It’s Time To Preserve Your Tomatoes

Every summer garden seems to have an abundance of the red, juicy fruit. Here’s a guide to help you enjoy them all year long.

It’s Time To Preserve Your Tomatoes

By Kay Wolfe

Tomatoes are one of the easiest and most common plants grown in backyard gardens. Everyone loves fresh tomatoes picked from their own vine, but if you planted more than one plant, chances are you are drowning in them by now. The taste of homegrown vine ripened tomatoes is incomparable so don’t waste them. Preserve them!

I grew up watching my mom can tomatoes, so canning comes naturally to me. If you didn’t grow up in a household that preserved their own food, you may assume it is much harder than it really is. If you can raise it, you are no doubt capable of preserving it. All you need to gain a rewarding skill and hobby is a little equipment and instruction.

WHY BOTHER?

Many people will tell you they do it to save money and I’m sure they do, but that’s not why I do it. I do it because I enjoy it and because I want to provide the very best for my family. In just a few hours, I can stock my pantry with beautiful, healthy, organic tomatoes and tomato products to enjoy year round. Once you try it, you’ll be hooked too! Home canned tomatoes have the advantage of being stored in glass as opposed to grocery store tomatoes in plastic-lined metal cans. Plus, I know my tomatoes have not been exposed to pesticides or herbicides.

BOILING-WATER CANNING

The most common method of canning tomatoes and probably the best way to learn is the hot water bath method. Basically, you place peeled tomatoes in a jar and then boil them under water until they are sterilized. Not everything can be preserved in this method because some bacteria require a higher temperature to kill. But, tomatoes are acidic and most bacteria can’t survive in an acidic environment. That’s why some recipes call for added lemon juice to raise the acidity so just to be sure, add 2 tablespoons of lemon juice per quart jar. I don’t, but then I raise acidic tomatoes.

For this method, you’ll need a few things. Of course you’ll need jars, but make sure they are Ball or Mason jars, and not reused disposable jars like old pickle or mayonnaise jars. Many people look for jars at yard sales or thrift stores. As long as they are not cracked or chipped, go ahead and save some money.

You can find everything you need in the canning section of the hardware store or a well-stocked grocery store. The canner is simply a big metal pot with a wire rack in the bottom and a lid. Most hold seven one-quart jars and even more pint jars. It may also come with a device used to lift the hot jars out of the water. You’ll also need lids made to seal (these are not reusable but are sold separately) and reusable rings to screw down on the lids. A canning funnel comes in handy, too. It is made to fit the mouth of the jar so you don’t drip tomato juice all over them as you fill the jars.

Tomatoes
What the tomatoes look like on the “Salsa” setting.

SELECT AND PREPARE THE TOMATOES

Any tomato can be canned but some have more flesh than others. Tomatoes are mostly water, so the roma paste tomatoes tend to be prettier and thicker once processed. If all you have are the big beefsteak varieties, go for it. (Ed. note: You can always boil them down to decrease the amount of liquid in your sauce before canning.) They will still turn out better than anything you can buy. What is more important than the variety though is the individual fruits you use. The final product is only as good as what goes in, so I like to pick them the day of canning and I only select the fruits in their prime. I don’t use green or overripe soft ones.

Before you begin, get your equipment ready. Make sure your jars are clean (I run mine through the dishwasher to sanitize) and you have new lids and clean rings. To peel the tomatoes, drop the washed tomato in boiling water for a few seconds until you see the skin start to curl. Then remove it and drop it in ice water. It should be easy at this point to just peel it off with your fingers. Cut away the stem and any blemish but never use a rotten tomato.

Now they are ready for the jar. You can drop them in whole or you can cut them into pieces; it’s up to you. If they are big I will at least cut them in half. As you fill the jar, press down on them with your fingers so the juice replaces the air pockets between tomatoes. Add the lemon juice if you prefer. Use a knife to help remove air bubbles because the only place you want air is in the top one inch of the jar. This is called

“head space” and it allows the tomatoes to expand during heating. Without it, the tomatoes will boil over in the jar and ruin your seal. Once the jar is filled within one inch of the top and all air bubbles have been removed, wipe the top of the jar well with a paper towel and place a clean, new lid followed by a ring. Twist it down firmly but not tight since the air needs to escape during processing. Continue until you are out of tomatoes or you have enough jars to fill the canner.

Place the jars in the canner and fill with water until the jars are at least one inch below the surface (make it two to be safe). Turn the heat to high and put on the lid. It may take a while to reach boiling so now would be a good time to start another project in the kitchen as long as you can check it every 5 to 10 minutes. Once it reaches a rapid boil, set a timer for 40 minutes for quart jars and keep it boiling hard. When the time is up, turn off the heat and give it a few minutes to cool before removing the jars with the utensil made for removing hot jars. I like to set mine on a dry towel on the counter and then don’t touch them until they are completely cool. As they begin to cool, you will hear a pop. That means the lid just sealed and is your assurance the tomatoes are safe. Always check the seal before storing and again before using. If the seal is not still vacuum packed, don’t eat it.

Spaghetti Sauce
Ladling hot spaghetti sauce into the jars.

SAUCES

Now that you see how easy it is to can tomatoes, let’s move on to the next level: sauces. There are so many salsas and sauces that use tomatoes combined with spices along with onions and peppers. As long as they are acidic, they too can be preserved using the water bath method. Serve them to your guests over cream cheese or with chips. These make great gifts and are so pretty to display in your kitchen. Once you start playing around with recipes you can make your own to suit your family’s taste. Some like it hot so go crazy with the type of peppers you use, but I personally like to “sissy” them down for those of us who prefer mild.

FOOD STRAINER

Here in South Texas, there are few varieties of tomatoes that can stand the heat and those are small, so peeling by hand is too time consuming. They have a great taste though and do well in canning and cooking, so I bought a strainer to cut my preparation time from hours to minutes. I will never again be without one of these little gadgets. It comes with various size strainers to alter the texture of the tomatoes, but it can also be used with apples and many other fruits and vegetables. I prefer to use the “salsa”-sized strainer for the majority of my recipes.

One thing to keep in mind is, once the air hits a tomato, an enzyme begins to cause the water to separate from the pulp, so you want to heat the strained tomatoes as soon as possible to deactivate the enzyme. I strain a batch at a time and pour it directly in a large pot and heat it up. All this takes place rather quickly, so I’ve not had a problem with them separating like I would if I peeled each individually.

Jars in the canner
Jars in the canner.
Pressure Cooker
The pressure cooker doing its magic.

PRESSURE CANNING

If you have enjoyed canning so far, it is time to kick it up a notch with a pressure cooker. Pressure cookers can safely process all fruits and vegetables along with meats and an endless variety of combined ingredients, limited only by your imagination. You’ll want to buy a large one that holds at least seven quart jars. I just bought a new one for $125. If that sounds like a lot, consider it an investment or better yet, put it on your wish list for your family’s gift giving.

Many people are intimidated by pressure cookers due to the high heat under pressure, but the modern models are very safe. Unless you are filling it with explosives, you are not going to blow up a pressure cooker! The lid locks in place by design. When you turn the lid to close it, one metal plate slides under another, making it impossible for the lid to blow off. If you were to forget and leave it on the heat, the rubber safety valve would blow out letting the heat and steam escape long before the cooker would explode. The only way to hurt yourself is to get burned by the steam if you open the lid before it cools down, but now that you know, you won’t do that.

Homegrown tomatoes are just too good to only enjoy during the summer. With a little bit of equipment and time, you can preserve them as a variety of wholesome products to be enjoyed year round. Now that you have mastered canning and have the equipment, try your hand at ketchup, barbeque sauce, tomato paste, juice, etc. Heck, don’t stop at tomatoes. Go ahead and preserve all the great foods our bountiful homesteads provide. You’ll be so glad you did!

Creole Sauce
Canned Creole sauce.
Photos by Kay Wolfe.

Spaghetti Sauce Recipe
MAKES 7 QUARTS

Here’s a great recipe for spaghetti sauce requiring a pressure cooker due to the ingredients. Before you place it in the jars, take a little bite and adjust the spices to your liking, but this is my final recipe based on my preference. I have preserved enough to eat it at least every other week. It’s great for when I come in hungry and in a hurry. I simply brown some ground beef, drain, add a jar of sauce and simmer a few minutes. I serve it over pasta or if I have more time I use it to make eggplant parmesan or lasagna. I don’t have to worry about what’s in it since I not only made it but I grew most of the ingredients. Your kids will love this recipe and you will love that it is safe and healthy.

14 pounds of tomatoes run through strainer (weigh them before straining)
1 cup of olive oil
1/2 garlic bulb chopped very fine
4 onions chopped fine
2 bell peppers chopped fine (remove seeds and membrane from inside)
2 jalapeño peppers chopped fine (remove seeds and membrane from inside)
1/4 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 cup sea salt
2 tablespoons of raw apple cider vinegar
1/2 cup of Italian seasoning (marjoram, basil, rosemary, thyme, oregano, savory and sage). Buy mixed spice or grow your own.

You’ll need a pot that holds about 2 gallons for this. If you have nothing else, use your pressure canner as the pot and then clean it before you need it as a canner.

Sauté the peppers, onions, and garlic in the oil until tender. Then stir in the tomatoes, vinegar, sugar and salt and bring to a medium boil. Continue to stir occasionally for about an hour holding at a low to medium boil to reduce the liquid. Add your Italian spices the last 15 minutes of cooking. Once it is as thick as you want, it is ready to can.

Have seven clean quart jars ready with rings and new lids. Ladle the sauce in the jars, leaving 1-inch headspace. Wipe the top of the jars clean with a paper towel and top with the lid and ring. Tighten it, but don’t crank it down.

To get your canner ready, fill the bottom with 3 quarts of water (check your instructions with your cooker in case it is a different size). Add the round rack that fits inside to hold the jars off the floor of the cooker. Since your sauce is going to be hot, go ahead and heat the water in the cooker to just below boiling. Place the filled closed jars inside, check the seal on the cooker lid (they can stretch out of shape over time) and close it up. Turn the heat on high and watch for the steam to start coming out of the vent pipe. Once it does, time it for 10 minutes (I use the timer on the microwave). This lets the air out which is important.

After the 10 minutes, place the weight/pressure regulator over the vent pipe. Now the pressure will start building and you should be able to hear the jars boiling inside. Watch the dial as the pressure starts to build. You want to let it rise to 11 pounds of pressure and then hold it there for 30 minutes by adjusting the heat. It is all right for it to go over some but don’t let it go under. You’ll be tempted to go do something else while it is boiling but don’t. You need to watch the pressure closely.

Once your 30 minutes are up, turn off the heat and leave the cooker alone until it is completely cool. When it is, open it and remove your canned spaghetti sauce. Write the date and contents on the lid and store in the pantry. You’re done!

Tomatoes

Creole Sauce

Here’s a fun and tasty recipe to get you started. I use nine 8-ounce jars for this. I like to get the pretty cut-glass jars and decorate the lids before giving as gifts. Once they are completely cool, simply remove the rings and place lovely squares of festive fabric over the lid and replace the ring to dress it up. If you are really crafty, you can cross stitch cute designs for each lid or add a tiny ribbon and they will never eat them because they are just too decorative. From Ball—Complete Book of Home Preserving

Tomatoes, coarsely chopped, cored and peeled (8 cups if strained)
Green bell pepper, seeded and chopped
1 cup chopped green onions
4 tablespoon red wine vinegar
3 cloves garlic finely chopped
2 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon dried oregano
2 teaspoon hot pepper sauce
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Combine the ingredients in a large saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat stirring frequently. Reduce the heat and boil gently uncovered until thickened, about 40 minutes. In the meantime, get your jars and canning equipment ready.

Since the sauce will be hot, go ahead and heat your canning water so the jars will not break when you place them in (just under boiling). Ladle the still hot sauce in the jars leaving •-inch head space. Wipe the tops, and then add the lids and firmly screw on the rings and place them in the warm canner. Put the lid on the canner and bring to a rapid boil. Process them for 20 minutes and then remove and cool.

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