Each August I host a hands-on canning demo day for CSA members. We collect split tomatoes from the plants and can them up in the barn, our impromptu outdoor kitchen right next to the garden. Now that’s fresh! Here’s Jackie posing with the goods, jars of tomato puree.
The outdoor kitchen stove:
I find it completely satisfying to take split tomatoes from the garden and can a batch of tomato puree for winter use. Its a bit like taking lemons and making lemonade. Sour turns sweet. Split tomatoes or tomato bounty hanging on the vine, you are going to have waste. But add some hard work and you have tomato puree. Wait, its not hard work, but its focused and time-consuming. I’m getting into the zen of canning this month. I think after a few years of it, its an easy process for me. I don’t have to pour over the Ball Book anymore, getting overwhelmed by the choices, the step-by-step details of canning, and the fear paragraphs about germs and botulism. Which, by the way, you can’t taste or see or smell, but enjoy your canning experience, you’ll be fine…
I’ve tried a variety of techniques and products over the past few years, and now I know what I like to do. I like to make tomato puree, a straight tomato base. It can be a soup base. It can simmer longer on the stovetop and become pizza sauce or ketchup. It can be thickened with garlic and onions and other veggies for a pasta sauce or lasagna sauce. I keep it pure and simple when I can it, and then I can add all those goodies later when I’m cooking. Did you know tomatoes are on the edge of acidity? 4.0-4.6, and 4.6 is the limit to safe water-bath canning. Add some lemon juice and you throw it over the edge into higher acidity, where botulism can’t thrive. Add anything else to tomatoes–like herbs and vegetables–and you could throw it over the other edge, where botulism can survive. So I play it safe, and keep my tomatoes as plain puree. (I know tons of people who add things and continue to live, just sayin’)
I don’t mess around with peeling tomatoes. That process drives me crazy. I quarter them unpeeled, and stew them a bit in a big pot. Then I pour off the water from the tomatoes. This saves hours of evaporation time during thickening. The stewed, drained-off tomatoes go to Victoria, and come out a bit watery. It takes more simmer time to thicken this way (improved by pouring off the water) but I just saved loads of time and patience by not peeling tomatoes. So I don’t mind simmer-time. One day I made my puree and left it simmering on the stove (with Phil home to monitor) and I went to yoga. Came home in a couple hours to a nice thick puree ready to can. [Of course, if I don’t have time to thicken it, I’ll can it anyway. It takes more cans and is much more watery, but it’ll still be useful. I’ve also skipped the Victoria and blended the stewed quartered and poured-off tomatoes with skins and all, with an immersion blender. That works too. ]
Meet Victoria (Victoria Mill, that is). She helps us squash tomatoes into juice and puree, spitting out the skins and such.
Elaine and Victoria.
The Super Canner: this baby can fit almost 20 jars at a time. Simply constructed with cinder blocks, a half-barrel (that’s not what its called?) and a flameweeder. I need to credit our friends the Horsts at Jehovah-Jireh Farm with this idea. Phil dug a hole to set the flameweeder in, the Horsts put an elbow on theirs to shoot it upward, I believe. And they had a sink base. Different ways to do it.
Thirty minutes boiling in Super Canner, and we’re done. Phil’s taking out jars with the Jar Taker Outer. (ok, tongs)
Let those jars rest for a day, so as not to bump them (dare I say…jar them?) before they cool and seal. Gaze at them. Revel with them. Label them and put them in a pantry or other dark ideally cool-ish space.