Sun-dried tomatoes are just what the name suggests: tomatoes that have been dried out under the sun, giving them a firm texture and unique sweet-tart flavor. They were a traditional staple in southern Italy when fresh tomatoes were not always available, and neither was refrigeration. Now, sun-dried tomatoes have traveled far beyond their birthplace and are becoming an extremely popular item in a wide variety of dishes, from soups and salads to pasta, pizza, and main courses of fish, meat, poultry, or vegetables. They can even make a quick snack all on their own. Learn all about this deliciously distinctive and versatile ingredient, including how to select them, how to store them, and, most importantly, how to use them in your culinary repertoire.
- Shelf life: 6 to 9 months in an unopened package
- Storage: Dry, in airtight plastic bags; or packed in jars with oil and other flavorings
- Flavor: Concentrated tomato and sweet-sour tartness
- Origin: Typical of southern Italian cuisine but extremely versatile
What Are Sun-Dried Tomatoes?
We naturally associate tomatoes with Italy, but they are not native. Tomatoes came to Italy from the New World in the 1500s and became an immediate sensation. They were dubbed pomi di oro (golden apples) and found an ideal habitat in the sunny southern part of the peninsula where sun-dried tomatoes as we know them originated. People picked ripe tomatoes, sliced them in half, sprinkled them with sea salt, and laid them out on mats or cloth under the intense sun until just about all of the moisture was eliminated. In this way, they could be stored for an extended period of time, providing a ready supply of tomatoes all year long.
Though most of us no longer need to sun-dry tomatoes in order to have them, this procedure transforms fresh tomatoes into something quite different, intensifying their flavor and tart acidity, and giving them an appealing chewy texture. Dried tomatoes can be rehydrated by marinating them in oil or vinegar, a variety of herbs and spices can be added, and they can be used in many different ways.
Sun-Dried Tomato Uses
While sun-dried tomatoes can be eaten on their own as a quick snack, they are used mostly as a condiment, and can add a distinctive, delicious element to a myriad of dishes. Put them on pizza, toss them with pasta, or mix them in a salad; serve them over sliced fresh mozzarella, as part of an antipasti selection, or on toasted bread. You can even cook with them. When you have sun-dried tomatoes in your kitchen, you will always find some new (or tried and true) way to use them.
How to Cook With Sun-Dried Tomatoes
Besides using them as a condiment or simply adding them to a dish, sun-dried tomatoes can also be used in cooking. They can be sliced or diced as part of a stir-fry, for example, or pureed to use in a soup, sauce, dressing, or savory flan. If using dry tomatoes, soak them briefly in hot water to soften, then rinse and pat dry. If using sun-dried tomatoes in oil, you might want to blot off excess oil. If, however, you are making an oil-based sauce or stir-fry or mayonnaise, you can use some of the sun-dried tomato oil to add extra flavor.
What Do Sun-Dried Tomatoes Taste Like?
Sun-dried tomatoes have a unique flavor that is both familiar and distinctive. The first sensation is of intensely concentrated tomato that becomes reminiscent of tomato paste but with a tart acidity that keeps it lively, and a pleasant leathery chewiness that makes it linger on the palate. These basic characteristics make sun-dried tomatoes a great foundation for additional flavorings and a truly "significant other" with most anything they are paired with.
Sun-Dried Tomato Recipes
You can use sun-dried tomatoes in just about anything. Once they're in your pantry, it's easy to create your own dishes incorporating sun-dried tomatoes in many different ways.
- Garlic Shrimp and Sun-Dried Tomatoes
- Artichoke and Sun-Dried Tomato Pasta
- Italian White Bean and Sun-Dried Tomato Soup
Where to Buy Sun-Dried Tomatoes
Sun-dried tomatoes can be found in most grocery stores, where they will usually be in the aisle with packaged herbs and spices or near the pasta section. They are also available in Italian specialty shops, gourmet food shops, and through many online purveyors. The big question then becomes what kind to buy.
Sun-dried tomatoes can be purchased in two basic forms: dry, in airtight plastic bags; or marinated in oil, with or without added flavorings, and packed in glass jars or plastic containers. Either option is fine, but buyer beware: Quality varies tremendously. For dry tomatoes, check the expiration date on the package and take a good look-feel to make sure they are not overly dried out, shriveled up, or hard. Regarding marinated options, while there are many excellent artisan-level sun-dried tomato products on the market, some of the more commercial manufacturers use inferior oil and flavorless flavorings.
A good (and more economical) alternative could be to buy high-quality sun-dried tomatoes and prepare them yourself. In addition to knowing exactly what is inside, this will allow you to explore and experiment with your favorite ingredients and create your own proprietary sun-dried tomato concoction. Make sure to use a good basic extra-virgin olive oil and add whatever flavorings you prefer. Here are some of the most popular ingredients:
- Red pepper
- Black pepper
- Anise seed
- Italian seasoning blend
Once you catch the sun-dried tomato bug, you may find yourself maintaining a number of different variations in your culinary arsenal. Do not worry—this is a good thing. Here are a few tips:
Keep a large stock of sun-dried tomatoes on hand: Stored properly, they keep the longest and are the most versatile. This will allow you to grab a handful as a quick snack, thinly slice a few to toss into a salad or sprinkle over soup, and experiment with new flavor combinations and marinating techniques. If you find you are going through a lot of tomatoes, consider buying a large bag or even bulk, and save some money.
Even if you already have dried tomatoes and marinated sun-dried tomatoes in your pantry, you may encounter an unusual marinated preparation on travels to other countries, visits to specialty food shops, or websites. Go ahead and get them: taste, compare, enjoy.
While most of us can get fresh tomatoes all year long, they unquestionably taste best during the summer season. There is a myriad of heirloom varieties in farmers markets and groceries—especially during the summer—and prices tend to go down at the peak of the season. You may even have a garden and already have a freezer full of tomato sauce. This fleeting seasonal abundance might inspire you to close the food production circle by making your own sun-dried tomatoes, either outdoors under the sun or in your kitchen, using a food dehydrator or right in your oven.
If you do decide to take the plunge, here are three important things to keep in mind:
- Whatever method you choose to use, drying tomatoes takes time.
- While most any variety can be used, small to medium-sized round or oval tomatoes work best.
- Twelve to 15 pounds (5.5 to 7 kilos) of fresh tomatoes will yield approximately one pound (.5 kilo) of dried tomatoes. Actual yield will depend on the tomatoes' size, ripeness, water content, and method of drying.
Seasoned sun-dried tomatoes can be packed in small zip-lock plastic bags or airtight plastic containers or glass jars, and refrigerated. Simply make up new batches as you need them.
Homemade dried tomatoes should be placed in an airtight bag or container and stored in the refrigerator or freezer for six to nine months. Make sure there is no moisture on the tomatoes before freezing to avoid freezer burn.
Unopened packages of commercially dried tomatoes will be fine without refrigeration for six to nine months, but you should refrigerate or freeze them after opening. Once they've been opened, try to use them within a couple of weeks.
When packing your own dried tomatoes in oil at home, be sure to keep them refrigerated, especially if adding fresh herbs or garlic. Once opened, oil-packed dried tomatoes should be kept refrigerated and used within two weeks.