Make your own sun-dried tomatoes as gourmet treat


Just when it gets hot enough to melt bullets, tomatoes come into their prime. From beefsteaks and Porters to baby reds and yellows, the crop pours into farmers markets by the bushelful in July and August.

Sun-drying tomatoes is an easy, economical way to take advantage of the season's low prices and peak flavor. You can also dry tomatoes in the oven.

Either way, you'll have made a versatile gourmet treat for a fraction of the store-bought cost, which can be as much as $16 a pound. Homemade sun-dried can cost as little as $1.25 a pound.

"It's really quite simple," says Michael Harrel, a recreational cook who lives in Dallas, Texas. "You just slice 'em, set 'em out and let 'em dry."

Intensely flavorful, like dried apricots or raisins, dried tomatoes add snap to a number of dishes, from salads to tomato-cheese bread. They can also be dampened and placed whole on sandwiches, like fresh tomatoes.

Mr. Harrel makes marinated sun-dried tomatoes by packing his in jars with garlic, herbs and olive oil.

The beauty of drying tomatoes is there's almost no wrong way to do it.

"A lot of people dry them to where they're pliable, like dried peaches or apricots," says Nikki Goldbeck, who lives in Woodstock, N.Y. Along with her husband David, she has written several vegetarian cookbooks including "American Wholefoods Cuisine" (Plume, 1983).

Any variety or size of fresh tomato works. The riper they are, the sweeter the dried tomatoes will be, although sometimes the variety also contributes to sweetness. "Cherry tomatoes are extremely sweet when you dry them," Ms. Goldbeck says. But avoid overripe tomatoes, she advises; they take too long to dry.

You can gauge ripeness by the way tomatoes look, feel and smell. The redder they are, the riper they are. When you cup a ripe tomato in the palm of your hand and squeeze gently, it will give just a little.

And trust your nose, Mr. Harrel says. "I just walk along and smell them until I find the one that's got the most aroma."

You'll need a lot of tomatoes. Mr. Harrel figures he used eight medium-sized tomatoes for every pint of marinated sun-drieds. A 25-pound box, which can range from 40 large tomatoes to 100 small ones, would yield 3 to 5 pounds of plain dried tomatoes.

"You can buy them for $5 to $7 a box," says Mr. Harrel, "and we're talking 40 to 50 tomatoes."

Once home, the tomatoes should be thoroughly washed and stemmed. Few cooks peel or seed them, although in his book, "Tomatoes" (Clarkson Potter, $14), Lee Bailey suggests halving them and scooping out the seeds with your fingers.

To speed the drying time, Mr. Harrel suggests salting the tomatoes. Let them sit about 30 minutes, then rinse the salt off.

He picks a hot, sunny day and puts the tomatoes on sheets of foil on his balcony.

Although Mr. Harrel says he's never had a problem with insects or birds, Ms. Goldbeck suggests covering the tomatoes with cheesecloth.

She also suggests turning the tomatoes several times to ensure even drying. Then wait. They might be dry enough in six or eight hours -- or 16 to 18.

"When are they done? It's a very individual thing," she says.

You can dry them in the oven.

In his book, Mr. Bailey suggests setting your oven at its lowest temperature -- below 200 degrees -- and allowing them to dry for 12 to 15 hours. "I usually put them in when I go to bed and let them go all night," he writes. Ovens vary, but you're striving for a temperature warm enough to dry the tomatoes without cooking them. In some gas ovens, for instance, the pilot light might be enough to maintain heat over several hours once the oven is preheated.

Once the tomatoes are completely dry, Ms. Goldbeck stores them in jars in a cool pantry.

Mr. Harrel calls his sun-dried tomatoes done when they're still a little soft. He marinates them in pint jars with olive oil, minced garlic and basil, although he says you could use any herb -- fresh or dry rosemary, sorrel, oregano or tarragon.

A word of caution: Don't store jars of marinated dried tomatoes in the pantry -- unless you add vinegar -- because of the risk of food poisoning. Add three tablespoons of vinegar per pint to kill botulism spores.

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