Eat Local: Preserving tomatoes

This made 3 quarts of juice, 3 pints of sauce and 5 half-pints of ketchup

Tomatoes: Love them! Other than fruit jam, it’s tomatoes that get the most processing around here. They are very versatile, as you all well know. There are loads of sites that will tell you how to process them, starting with the USDA. I’m just going to describe the ways I “put them by,” as processing tomatoes is a task I take on every other day between mid-July to the middle of October.

Tomatoes are one of the few things most anyone can can. Boiling-water baths are great! However, for a few reasons, I have mostly abandoned my big black enamel pots when I get the glass jars out during Tomato Season. Instead, I use my pressure canner.

Clockwise from top right: cook pot, food mill, can funnel, can lifter and big pressure canner

Pressure canners, though huge, spendy, and somewhat spooky, are actually a lot more forgiving of the harried home-canner than boiling-water baths. One, they get a lot hotter (240*+ versus maybe 212*), and the actual pressure process allows you to add things to your tomato sauces that would be too risky to do with a boiling-water bath (it has to do with the acid level in the tomatoes themselves: any added onions, peppers, basil, etc. may tip the pH scale to Microbe City, which is not a city you would like to visit, trust me.). You can actually put nearly ANYTHING in jars and can it in a pressure canner. I have rows of cooked beans downstairs, as well as jars upon jars of stock. If I were a carnivore, there’d be jars of meat, too, as premade as soup or stock or chili or whatever.

Likewise, with a boiling-water bath process, you need to be monomaniacal about cleanliness, boiling both the jars and the sealing lids before you fill them (and fill them with HOT contents, while the jars are still HOT). Pressure canning? Not so much. YES the jars and lids should be absolutely clean, but they don’t need to come out of a boiling pot before they’re filled.

But back to the tomatoes. My larger heirloom tomatoes tend to have thick skins, so I try to get the peels off before I do my preserving. There are two ways to do this: one is by hand and the other is the Lazy Person’s Way, with a food mill. By hand: Wash and score (make an “X”) on the bottom of the tomatoes with a sharp knife. Place tomatoes in a pot of boiling water for about a minute or more; scoop them out and immediately plunge into a pot of iced water. You can use your knife and peel the skins off, core them, and then cook them. By the LPW: Wash and cut off rough spots of the tomatoes. Core them and cut into smaller pieces. Place in pot and cook until mushy. Run through food mill: I use the medium screen, as I like the pulp and can tolerate the few seeds that get passed through it. They’re now ready to can.

In the beginning of the Tomato Season, I am much more fussy about separating the tomatoes by type (cherries for sweet things like ketchup, paste tomatoes strictly for paste, big fat watery ones for juice, etc; I also separate by color because I’m obsessive), but toward the middle of the season I am tired of all that and process maybe two-three quarts at a time with Whatever Is Ready To Go TODAY. This mix just ends up being simple sauce. In the winter, I will figure out what to do with that sauce when I take the jar off the shelf. Soup? Pasta sauce? Chili? It might need to be cooked down some (i.e., boiled off), but that can happen when I’m readying everything else for the meal.

But back to the pressure canner. This device allows me to make things like salsa, or the Glut Sauce I made the other day, or ratatouille, etc. with the ‘maters. It usually isn’t too much work to prep the tomatoes a la Lazy Person’s Way whilst I do dinner prep, and while they’re cooking down, or processing, I do my other cooking.

One thing about the pressure canner: it does take longer. Getting one load up to pressure, the processing time itself, and getting down from pressure sure takes lots longer than doing one boiling-water bath. Because I do my pressure canning in dribs and drabs while I do other things, this is no big deal. But when I have a bushel of things to put up? Yeah, either I set aside the whole evening to do it, or I get out those old black pots!

So: am I advocating that you all should run out and buy pressure canners? Absolutely not. I would say put it on your wish-list if you plan to do both as much, and as many, varied different kinds of food preservation as we do around here. But if you buy your produce in big quantities from the farmer’s market, as I used to do as a city girl, those big boiling-water pots work just fine! For jams, pickles, and simple tomatoes, this may be all you need. For other stuff, though, yeah, pressure canning is the way to go.

7 responses to “Eat Local: Preserving tomatoes

  1. You are really convincing me that I need a pressure canner, even if that’s not your intent. (Partly because I want to start putting up things like beans, and partly because I add so many of those aforementioned onions and peppers that I am probably at the corporation limit of Microbe City already!)

    What really struck me is that you make your own tomato paste. Is that insanely time consuming?

  2. That pressure canner looks like it could fly you to the moon. I’ve never encountered one and most people I know who preserve food don’t use them. I guess I should think more about microbes than I do.

    Interestingly for tomatoes, a reasonable number of Italians in Australia put their sauce in long- neck (600ml) beer bottles and seal with a new cap. They, then, lay the bottles in a 44 gallon drum, cover them with water and boil away. The drum is raised and there is an open fire burning underneath it. Whole families/communities get together to do this.

    I always wanted to use beer bottles to preserve my sauce in but alas, we don’t drink enough of it!

  3. great post, El! I actually have inherited Eric’s grandma’s pressure cooker, but I’ve been too afraid to try it!! 🙂

  4. Kim: it took me years to psych myself up enough to get a pressure canner. Now of course I wonder why it took so long.

    The paste, like the ketchup, requires a lot of time on the stove to boil off all the juice. Paste takes less time than ketchup though because the paste tomatoes I use are pretty meaty, whereas the cherry tomatoes I use for ketchup are little water balloons. I freeze the paste in a plastic tub, then I just scrape out a spoonful as needed in recipes.

    Nada: Fascinating. And I do think it is interesting, the cultural differences (or emphasis, anyway) of what to be scared of. I like the idea of sauce in a beer bottle, and the idea that putting them up is a communal event! Here in the states, we used to have communal canning kitchens, back during WW2. Those are long gone, just like the tradition of canning. Alas.

    Ang: the Ball Blue Book of canning, and older editions of the Joy of Cooking, should both have instructions for using older pressure canners. I think mine is great (obviously) though it does look scary with all that hardware!

  5. I took a class from my Cooperative Extension Service county office this summer, and it was great. It demystified the whole pressure canner process, and they checked your canner for safety, including checking the pressure gauge for accuracy. I appreciated that as I’m using an older inherited model –which got the A-ok.

    Might be worth checking out for those of you interested in giving it a try.

  6. Ali: thanks for the tip, and thanks for stopping by! In a lot of ways, Maine sure sounds like the Promised Land, especially with extension programs like the one you attended. I think preserving food is fun, and I am glad I have the pressure canner.

    It’s just like anything, though: you can get by without a lot of fancy expensive tools, but, in the instance of the pressure canner, I have been able to do so much more than before…so I recommend getting one if you think you’d need one.

  7. I’m intimidated by the pressure canners a little, and we’re waiting on some of the wish-list equipment till we’re finally “there” (the land we’re trying to hunt down..argh the waiting time). It’ll likely be one of the first items bought, though…I’ve come SO close over the past year in getting one. They do look like time machines, dont they? ha 🙂

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