Email her at janrd@proaxis.com.