It is early September in Maine. Our garden has peaked and is now overflowing like a bucket set beneath a drip which can’t fill fast enough early on, then suddenly becomes overwhelming. Above is the third mass tomato harvest from our garden, most of which are about to be canned in quart jars which will bring our total this summer to over 50 jars of tomatoes…so far!
We eat tomatoes with every meal these days, mostly sliced fresh with a sprinkle of salt and pepper and olive oil. It is an embarrassment of riches in many ways, and I hesitate before I describe this menu feature as “monotonous” because I know that in a few weeks I will pine for the flavor of homegrown sun-ripened heirloom tomatoes…so I won’t.
Still, WHAT TO DO with the steady spill of this wonderful but terribly temporal torrent??? The answer should have been obvious to me, someone who makes their living fermenting food, but it wasn’t until Alison came home from seeing Mr. Fermentation himself — Sandor Katz — speak at our local food Co-op and mentioned that Katz had described a new idea that had just been brought to him: fermenting fresh tomatoes to make an a tasty and shelf-stable conserva paste that from them in an ancient and time-tested manner.
All I needed was that one word — conserva — plus The Google to find out how I could do this.
The results are manifold —
- a huge amount of tomatoes can be reduced to less than 10% of what you start with, but the paste concentrates almost ALL of the flavor from that big batch;
- You can use the fermented juice that is a byproduct after the pulp is strained in any number of different recipes that call for tomato juice (Bloody Fermented Mary anyone?);
- You can also use this as a first step in saving tomato seeds!
- You wind up with concentrated paste that with just a small amount can truly add the amazing flavor of homegrown sun-ripened heirloom tomatoes to ANY dish;
- It’s shelf-stable at room temperature and uses no additional energy to process! No boiling, no heating, and no freezer space needed…
Here is how I’ve done it (click on the links above for other guides as well):
- Start with as many dead-ripe tomatoes as you can find that will not fill more than 4/5 of a fermenting vessel that you can first sterilize;
- Sterilize said vessel;
- Wash all tomatoes thoroughly with water;
- Squish each tomato thoroughly inside the vessel, either with a clean hand or with a clean blunt instrument, until you have rough chunks of tomatoes in liquid;
- Cover the fermentation vessel with a cloth or something that keeps flies out, but allows gas to escape;
- After a day or two you should notice bubbles escaping as you stir the pulp once or twice a day, and the resulting aroma should be a tangy (not funky) tomato smell. White mold on the top layer is desirable, but not necessary — stir that in if you see it;
- Depending on the temperature, strain the pulp after four or five days and increasing gas formation. Strain with any device (I use a simple food mill with the plate that has the smallest holes) that easily separates seeds and skins from pulp;
- (Seeds may be further fermented — if necessary — before straining them to dry and then re-plant next season)
- Pour strained pulp into a fine mesh cloth that can then be tied closed and hung above another sterilized vessel for 24 to drip dry;
- (Save this juice to use in cooking or consume directly if it stills smells tangy and nice!)
- Un-hang the cloth bundle and now set it up in a clean flat pan on top of a clean towel, place another clean flat pan on top and then add some weight (a big can of tomatoes would be appropriate!) to press it for a couple days, swapping out the towel as it wicks out the moisture;
- After a few days you should have a solid ball of paste which you can either dehydrate with low heat, or freeze it in 1 Tbsp portions, or mix in salt to preserve the fresh flavor. Traditionally you knead in 25% salt by weight of paste, but that’s a lot and you can start with as little as 10% to help preserve it at room temp — the salt will draw a bit more liquid out of the paste as well, but it should stabilize after a few days of additional squeeze-draining
- Store the salted paste in a ball in a clean and dry jar, or wrapped in wax paper;
- Use in recipes where ever tomato paste is called for, or get creative whenever a burst of tangy tomato flavor might be appreciated.