The tomato that we are all familiar with is not one designed by nature, but rather one that has been conditioned by the convenience of the modern supermarket and the fast food industry. This tomato is always red, hard to the touch, whitish pink on the inside, remains firm and dry after cutting through it, and lacks any significant flavor and aroma. All of these attributes are indicators of a tomato that has been mass produced, harvested quite unripe and green, ripened with supplemental ethylene and potenially travelled hundreds of miles to the place where you bought it. While this might ensure that your tomato survives its long and unnatural journey, a great tomato it does not make.
Fresh, local tomatoes are a seasonal treat that we are blessed with for just a few months out of the year. There are dozens upon dozens of heirloom varieties to choose from, each one with its own distinct flavor and color profile. When choosing any fresh tomatoes at the market or picking your own home-grown ones, the tomato should be unusually heavy, which indicates its ripeness, but still slightly firm to the touch. A tomato that is too firm and seemingly too light for its size is generally an indication of under-ripeness. Cutting it open should reveal beautiful colors streaking through the ripe flesh and the aroma should be intense. Tomatoes at this stage of ripeness will be the ones that will make the most amazing tomato juice or tomato water for use in drinks.
Color and Cut Count
Making tomato juice by pureeing the tomatoes, multi-colored varieties like the Purple Cherokee are not ideal because, while they are delicious to eat, the pureeing process will yield a brownish, mud-like juice. Mono-colored heirloom tomatoes that are pure red, orange, or yellow are best, as they will retain their singular vibrant color even after they are pulverized in a blender. If you are making just tomato water, this rule doesn’t apply as virtually all color will be filtered out.
Whether you are making tomato water or tomato juice, the process starts the same way. Carefully cut out the hard part closest to the stem with a pairing knife and then coarsely chop the rest of the tomato into smaller pieces that will fit in your blender. Unlike making your own pasta sauce from scratch, it is perfectly fine to keep the tomato skins, seeds and watery matter for your juice. Puree the tomato pieces briefly until they can be passed though a chinois or fine-mesh strainer. Use a ladle or large spoon to get as much of the tomato puree through the strainer as possible.
With your fresh tomato juice ready, it is now time to salt it. I always use Kosher Salt because it is less intense than table salt and is easily picked up in small pinches. A good rule of thumb for salting is about two to three pinches per quart. I would always suggest under-salting a bit as you can always add more salt to taste when assembling your cocktail later.
To make tomato water, set about eight layers of cheesecloth—a clean chef’s apron also works—over your chinois or fine mesh strainer. Then set this apparatus over a large plastic or glass receptacle that can fit into your refrigerator and sit for several hours or overnight. Pour your unsalted tomato juice into the cheesecloth and observe how much liquid is dripping out from the bottom. You want no more than about three drops every ten seconds. The liquid should be almost perfectly clear with just a slight hue of the tomato juice’s color.
If the liquid is passing through too quickly, there will be opaque bits of tomato in the drops and you’ll want to add more cheesecloth to slow down the rate at which it is passing. Obviously, this process takes many hours so I’ll usually just place the whole contraption in my refrigerator overnight. Just make sure that there is nothing that is intensely aromatic in your fridge that might affect the flavor of your tomato liquid, such as fish, curry, etc., and you can always wrap it all up with a large garbage bag. Once the intensely flavored tomato water is ready, carefully salt it as you would with tomato juice.
When experimenting on your own, consider other tomato flavor combinations that you’ve found in cuisine, herbs like oregano and parsley, fruits like watermelon and lime, or vegetables like garlic and roasted peppers. And don’t be tempted to buy those conventional hothouse tomatoes when the fresh, local ones disappear in the fall. Now that you’ve tasted the real thing, you know they just don’t compare.