Intense flavor is reason enough to roast

Roasting Summer Tomatoes

by Susie Middleton

Roasting Summer Tomatoes

Susie Middleton

First, there’s tomato lust. Tongues wagging, we stare longingly at the little yellow flowers on our tomato plants, waiting not-so-patiently for the little green orbs to appear. And finally one day, one hot evening, just around dusk, we pick our first shiny red fruit, knowing what delicious juiciness lurks inside it. For weeks after, we slice and salt and sandwich and saladify those juicy fruits every which way we can. But inevitably, there comes that late August day when we realize we’re in deep. Too many tomatoes. Like Lucille Ball trying to eat the chocolates on the conveyor belt at the chocolate factory, we can’t eat ripe tomatoes fast enough. What to do.

Let’s say, for the sake of simplicity, that we haven’t yet turned our kitchens into the ultimate canning stations. The freezer is a more accessible way of preserving for us right now. “Freezing” and “tomatoes”—sounds like a bad combination, doesn’t it? Not if you roast those tomatoes first. Roasting evaporates moisture and reduces the tomato juices and flesh to an intensely concentrated flavor and texture. I must warn you though, roasted tomatoes are so ridiculously delicious that you may not want to freeze them. That’s okay, because they also keep in the fridge for a week or more, and they’re incredibly versatile ingredients. If you don’t wind up snacking on them all, you can use them as side dishes, crostini toppings, sandwich fillings, antipasto and more.

The best way to roast tomatoes is slowly, in a moderate oven. Long gentle heat gives the tomatoes time to release moisture. Too fast, and the outsides would get too brown or blacken before enough moisture has escaped. While water evaporates, the essence of the tomato—its juices and its flesh—reduce to a deeply flavorful state. Treating the tomatoes to a luxurious bath of olive oil before roasting also helps them along. As moisture evaporates, oil enters cells and helps to “confit” or preserve the tomato flesh, giving it an unctuous texture. (Do not be confused—these are not oven-dried tomatoes; they do not dry out.) The tomatoes will shed much of the extra oil after cooking, leaving you with the bonus of a delicious tomato oil to use in vinaigrettes and on grilled bread.

In addition to extra-virgin olive oil, I like to season the tomatoes with just a few drops of balsamic vinegar, a little sugar or honey, a bit of salt, a few paper-thin slices of garlic, and small hearty herb leaves like thyme or oregano. I always use a rimmed, heavy-duty sheet pan lined with parchment paper, and I spread the tomatoes in one layer so they have just a bit of breathing room. If you don’t have a rimmed sheet pan, you can try the tomatoes in shallow baking dishes. The cooking time and final texture will be slightly different, but they will still be good.

You can roast any kind of tomato, but I particularly like the deep, caramelized flavor and the meaty heft and body of ripe, juicy beefsteak tomatoes that have been slow-roasted. Locally grown heirloom tomatoes—in all the colors of summer—are fun to roast. That said, roasting will also transform an ordinary grocery store tomato and those pallid pink plum tomatoes into something wonderful.