On Canning Tomatoes

An annual ritual has begun with my mother-in-law, Louann, and I.

It began last year sometime in late summer/early fall (better known as canning season)  when we got together to can pickles and jam. I had never canned anything before, pickles are one of my first loves, and jam is just plain awesome. We had so much fun, and made so much good food, that we decided to get together just for the purpose of canning every year. I have to thank Louann for getting me into this (as with a lot of my new hobbies over the past 2 years!) she is a wealth of knowledge, about both food and life, and I’m blessed to have her as bonus mom.

The 2nd Annual Lucas Can-Off has come and gone! I look forward to it in the same way I anticipate Christmas and Halloween. Next year maybe I’ll bring mason jar decorations and ornaments coated in pickling salt. (I’m really into decorating for the holidays. And, the Lucas Can-Off is officially a holiday. Mark it on your calendars people.)

This year we decided to can tomatoes. Louann brought home 50 lb. of gorgeous, bright red, local tomatoes, and we went to work.

Before we get to specifics, let me tell you why you should be canning:

  1. Canning has a rich history. Around the 1880’s American women began buying jars, known then as glass cans, and would put up their orchard fruits, vegetables, and even meats and fish. The families most able to afford this practice were American small town women, utilizing their backyard gardens and purchasing produce from farming families to can for the winters. (Farm families at the time likely still put to use salting, and storing in root cellars until the price of jars and sugars came down.) Over time families built up their stock of reusable containers and canned more, entrenching home canning in rural settings. It did not take long for large scale grocers to make ‘putting up’ less economical, but both WW1 and WW2 brought about patriotic interest in the skill. Both wars saw an increase in home canning and gardening, as well as the Great Depression. 
  2. This art of ‘putting up’ is a reminder of the labor it takes to provide food for a family. It is easy in our current world to neglect the importance, and sometimes scarcity of food. It is also easy to take for granted the fact that women can choose to pursue careers, rather than having to take on the gardening, cooking, and preserving tasks that would consume much time at home. It is grounding to be reminded of how fortunate we are to be able to purchase fresh and preserved food so easily, since this was not always possible.
  3. Canning is fun. The world has changed, and people spend much less time at home together than they once did. Canning brings the people you love all together, in the same warm kitchen, working with diligent hands to accomplish the same goal. It is hard, yet worthwhile work, and the whole experience seems distantly tied to families of old, gathered around a stove, chopping and peeling, and laughing together. 

The day we canned it was cool outside, a gentle breeze blew in through the lace curtained windows, and the soothing voice of Garrison Keiller told us stories of wandering cowboys in far away lands. It was the perfect setting for canning tomatoes.

With our produce we made whole canned tomatoes and a lovely tomato sauce. I am excited to see what these whole tomatoes will become through the cold winter months ahead. I see some tasty soups, sauces, and chills in our future. The sauce is incredibly versatile; we decided we did not want to make it a ‘one-use’ sauce, but instead, gave it a broad and tomato-y flavor, that can be altered easily to still be soups and pasta sauces. We ate the tiny leftovers, scraped from the pan, on a steaming plate of scrambled eggs (and it was aweeessome.)

We did a little google searching (who doesn’t when they are planning to cook something new?) and came across some great websites. Homesteading was a term often used on these sites as the name of their purpose, the banner of the ideal they live under, and it is indeed an idea that is near and dear to my mother-in-law’s heart. Homesteading means to live a lifestyle of simple self-sufficiency. Homesteaders make their own things. They grow food. They put up food. They make clothes, medicines, blankets, furniture, and bread, as a family, with the children helping too. I love this lifestyle. And though, in the lovely city of Chicago, one can’t necessarily have chickens in an apartment, there are things I can do to be an urban homesteader (I think I’m well on my way.) Check out this website if you love the idea.

For the whole tomatoes:

  • 10-12 quart sized glass canning jars
  • 25 lb. fresh, ripe tomatoes (best price from local vendors and farmers)
  • lemon juice
  • salt

The Process:

Begin by cutting into the bottom of each tomato a small, shallow x.

This will allow the skins to peel off easily. Drop tomatoes into boiling water in small batches, and blanch for 30 seconds to 1 minute (depending on if your water remains at a boil. Do small batches so as not to drop the temperature of the water.) Remove tomatoes from water, and peel off skins (they will just slip off.)

We don’t shower to put up tomatoes! Why would we do that!?

Ready your jars by boiling them, open with the lids off but in the water as well, for 10-15 minutes. While the jars are still hot insert the whole tomatoes, with sterile utensils (I used tongs, boiled with the jars.) You may have to smash and squish a few tomatoes to pack the jar full. Use a chopstick to remove bubbles. To each jar you pack, add 1 tsp salt, and 1 Tbs lemon juice. Mix around the jar evenly. Fill the jars to about 1/2 inch from the top. Place on seals and screw on rings, and place in a pressure canner, following the directions given by your pressure canner. (I believe ours was 10 lb. pressure for 25 minutes.)

**There is canning debate on whether or not water-bath canning is an appropriate method for canning low acid foods like tomatoes. To be safe, we just used a pressure canner. There are directions for canning tomatoes in water-bath canners all over the web if you choose to.

For the Sauce:

  • 25 lb. tomatoes
  • 1/2 c. olive oil
  • 2 large onions, diced
  • 12 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 c. fresh basil, roughly chopped
  • 14-16 pint canning jars

The Process:

Score an x in your tomatoes, and blanch just like in the above directions for whole tomatoes (we did all our blanching and peeling in one large assembly line, then separated the tomatoes for different purposes after this work was done.) Chop the tomatoes after peeling. In a large stock pot, heat olive oil, and sauté onions until translucent. Add garlic, and let cook for another minute. Add chopped tomatoes, and let the heat pull liquid from them (takes about 10-15 minutes before they begin to cook down.)

Use an immersion blender, and puree the contents of the pot. Let this sauce cook down for some hours (six or more if you have it) or at least let it reduce by 1/3-1/2. Add basil.

To can, add to sterilized pint jars (boil them suckers y’all!) and fill to about 1/2 inch from the rim of the jar. Add 1 Tbs of lemon juice to each jar, stir well. Place on your lids, and pack into a pressure cooker for the allotted time and pressure your directions give you.

***After pressure cooking, the jars will seal as they cool. The seals will pop in, so you will see by looking at the top of the lid if they have sealed. If a jar or so did not seal, put it in the refrigerator and use it within the week, just to be safe. Some liquid loss during canning happens, and it is okay. The tomatoes float occasionally in the jars– this is also okay. If you notice any of your jars are beginning to bubble when you open them, or smell off, use your noggins and simply discard them– it isn’t worth risking possibly consuming improperly canned food. If you follow all directions in your pressure cooker guide, you will have no problems.

I’m very much looking forward to the 3rd Annual Lucas Can-Off, where I can only imagine the tasty things we will ‘put up’ for the winter. Canning has become quite dear to my heart, I hope you will try it and see what possibilities it will open up for you.

A pressing question: was this economical?

We did not have a pressure canner before this project, so we purchased one on the day we made these.

The price of the sauce per pint, including the cost of the pressure cooker:

$4.62 per jar

Without the cost of the pressure cooker:

$2.13

The price per quart of the whole canned tomatoes, including the cost of the pressure cooker:

$6.oo

Without the cost of the pressure cooker:

$4.34

We all decide for ourselves if the work involved, and the cost, was worth the turnout. I believe it was.

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