Sunday, September 5th, 2010

Tomato Canning 101

DSC_0238I’ve been asked about canning tomatoes so I thought I’d write up a closer look at how I did it.  In a lot of ways I think jams are easier but tomatoes are in season so I’ll start here and move back to jams and jellies in a week or two.  Just in time for my case of concords!

Step 1-Getting Started

Canning isn’t hard but deciding to take the plunge is definitely the easy part. I only have some basic supplies.  First, a big pot.  When I first started, I used my biggest soup pot.  I’ve since “upgraded” to two 16 quart stock pots that I bought at Kmart 5 or 6 years ago.  I usually only use one but if I’m going to end up with more than 6 or 7 jars two pots are a must for me.  I don’t want to spend all night processing jars.

It’s pretty easy to find a canning kit to round out your supplies but you can get by without in a pinch.  I find jar tongs (if you don’t have these you can wrap rubber bands around the ends of regular ones I hear), a funnel (although not for this project) and a lid lifter to be indispensable.  A rack is probably not a bad idea but I don’t use one.  I just push a clean kitchen towel down to the bottom of the pot and set the jars down on top of it.

You’ll also need jars and lids.  If you’re starting from scratch the jars you buy will come with the lids and bands you’ll need.  I always buy more than I think I’ll need because I can’t think of anything worse than running out midstream.  You can guestimate how many jars you’ll need by looking at your recipe’s yield.  Though I always seem to come out with a little more than I’m supposed to.

The jar aisle will have a at least a couple of different sizes to choose from.  You’ll probably find 1/2 pints, pints and quarts in both regular and wide mouth.  The type of jar you choose will depend on what you’re canning.  For tomatoes, a widemouth jar in either a pint or a quart size is a good choice.  I chose to do mostly pints because it’s closest to the size of the cans that I usually buy from the grocery store.  Even though I bought a whole box of new jars I had so many tomatoes that I ended up having to make do with some regular mouth jars and some old spaghetti sauce jars that I found in the basement.  Shoving tomatoes down those narrow necks wasn’t easy so plan accordingly.

Walmart seems to universally carry canning supplies.  Locally you can find all of the supplies you’ll need at Ace Hardware in Waverly.  I can’t say if all Ace Hardware’s stock canning supplies but they seem like the type of place that might.  I can’t tell you how awesome it is that they do here though because now I don’t have to trek out to Walmart which is the only other place I’ve found them.  Go Ace!  They have pots and everything.  Not only that but you can go the farmer’s market and then just run across the street to the hardware store.

Right, so about the market.  That’s where I found my tomatoes.  I had to ask around a bit.  I started with the vendors that would recognize my face.  I was looking for seconds, tomatoes that have some imperfections, because I wanted to keep the cost down but didn’t have any luck.  When I didn’t have any luck there I branched out to other vendors who looked like they had nice tomatoes and enough of them.  I ended up at One Straw and paid $25 for the case which was described to me as weighing about 40lbs.

Tomatoes are in season as I write this and there are tons of different varieties.  I like Roma tomatoes because they’re fleshy and make good sauce which is chiefly what I use tomatoes for.  Recipes will usually suggest a tomato.  I think Roma’s are best for sauce and paste but use any old ripe tomato for salsa.

One last word on tomatoes.   That’s about 40lbs not to mention the big plastic case they come in.  So when the guy tells you that he’ll take them to your car for you… well, you should be able to tell him where your car is.  Because you will be slightly embarrassed when you specifically ask for a large quantity of tomatoes but have no way to get them home.  You cannot walk home with them and your corn and your watermelon.  It’s not going to happen.  You will not be able to perch them atop the sunshade on your stroller.  In fact, you will barely be able to stumble with them halfway down the block from where the guy brought them out for you to where your good for nothing husband moved the car.  Just FYI.

Step 2-Preparing the fruit

Fruit is temperamental.  Once I handed over the money it was a race against the clock.  In hindsight, buying seconds would have been a complete disaster.  The tomatoes would have been rotten long before I ever got to them.  40lbs is a commitment it took me almost 24 hours to get all of them ready for packing.

The tomatoes I bought were under-ripe by a day or two.  I think this is ideal because it allows for a leettle tiny bit of flexibility and the flesh is still firm when it’s time for peeling and packing.  Ideally my tomatoes wouldn’t see the inside of the fridge but I wasn’t staying up all night blanching and peeling tomatoes so into the fridge it was.

I set a big pot of water to boil on the stove and set up an ice water bath in a big pyrex bowl.  I worked with a colander-full of tomatoes at a time.  I used a pairing knife to make a small x in the skin on the bottom of each tomato.  Then I put about 5 at a time into the pot of boiling water.  Most recipes say you should do one a time, but honestly.  Each tomato was in the water for between 15 and 30 seconds.  Then straight into the ice water.  After the ice bath I used the pairing knife to pull the skin off and core the tomatoes and put them straight into a clean bowl.  When the bowl was full I covered it with plastic wrap and put it in the fridge.

I did as much as I could the first night and went to bed.  I guess I got through about half.  The other half I did over the course of the next day whenever I got the chance.  I did the last bowlful in front of the tv with my vegetable peeler while Caillou was on and that worked perfectly fine too.

If you are going to put your tomatoes in the fridge remember to bring them back to room temperature before moving on to packing your jars.

Step 3- Preparing and filling the jars

Before you can pack the jars they have to be cleaned.  I prepare my jars by running them through the dishwasher.  They get superhot in there and it’s dead easy.  The jars should be hot when you start to pack.  I usually set my pot to boil around the same time that I run my jars through the dishwasher.  You need enough water to cover the jars by an inch or two.  The jars will displace some water and you don’t want the pot to boil over and put out the flame on your stove and almost blow up your house.  You don’t want that at all.

I packed as many tomatoes into the jars as possible.  As I packed, I pushed down on them.  Not to break them but to release some of the juices so that there weren’t any air pockets in the jar.  Any space not filled by tomatoes was filled with juice.  Once the jars were full I ran a spatula around the sides of the jar to get rid of any air pockets trapped inside.

Tomatoes can be tricky.  They’re on the low aciditiy/high acidity fence.  I added a tablespoon of lemon juice to each pint just to be safe.  It’s important to use bottled lemon juice for this purpose even though it would be nicer to use fresh lemons.

Step 4- Processing

I wash my lids and put them in a small bowl with some boiling water from the big pot.  Once that’s done I use a clean kitchen towel to wipe the rims of the jars.  This is where the lid lifter comes in handy.  Even with my asbestos hands, lifting lids out of hot hot water is a challenge.  I use the lid lifter to grab them and position them on the jars.  Then I just screw on the bands.  When they’re all ready I use the jar tongs to set them into the water.  Again, boiling water is H-O-T.  Sometimes I remember to use an oven mit while I’m putting the jars in… sometimes I don’t.  I start the time once all the jars are in, the lid is on and the water has returned to a full boil.  Years ago I used this recipe successfully.  The recipe is no longer considered safe by many standards.  I processed my jars for 55 minutes after doing a little research.  I acidified my tomatoes and felt comfortable with 55 minutes though I think the USDA recommends 90 and my Better Homes and Gardens cookbook recommends 85.  You have to figure out what you’re comfortable with.  If I was pregnant or I thought any of my kids would eat them or I didn’t plan to cook them again before eating them I probably would have processed them for longer.

Aaaand… that’s it.  I let the jars sit in the water for 5 minutes before setting them on a clean towel to cool.  There’s nothing quite like listening to the ping of jars sealing.  All of my jars sealed though I did break one.  All in all a success, I think!

PS I also find these reusable caps to be VERY useful.

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