Perhaps you’ve gone all self-sufficient and put in a garden. Since growing tomatoes is fairly idiot-proof, perhaps you now have tomatoes out the wazoo. You reflect back to your grandmother’s basement and recall shelves filled with home-canned tomatoes in Mason jars. Being a member of the iPod and www. generation, however, you haven’t a bloomin’ clue how one achieves shelves filled with home-canned tomatoes. Grandma also may have had a pressure-canner and you’re pretty sure you’d be out of your game operating one of those, if you even had one to begin with. (This isn’t true of course; you can easily learn to use a pressure canner, but I’m going to let you off the hook for tomatoes, because it isn’t necessary.) Home-canning tomatoes is easy, albeit time-consuming. If you want to preserve all your beautiful tomatoes, but you don’t want to mess with the pressure canner, here’s how to do it:
1. Pick a bunch of your tomatoes. They do not have to be totally flawless, but don’t use any that are actually rotting. If they have cracks at the top or a little place where a bug sampled, no biggie; you can just cut that part off.
2. Prepare the area where you want to can. You will need: Quart-sized Mason Jars, Lids that fit those jars, a wide-mouth funnel, at least one large stockpot, another pot for boiling the jars, slotted spoon, non-slotted spoon, tongs for lifting the lids, potholders, towels, knives, salt, pepper and several free hours. An apron is handy, too.
3. Clean and/or sterilize jars and lids; clean the tomatoes and line them up near your stove.
4. Bring one or two stockpots of water to a boil. This is to split the skin of the tomatoes. I use a clean sink to put the tomatoes in as they split.
5. Once the water is boiling, use a slotted spoon to lower 3-5 tomatoes into each boiling pot of water. Within a minute or two, the skin of the tomato will split. Remove the split tomato to the sink or a large bin. They should look like this:
6. Once all the tomato skins have been split, I empty my stockpots, clean them and begin chopping the tomatoes. I peel off the skin and cut away the core and any bad spots. I fill the now-clean stockpot with my chopped tomatoes. Occasionally, I sweep the juice and pulp off the cutting board and throw that into the pot as well. (I usually use a couple of large bowls in addition to the stockpot, because I am processing a lot at once.) I have heard that you can skip this step and just puree the tomatoes, but I aim for chopped tomatoes, not crushed.
7. I bring my full stockpot of tomatoes to a boil on the stove. Simultaneously, I bring some water to boil in a skillet and boil 3 jars and their lids. The lids, jars and tomatoes all need to be boiling hot in order to kill bacteria and create the vacuum seal. This is what we’re doing instead of pressure-canning all the jars, so make sure you get everything very hot! My set-up at this point looks like this:
8. Once everything is hot and boiling, I use a pot-holder to quickly remove a jar, set it on the counter next to my tomato pot, fit it with the wide-mouthed funnel, and add the tomatoes with a large spoon. This is messy as heck and I’ve never figured out how to do this without dripping and splashing juice all over kingdom come. I keep towels on the counter and the floor, but just know that even an OCD neat-freak cannot figure out how to do this without making a colossal mess, so you may not be able to, either.
9. Fill the jar to within an inch of the top. Put in a half teaspoon of salt and pepper, if that’s your thing, then quickly use tongs to retrieve a lid from the boiling skillet. Use a towel to screw down the lid without burning yourself; move the jar to another counter.
10. As the counter fills with tomato jars, you should hear the “PLINK!” as the lids vacuum seal from their own heat. You can also observe the lid; there is a small “button” in the center of the lid. Once the lid seals, this “button” sucks inward. If it still has give to it, it is not sealed. My jars usually seal within probably five minutes of placing the lid on them.
Now – here is my General Disclaimer: I learned to can tomatoes this way from my mother-in-law, who has canned tomatoes for 60-some years. Rarely, the seal fails and the tomatoes rot. I have read in recent years that the Ball-Mason company no longer considers this a valid method of canning, because you cannot be certain the temperature was high enough for long enough to kill bacteria. So, if you are sub-mental and cannot tell that a brown jar of tomatoes has gone south and should not be eaten, perhaps this is not a good method for you. If you contract Botulism, don’t come cryin’ to me.
When I have canned tomatoes, I leave them on the counter overnight. In the morning, I take off the outer rings and attempt to pry off the lid with my fingers. If it is vacuum-sealed, this will not work. If the lid comes off, obviously, it failed to seal. I also usually leave the jars on my counter for a week or so, because if any did not seal, it will be apparent within a few days and I’d rather discover that on the kitchen counter than after it’s in my pantry. This has happened to me, so it is possible that they will not seal using this method. You must make sure the jars, lids and tomatoes have all boiled very hot for at least a few minutes. Common sense also dictates that you observe them for a little while to be sure they do not look like they are going bad.
At the end of this process, you will also have a sink full of skins, cores and other refuse. Compost! If you compost, this is a perfect addition. Then next year, your garden will be nourished by this year’s garden. Isn’t that poetic?
So, the question I’ve been asked before: Is this worth it? I mean, come on! I can go to Costco today and by dozens of canned tomatoes without batting an eye! Why do this?
1. These tomatoes are organically raised in my very own backyard. No fuel was burned shipping them all over the country (or countries) to get them to me. They have not been sprayed with pesticides, fungicides or ripening sprays.
2. Some of my jars have been reused for 40 years, as they were my mother-in-law’s. This is the most environmentally-friendly way to preserve food. It is superior to recycling the Costco can, and definitely superior to throwing a can in a landfill.
3. My children witness the connection between the food they eat and where it comes from.
4. This is my MAIN reason: It is the epitome of self-sufficiency. Raising food yourself, preserving it yourself and then using it to cook your own meals is very fulfilling. It is comforting to know you’re not a sitting duck who would be lost without your Costco card and American Express.
I’m well aware that this is not everyone’s cup of tea. Sometimes I do wonder why I bother. But in the end, I simply cannot bear to watch a bounty of tomatoes sitting to rot, knowing I have the tools and ability to preserve them for later. I will use them in my Chili recipe and my Sloppy Joe recipe throughout the winter. Each time I pull a jar out in January, it makes me smile that I have that there, a loving little symbol of ingenuity.