The Dream of the '90s Is Alive in Sun-Dried Tomatoes

Roll your eyes all you you want, but like clunky-soled boots, Christian Slater films, and ripped fishnets, these 'maters transcend the haters.

Close-up of sun-dried tomatoes
Photo: Getty Images

If you'd asked 19-year-old me, in her secondhand combat boots, ripped fishnet tights, and paint-streaked thrift store dress, what food sat firmly spiked on the apex of sophistication, she'd probably tell you — with a snotty art-school eye roll — that it was sun-dried tomatoes. It was the early 1990s, and perhaps you might be lenient with me for the outfit and the attitude. But I'm not gonna apologize for loving the now-passé pantry item. Their flavor stands the test of time.

In short, sun-dried tomatoes are — as advertised — dried tomatoes, but the "sun" part may often be a bit of a fib. In their consummate incarnation, sun-dried tomatoes are Roma, San Marzano, or wee grape or cherry varieties that have been dehydrated by exposure to the glowing orb in the sky and a sprinkling of salt to draw out their moisture. Shield them with cheesecloth and drag them in at night to protect them from predators and weirdos, and after a few days their flavor will be gloriously concentrated into sweet little umami bombs. This, of course, is a crapshoot in our climate-wonky times, so many manufacturers turn to dehydrators or ovens instead. Those solutions yield a more consistent result in a shorter amount of time, which is key when demand is high, but can result in a texture that's chewy, leathery, and feels like a lotta jaw work. This may speak to the decline of their popularity after the initial mega-burst, but when sun-dried tomatoes are in their ideal form, the pleasure is a singular one.

01 of 04

Smoky Beans and Greens in Tomato Broth

Smoky Vegetarian Beans and Green Recipe
Photo by Jennifer Causey / Food Styling by Rishon Hanners / Prop Styling by Sarah Elizabeth Cleveland

This soul-satisfying bowl of beans and greens hits the spot on a night when you're low on time and energy and the fridge seems a bit bare. Smoked paprika adds a welcome hint of smokiness, while the combination of tomato paste and sun-dried tomatoes delivers an aromatic broth in record time.

Plenty of sauce has been spilled by hella smart people in stories — like Evan Kleiman's "Sun-dried tomatoes, the Mickey Rourke of food, get their second act" in the LA Times and Priya Krishna's practically forensic "What Ever Happened to Sun-Dried Tomatoes?" exploration for Taste — about how this age-old Mediterranean ingredient became almost comically ubiquitous on American restaurant menus and "gourmet" grocery store shelves in the '80s and well into the '90s. In short, as the legendary grocer Steven Jenkins told then-New York Times writer Mark Bittman, in 1979 he was walking through a market in Cannes, and noticed five-kilo tins of oil-preserved tomatoes from San Remo hanging from the ceiling. He called his boss, Giorgio DeLuca, and DeLuca's namesake New York shop became the first sun-dried tomato vendor in the United States. Within a couple years, the fooderati caught on.

What's all this I hear about sun-dried tomatoes?

The first mention I found in the New York Times archive was in a 1981 holiday gift guide wherein writer Marian Burros called sun-dried Ligurian-oil-packed tomatoes an "unusual item" that was included as part of a Dean & DeLuca gift bowl, and she invoked a take-home "fettucine a la salmone, the artichoke pasta spaghettini with sun-dried tomatoes and smoked salmon" dish from Balducci's in April that following year. By 1983, George DeLuca told the Washington Post writer Shelley Davis that he was suddenly selling 250 pounds of imported Italian dried tomatoes a week at a whopping $18 a pound, when 30 years prior, "Importers couldn't get them beyond being ethnic food."

In the same article, Washington D.C. store owner Suzanne Reifers chalked their popularity up to that sudden spate of media attention, telling Davis, "I've been selling them in my shop since it opened two and one-half years ago. Just recently people are coming in and saying, 'What's all this I hear about sun-dried tomatoes?'" They were getting an earful, and then took ravenous mouthfuls.

02 of 04

Broiled Ricotta with Olives and Sun-Dried-Tomato Relish

Broiled Ricotta with Olives and Sun-Dried-Tomato Relish
© Tina Rupp

Broiling ricotta intensifies its creaminess: It's ideal with both sweet and savory toppings. Here, Best New Chef Maria Helm Sinskey serves it on garlic toasts garnished with olives and a tangy sun-dried-tomato relish.

However, many people who are old enough to have been sentient diners in that era will now almost performatively enact disdain at the mere mention of sun-dried tomatoes, making some crack about goat cheese and pesto, espresso martinis (though—guess who's back!?), or molten lava cake. Those who were not, like Epicurious' Emily Johnson (also hella smart), might call a sun-dried tomato and pesto torta an "old weirdo" and "something their parents would have served at a fancy cocktail party when they were a kid." As early as 1993, Taste of Home magazine launched with a pledge to readers that "It's down-home and practical — its recipes call for ingredients most cooks readily have on hand. You won't have to run to a specialty food store for goat cheese and sun-dried tomatoes … and that's a promise!" And a quick Twitter search of "90s" and "sun-dried tomatoes" yields gems like "The sun-dried tomato invasion of the 90s was a blight." "The '90s were so stale we got excited about sun-dried tomato as a flavoring." "Wow! When everyone's tastes sucks. Like the 90s sun-dried tomato craze." Way harsh, Tai.

I was nowhere near fancy in the age of peak SDT and am still no one's cocktail-party-throwing parent, all these decades later. But the fact that a broke-ass Baltimore college kid at a neighborhood cafe in the pre-internet age somehow knew that a brick-hued sun-dried tomato bagel with a tomato-and-pesto-schmear was the crème de la cream cheese says something about the food's massive appeal. They were everywhere: the schmancy restaurants where I pored over the menus in the windows but could never even dream of dining, and the pages of the local paper — the Baltimore Sun — which ran an article titled "Make your own sun-dried tomatoes as gourmet treat." They even made it into my beloved Spy magazine's satirical Nouvelle-O-Matic chart (which I tore out and brought with me to school because I was that pretentious) that compiled culinary buzzwords into columns allowing the reader to mentally concoct dishes like "warm salad of monkfish grilled over mesquite with a sauce of raspberry vinegar and sun-dried tomatoes garnished with Cajun popcorn." They were pounded into pesto, ground into waxen sandwich wraps to be folded around even more tomatoes, baked into and smeared upon bagels, extruded into pasta noodles and chopped on top. As cookbook author David Lebovitz noted in a 2020 post about the throwback pleasures of sun-dried tomato pesto, "As a California restaurant cook in the '80s and '90s, I've seen more than my share of sun-dried tomatoes." Lucky him — I could never, ever, ever get my fill.

You don't see people getting all snide about olive oil, cinnamon, black pepper, butter, honey, or dill pickles.

That's not to say I haven't tried. Here's a smattering of recipes with "sun-dried tomato" or "dried tomato" or "pumate" (the Italian word for sun-dried tomato) in the title that I found on my cookbook shelves in a search, partially via Eat Your Books. (Hot tip: the indexing service lets you log a library of the cookbooks you own. You can query for ingredients and recipes so you don't have to pull every book off the shelf. Though I may have.) A few standouts include Sun-Dried Tomatoes En Papillote and Shrimp with Vermouth and Sun-Dried Tomatoes from the 1986 edition of The Best of Food & Wine, Richard Simmons' frolicsome Windy City Sun-Dried Tomato Pesto and Ricotta Torta from Farewell to Fat Cookbook a decade later. The Clinton Presidential Center Cookbook came bearing Patricia Morrow's Brie with Sun-Dried Tomatoes in 2003, Grant Achatz worked his Alinea cookbook wizardry on Niçoise Olive, Dried Tomato, Arugula in 2008, and Priya Krishna and her mother Ritu got Indian-ish in 2019 by way of Sun-dried Tomato, Chile, and Garlic Dip. (And scroll down for the full list of recipes from a span of 35 years. It's too amusing not to include.)

Frankly, I'm gobsmacked that my copy of In the Kitchen with Miss Piggy: Fabulous Recipes from My Famous Celebrity Friends (1996) was devoid of a single mention of SDT, but I remain ravenously curious about the recipes included for Cheryl Tiegs' Borscht, Ivana Trump's Beef Goulash, and Barbara Bush's Bologna for a Cocktail Buffet. That's beside the point, which is: sun-dried tomatoes are deeply delicious and have been for a long damn time, since decades if not centuries before they started showing up in mainstream American cookbooks, newspapers, and food magazines or fussy "gourmet" stores. Their positive attributes did not expire along with their It-ingredient status, so why is it that they're the object of so much vocal derision? You don't see people getting all snide about olive oil, cinnamon, black pepper, butter, honey, or dill pickles. Is it because they've always been repertory players and sun-dried tomatoes had the chutzpah to make it onto the marquee? Dunno. As a relic of that era myself, I take it strangely personally. Food fashions vex me, but it might be in the same way that clothing fashions do. Wear a pair of "classic" Levis and a white t-shirt and you're timeless. Add a distinctive accessory, alter the fit ever so slightly, roll the cuffs an inch in the wrong direction, and suddenly to some onlookers, you're dated, out of touch, maybe even a little pathetic — even if you know you look damn good in the mirror.

But much like my beloved boots and fishnets, I have a feeling that sun-dried tomatoes will be stomping back into favor. It'll be fueled by the '90s nostalgia of those of us who lived it, as well as my peers' children, devoid of cultural baggage, who have dug into their parents' closets to haul out clunky Steve Madden sandals, plaid flannel, and grunge CDs. Perhaps the two generations may find accord on the couch together watching Pump Up the Volume (available streaming for the first time since its 1990 release and I'm here you to tell you: it holds up) or Yellowjackets while attempting to explain pirate radio, mix tapes, and the enduring appeal of Juliette Lewis' eyeliner stylings. The elder set may be digging into a bowl of orzo with goat cheese and sun-dried tomato pesto and jonesing for a Jolt Cola, while the younger gnaws on "tomato jerky"—no, seriously, that's how it's being marketed now by Bella Sun Lucia, one of the original domestic producers of sun-dried tomatoes—or savors vegan greens where sun-dried tomatoes and smoked paprika stand in for the traditional turkey neck or ham hock. But they can both agree on one thing: Christian Slater remains a stone-cold fox. OK, that and the fact that trends may come and go, but sooner or later, this 'mater will once again find its place in the sun.

03 of 04

Sun-Dried-Tomato and Pesto Risotto

Sun-Dried-Tomato and Pesto Risotto
© Evi Abeler

Even if the sun-dried tomatoes are dry-packed, there's no need to soak them before adding them to the risotto; the simmering broth will reconstitute them as the rice cooks. The pesto, along with the tomatoes, makes this an especially flavorful dish.

A few tips for getting the best from your sun-dried tomatoes:

Reconstitute non-oil-packed tomatoes by letting them sit in hot water for about half an hour, then covering them with olive oil — ideally Ligurian — to help reduce the chewiness.

Let that oil infuse to a rich orange over the course of a few days, and use it (or the oil from packed tomatoes) to add flavor to dressings, marinades, pesto, spreads, pasta, and more. For safety, heat the mixture to 165°F in a saucepan, let it cool, and keep it in the refrigerator for up to a month.

Simmer sun-dried tomatoes in water to form the base of a savory broth for soups, stews, risotto, or rice.

Pulse sun-dried tomatoes in a food processor with salt until there are no big chunks left, and season everything with it.

Make some goshdarned pesto with it and live the dream of the '90s. Here's a recipe.

04 of 04

Sun-Dried Tomato and Arugula Pizza

Sun-Dried Tomato and Arugula Pizza. Photo © Ingalls Photography
© Ingalls Photography

The secret to this crispy pizza: giving the dough lots of time to rise so it's pliant enough to stretch very thin.At Medlock Ames's tasting room, general manager and cook Kenny Rochford offers ultracrispy pizzas for free on weekend afternoons.

35 years of sun-dried tomato recipes currently on my bookshelves:

The Best of Food & Wine (1986) by The Editors of Food & Wine: Grilled Veal with Sun-Dried Tomatoes, Olives, and Sage; Potatoes and Sun-Dried Tomatoes En Papillote; Shrimp with Vermouth and Sun-Dried Tomatoes; Stir-Fry of Pork, Fennel, Spinach, and Sun-Dried Tomatoes

The Best of Food & Wine (1988) by The Editors of Food & Wine: Chicken Breast Stuffed with Goat Cheese and Sun-Dried Tomatoes; Pumate Spread with Ricotta Cheese; Veal Steaks with Sun-Dried Tomato Sauce

The Best of Food & Wine (1990) (exclusive gift edition from Benson & Hedges) by The Editors of Food & Wine: Zucchini and Sun-Dried Tomato Pizza

The Best of Food & Wine (1991) by The Editors of Food & Wine: Orzo with Roasted Peppers and Dried Tomatoes; Pasta with Shrimp, Arugula and Sun-Dried Tomatoes

The Best of Food & Wine (1993) by The Editors of Food & Wine: Sun-Dried Tomato Butter

America's Best Recipes—a 1994 Hometown Collection (1994) by Oxmoor House: Sun-Dried Tomato and Roasted Red Pepper Dip; Sun-Dried Tomato Pesto

The Best of Food & Wine (1995) by The Editors of Food & Wine: Fettuccine with Radicchio and Sun-Dried Tomatoes; Fried Rice with Pork and Sun-Dried Tomatoes; Goat Cheese, Walnut, and Sun-Dried Tomato Spread

Richard Simmons Farewell to Fat Cookbook (1996) by Richard Simmons: Windy City Sun-Dried Tomato Pesto and Ricotta Torta

Joy of Cooking (1997) by Irma S. Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker, and Ethan Becker: Boneless, Skinless Chicken Breasts Baked in Foil with Sun-Dried Tomatoes and Olives; Sun-Dried Tomato Sauce; Sun-Dried Tomato Dressing; Rice Salad with Sun-Dried Tomatoes; Chicken, Black Olive, and Sun-Dried Tomato Calzone; Grilled Eggplant, Mushrooms, and Sun-Dried Tomatoes Pizza; Olive and Sun-Dried Tomato Pan Sauce

Staff Meals from Chanterelle (2000) by David Waltuck and Andrew Friedman: Cheese Tortellini with Sun-Dried Tomato Cream

The Clinton Presidential Center Cookbook (2003): Patricia Morrow's Brie with Sun-Dried Tomatoes

Preserved (2004) by Nick Sandler and Johnny Acton: Sun-Dried Tomato Soup with Tapenade; Sun-Dried Tomato Paste

Joy of Cooking (2006) by Irma S. Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker, and Ethan Becker: Pizza with Grilled Eggplant, Mushrooms, and Sun-Dried Tomatoes; Miniature Turnovers with Sun-Dried Tomatoes and Pesto

How to Cook a Turkey: And All the Other Trimmings (2007) by Fine Cooking Magazine: Goat Cheese, Pesto, and Sun-Dried Tomato Terrine; Baked Rotini with Turkey, Asparagus, and Sun-Dried Tomatoes

Skinny Bitch in the Kitch': Kick-Ass Recipes for Hungry Girls Who Want to Stop Cooking Crap (and Start Looking Hot!) (2008) by Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin: Linguini with Pesto, Pine Nuts, and Sun-Dried Tomatoes

Chanterelle: The Story and Recipes of a Restaurant Classic (2008) by David Waltuck and Andrew Friedman:: Beef Rib-Eye with Sun-Dried Tomato Coulis, Chiles & a Drizzle of Goat Cheese Cream

The Food You Crave: Luscious Recipes for a Healthy Life (2008) by Ellie Krieger: Portobello Panini with Gorgonzola and Sun-Dried Tomatoes

Alinea (2008) by Grant Achatz: Sardine, Niçoise Olive, Dried Tomato, Arugula

Olives and Oranges: Recipes and Flavor Secrets from Spain, Italy, Cyprus, & Beyond (2008) by Sara Jenkins and Mindy Fox: Monkfish with Olives, Potatoes, and Sun-Dried Tomatoes

Food & Wine Annual Cookbook 2009: An Entire Year of Recipes (2009) by Food & Wine Magazine: Sun-Dried Tomato Flans with Arugula Salad; Broiled Ricotta with Olives and Sun-Dried-Tomato Relish;

Jamie's Food Revolution: Rediscover How to Cook Simple, Delicious, Affordable Meals (2009) by Jamie Oliver: Black Olive, Sun-Dried Tomato, and Celery Dip

How to Cook Everything, Completely Revised 10th Anniversary Edition: 2,000 Simple Recipes for Great Food (2009) by Mark Bittman: Chicken Cutlets with Broccoli and Sun-Dried Tomatoes in Packages

New American Table (2009) by Marcus Samuelsson: Sun-Dried Tomato Bread

Gourmet Today: More than 1,000 All-New Recipes for the Contemporary Kitchen (2009) by Ruth Reichl: Sun-Dried Tomato Dip

The America's Test Kitchen Healthy Family Cookbook: A New, Healthier Way to Cook Everything from America's Most Trusted Test Kitchen (2010): by America's Test Kitchen Editors: Pizza with Garlicky Broccoli, and Sun-Dried Tomatoes; Healthy Scrambled Eggs with Goat Cheese, Sun-Dried Tomatoes, and Oregano; Breakfast Strata with Sun-Dried Tomatoes and Goat Cheese; Pasta Salad with Arugula and Sun-Dried Tomatoes; Sun-Dried Tomato Relish; Sun-Dried Tomato Pesto; Whole-Wheat Dinner Rolls with Sun-Dried Tomatoes and Parmesan; Lowfat Cheese Bread with Sun-Dried Tomatoes and Garlic

Cooking Light Way to Cook: The Complete Visual Guide to Everyday Cooking (2010) by Cooking Light Magazine: Little Italy Chicken Pitas with Sun-Dried Tomato Vinaigrette

Heart & Soul in the Kitchen (2015) by Jacques Pepin: Corn and Shallots with Sun-Dried Tomatoes

The Family Table: Recipes and Moments from a Nomadic Life (2018) by Jazz Smollett-Warwell, Jake Smollett, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, and Jussie Smollett: Sun-Dried Tomato-Shallot Butter

Indian-ish: Recipes and Antics from a Modern American Family (2019) by Priya Krishna and Ritu Krishna: Sun-Dried Tomato, Chile, and Garlic Dip

Joy of Cooking, Revised and Updated (2019) by Irma S. Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker, Ethan Becker, Megan Scott, and John Becker: Millet Cakes with Parmesan and Sun-Dried Tomatoes; Sun-Dried Tomato Pesto

Vegetable Kingdom: The Abundant World of Vegan Recipes (2020) by Bryant Terry: Sun-Dried Tomato Broth

Cheryl Day's Treasury of Southern Baking (2021) by Cheryl Day: Sun-Dried Tomato-Parmesan Scones

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles