Sun-dried tomatoes are a wonderful ingredient to keep in your pantry.
Drying tomatoes in the summertime is an ancient tradition in Italy, especially in the southern regions of Puglia, Sicily and Calabria, and was a way to preserve tomatoes to enjoy them year-round. Italians would gather plum tomatoes from the garden and arrange them on their rooftops to capture the intense summer sun. The result is sundried tomatoes, pomodori secchi, with an intensified sweet and tart flavor. During the drying process, the acidity of the fresh tomatoes is reduced, and they take on a darker color and chewy texture.
In the summertime, when fresh tomatoes are abundant in my garden, I like to make my own sundried tomatoes. It is quite easy, and I encourage you to try it at home. I like to make them the Italian-way, by leaving cut tomatoes in the sun for several days. Another way to dry your tomatoes is to place them on a baking sheet in the oven at a low temperature, such as 250 degrees F for a few hours, or use a food dehydrator.
For those shopping for sun-dried tomatoes in the supermarket, you will find them either packed in olive oil or simply dry. Oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes come in glass jars and are submerged in extra-virgin olive oil. This kind, which is typical of Southern Italy, is what I personally use in my kitchen. They are sold as whole tomatoes, julienned into strips or chopped. American supermarkets also offer sun-dried tomatoes with oil, herbs or spices. I always drain the oil before using, while making sure the remaining tomatoes in the jar are still covered in oil. Do not discard the oil! It has a wonderful flavor that can be used for sautéing and in a salad dressing. Once the jar has been opened, it should be stored in the refrigerator. Dry-packed sun-dried tomatoes are another variety. Their chewier texture and tougher skins make them very similar to dried fruit.
In Italy, sun-dried tomatoes are eaten as part of an antipasto or on toasted bread. They are also perfect in pasta sauces, salads, and on pizzas. I like to use them whole or sliced, and sometimes I purée them. You can make a sun-dried tomato pesto with drained, oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes, as well as a complex and flavorful marinade for meats.