After weeks of growing tomatoes in your garden, whether you live in a warm or cool climate, you’ll have to think about harvesting and storing dozens of plump tomatoes. Below are some tips and techniques to make the most out of your abundant tomato crop.
Re-direct Plant Energy: First off, pick any tomatoes that are beginning to change color (“blushing”). Blushing tomatoes will ripen nicely on the counter and in taste tests, tasters could not tell the difference between a vine-ripened or counter-ripened tomato. If you are within a few weeks of the first frost, clip off all remaining blossoms. You can also cut the roots on two sides of the plant with a shovel, by plunging a shovel about 8 inches from the stem on each side. This will force the plants to channel all energy into ripening the existing fruits.
Frost Protection: To protect your tomato plants through the first few light frosts, you can cover them at night with a blanket, a frost cloth, or a piece of thick plastic that drapes all the way to the ground. If fully vine-ripened tomatoes are what you are after, and warmer weather is in the forecast, it will be worth the effort. However, if the weather will stay cool from this point on and if your tomatoes are too immature, they may not ripen. If a hard frost, below 28ºF, is predicted, fruit must be brought indoors or they will be damaged.
Short-term Storage: If frost is imminent, the easiest way to quickly save your tomatoes is to pull up the plants and hang them upside down in a cool, well-ventilated area like a garage or basement. The fruits will continue to ripen over the next few weeks. (Check the plants daily for ripe fruit. Over-ripe fruit may fall off the vine.) You can also pick individual full-sized green fruits; disinfect fruit with vinegar, hydrogen peroxide, or a chlorine solution; wrap tomatoes in newspaper or paper bags; and store them indoors, stacked no more than two deep. Temperatures between 55°–68°F degrees are ideal for storage. Contrary to popular ideas, tomatoes do not ripen faster on a windowsill. Tomatoes ripen the fastest in a warm, dark area. Avoid storing tomatoes in the refrigerator. It's too cold and will adversely affect the flavor.
Dehydrating: Washed whole, pierced cherry tomatoes or slices of large tomatoes can be dried down in six to eight hours in a food dehydrator or the oven at 150°F. Traditionally in Italy, sun-dried tomatoes are made by hanging plants outside to dry in the sun on hot tile roofs. You can try drying outdoors, too if your outdoor temperatures are at least 85°F. Lay a single layer of sliced tomatoes or whole pierced cherry tomatoes on a cookie sheet, and protect them from insects with a layer of cheesecloth. It will take two or three days to dry slices down (longer for whole, pierced cherry tomatoes), and they should be brought in during the night. Fully dried tomatoes will be dry, but pliable. Store in airtight jars.
Freezing: Whole, chopped, stewed, or sauced tomatoes can be stored in an airtight container or freezer bag for up to one year. If you would like to remove tomato skins before freezing drop whole tomatoes in boiling water for 30 seconds, remove from the boiling water, and plunge them immediately into a bowl of ice water. After at least 30 seconds, remove tomatoes from the ice water and slip the skins off.
Canning: Tomatoes are typically canned in sterilized glass jars and the water bath method. For safety, always use a research-based recipes and instructions adjusted for your altitude (USDA, canning equipment company and extension agencies are examples of resources for research-based instructions and recipes). Tomatoes are a low acid fruit and when canned incorrectly it is possible that they can foster bacteria that causes Botulism, a serious paralytic illness. While any tomato may be canned, 'paste tomatoes' like San Marzano, Speckled Roman, Italian Roma, and Supremo are meatier and make the best sauce. Think beyond sauce—tomato preserves like jam, chutney, and marmalade are also delicious, but again use a research-based recipe.
Sharing: During the last weeks of tomato harvest, consider sharing your excess harvest with friends, neighbors, and coworkers. Unlike the notorious giant zucchini, fresh tomatoes make wonderful gifts, especially when delivered in attractive baskets! They'll be so impressed with the flavor of your homegrown tomatoes that they might even be inspired to plant a few themselves next season.