When Life in the Garden Gives You Tomatoes…

The end of the growing season can get a little depressing. Ours usually comes suddenly, and this year was no exception. The weather turned cool, cloudy and damp. It was time to start garden cleanup and final harvests. A week earlier, we made homemade margherita pizza with some of our last fresh tomatoes and basil. But time was running out for fresh tomatoes (and pizza, darn it).

homemade margherita pizza
Homemade crust brushed with olive oil and crushed garlic. Top it with shredded and fresh mozzarella, fresh tomato slices and basil to make an easy and delicious margherita pizza

A couple of our tomato plants still were covered in fruit. But most of the fruit was not quite ripe. And tomatoes need temperatures of about 68 to 77 degrees to ripen. Our high the other day was lower than 68!

cloudy skies
We haven’t seen the mountains hidden in those clouds for days.

So, I grabbed my garden trug tub (a favorite gift from my daughter via Gardeners Supply) and set about gathering all the tomatoes I could before the weather turned. Most of the tomatoes left were snack-sized, between cherry and cocktail. And they were in varying states of ripeness. It really was a fun activity, and a good way to end the growing season.

tomato harvest
A tub full of tomatoes at varying ripeness.

Sort and Save

So, my next task was to sort the fruit I had gathered. Green and semi-green tomatoes went on a plate in a sunny window to finish ripening. Softer and ready-to-eat fruit went on the plate I keep on the kitchen counter all season so we can eat them soon. A few had holes or other problems; they went to trash or compost.

sorting and saving last tomato harvest
Left: tomatoes to ripen on windowsill. Right: tomatoes for immediate enjoyment Back: tomatoes ready to preserve in delicious sauce.

Finally, I collected all that were ripe, nearly ripe and even a little soft to make sauce. I then modified a recipe from my canning book, changing it to use what I had in my pantry and to more closely match the homemade sauce I make from canned tomatoes. You can do the same or turn to a site such as the National Center for Home Food Preservation or your local cooperative extension office.

fresh tomatoes in sauce
Sauce from fresh tomatoes cooking down for freezing.

A Few Tips

  • It’s essential to wash all tomatoes you preserve and check them for signs of damage, disease or pests.
  • After washing, we cut the fruit in half, removed the stem scar and scooped out the core and seeds. We didn’t bother to blanch and peel because our tomatoes were so small. This activity was a little messy but fun.
  • Preserved sauce needs a balance of sugar and vinegar (or lemon juice) to preserve the fruit and flavor. We also added chopped onions and celery, Italian spices and garlic.
  • Fresh tomatoes don’t always form the thick, pasty sort of sauce you get from recipes using canned. I cooked mine a little longer than suggested (about 45 minutes once tomatoes were added) to adjust for altitude, better loosen the peels and soak up flavor. If desired, you can add some sauce or paste when you use the sauce later, but not so much you disguise the fresh tomato flavor. I took my immersion blender and pulsed the cooked sauce. The blender also picked up some of the peels, making the sauce a bit smoother.
  • I chose to freeze my sauce. To do so, be sure to cool your sauce and place it in plastic containers (not bags). The reusable sealed containers from the store would work great. Be aware that some of the spices in a sauce lose their flavor after freezing. However, we already ate one batch of frozen sauce and it was delicious.
  • Frozen tomatoes in any form become mushy, so they’ll only be good for sauces, soups or stews. They typically keep about eight months in the freezer.

I’m so glad we took the time to use as many tomatoes from our garden as possible. And I wish we had tomatoes year-round because this is my new favorite sauce!