Once you’ve had a taste of tangy, organic heirloom tomatoes painlessly oven-dried at home, you’ll never go back to that inferior, expensive, store-bought sun-dried stuff.
That wrinkly little nub of tomato packs a serious punch, with a zesty flavor so concentrated that it makes magic out of the simplest sauce and adds gusto to any dish.
Sure, you could do it the old-fashioned way, and let your tomatoes sit around for a few days in the blazing hot sun until they shrivel up. Naturally sun-dried tomatoes are a romantic notion, and I wish I was patient enough to wait that long or watchful enough to guard those goodies against backyard critters.
In contrast, oven-dried tomatoes take a fraction of the time and by the end of the day (a very long day), my kitchen smells amazing and I’m rewarded with clusters of deliciously wizened tomatoes that I can enjoy well beyond their harvest. How a mountain of tomatoes can easily and neatly fit into two quart-sized jars still impresses me.
Not speaking from experience or anythiiiing… but you do not want to start this project in the middle of your day, lest you want to be awake at 4 a.m. monitoring and cursing your oven (and if you do, you might have to bribe a housemate to take a shift… so you should gather more tomatoes, just in case).
Depending on the size of your fruit, you should halve or quarter them, or cut into thick slices and wedges if they’re especially large. Cherry and grape tomatoes can be oven-dried whole. A particular heirloom grape variety called Principe Borghese is well-suited to drying because its meaty texture is dryer than most.
Arrange your tomatoes on a baking sheet, skin sides down and barely touching. If you have an oven-safe cooling rack, you can place that over the baking sheet first for maximum air flow around the tomatoes, which will speed up the drying process.
Sprinkle the tomatoes sparingly with salt — I like to use Himalayan pink salt. Add your favorite herbs right on top — I like sprigs of fresh oregano, winter savory, and lemon thyme on mine.
Preheat your oven to its lowest temperature setting (between 175°F to 190°F — sometimes this will simply be the “warm” setting). If your oven’s lowest setting is 200°F or more, you can prop the door open slightly with a wooden utensil to regulate temperature and moisture evaporation.
And then… you go about your day like normal. Check the oven every couple of hours until the edges of the tomatoes start to curl in and the centers start to pucker. At this point, you’ll need to check every hour or less. You want a raisin-y texture — fully dry, but still pliable and leathery to the touch. You’ll know the tomatoes are fully dry when you press down on them and no juices seep out. Be careful that you don’t dry them too much that they become brittle.
Smaller chunks will dry faster than larger and thicker ones, so I pick these off the baking sheet individually and leave them out to cool. When all the tomatoes have finished drying, remove them from the oven and allow the batch to cool completely.
At 175°F, my tomatoes took 20 hours to thoroughly dry. In the last hour or two, only a few of my thicker and juicier wedges remained on the baking sheet. I have read reports of oven-dried tomatoes taking anywhere from 8 to 48 hours, so your mileage will vary. A convection oven would likely move things along more speedily over a conventional oven.
Once fully dry, you can store the tomatoes in clean jars in a cool, dark place, and they should last for months (how many? I’m not sure — I’ve never had them sitting around for long!). You can also pack them in good-quality extra-virgin olive oil, with the benefit that you can use the leftover tomato-infused oil to make some tasty vinaigrettes or marinades. Oil-packed tomatoes should be stored in the fridge for longer keeping. The oil may start to congeal and turn cloudy, but return to its normal state at room temperature. This is completely normal and does not affect the flavor or quality of the oil or tomatoes.
If you like to leave a little moisture in your oven-dried tomatoes, you should freeze them so they don’t spoil. Put them in a vacuum-sealed pouch, or in a zip-top bag with all the air sucked out using a straw, and store in the freezer for up to a year. When thawed, frozen oven-dried tomatoes will lose their nice, leathery texture, so they’re best cooked into recipes.
I delved into my oven-dried heirlooms the same night I packed them into jars. They were delicious on a sandwich, and made for killer pasta sauce. How do you like to eat oven-dried or sun-dried tomatoes?