The Revenge of the Killer Tomato

Today I decided to “raw pack” my tomatoes.  That is, I did not cook them before putting them in the jars.  I did this for a few reasons.

The first is I wanted to process tomatoes a different way than yesterday so I could compare.  The second is that raw-packing the tomatoes should be quicker because I don’t have to cook.  (I did still have to use all four burners because you add hot water to the tomatoes to make them fit in the jars right.)  The third is that I wanted to just process 9 pints exactly.  I could do this by prepping small amounts of tomato, one jar at a time.  Fourth, raw-packing the tomatoes led me to pay attention to the tomatoes I picked, how I handled them, how I cut them, etc.  My usual style of cooking/produce/canning/life (have I said too much?) is more of a “stick-it-all-together-in-a-pot-and-stew-it-until-you-can’t-tell-what’s-what-and-it-tastes-good.”  I’m not saying that’s a bad strategy, but I’m canning to learn more and try different things.

What about wanting all those lycopenes?  Well, it’s not clear to me from my (limited) reading, but it seems that the actually cooking during the canning process itself heats the tomatoes up enough to mean we’ll get our good dose of antioxidants.

Instead of writing about the actual canning, I thought I’d tell you a little about what I did today to reduce the waste I associate with canning.  Today I had all the tomatoes cores and their skins, a canner full of hot well water, a small saucepan of hot well water (this is where I kept my lids hot until I needed them), and a saucepan of good drinking water (left over from what I added to the jars of tomatoes).

The saucepan of good drinking water, I heated up a bit more then threw into my French press with some scoops of decaf.  It was a cold day and Tom was working under the house so he appreciated a hot beverage.

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Gma gave me that french press.  She went to lunch with some friends and loved french press coffee, but felt it got cold too quickly.  The stainless steel press retains heat better.

We don’t drink our well water here because it’s very hard water and chock full of iron.  But I do use it in some cooking and in past canning events I have re-heated the canning water and boiled eggs in it.  Today I poured some vinegar and baking soda into my bathroom sink and then flushed it down the pipes with the hot canning water.  It’s supposed to keep your drains from getting clogged.

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Not a clogged drain.  I don’t have a real sieve, so I use an old-fashioned turn-crank flour sifter.

Lastly, I took the cores and skins of my tomatoes and made tomato paste.  I tried this one day 1 as a half-assed afterthought and it was going so well until I forgot I had it in the oven.  So today I tried a little harder.  I didn’t use a real recipe, since a recipe would have you start with whole tomatoes.  I just sort of cooked them down with a bit of salt, sieved them, cooked the sauce down, then spread it on a cookie sheet to dry in the oven.  It was a fun process, although it made for a l-o-n-g day of watching the kitchen.

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Tomato sauce…

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Tomato paste!

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Oh yeah, I saved the sieved tomato bits in my freezer bag of veggies to make vegetable stock.  Hippiness level – expert.

The canned tomatoes themselves came out easy.  (18 pints still did not use up 25 lbs of tomatoes.  I crushed the rest of them for Tom to make Brunswick stew right away.)  However I had a major mishap which I didn’t even realize was a mishap until after the fact.

The tomatoes required processing for so long that by the time they were done the water had boiled away to the point the jars were not completely submerged in water.  This, as I understand it now, is a no-no because it can mean the food itself did not get hot enough to be safe.  (Although botulism – the most dreaded canning bacteria – is not killed during water bath canning.  It’s the high acidity in the foods that kill it.)  (It’s actually the spore that causes the bacteria to create the toxin that is not killed.  If you want to get specific.)

After reading some online, I found several recipes for tomatoes that specifically talk about adding more water to the canner as the processing continues.  (You’d do this for anything where the water is evaporating.  But tomatoes process for a real long time.)  I’d suggest to Ball in their next version of the book to put this tip in their side bars or in the section prefacing canning tomatoes.  It’s in their general canning notes but by this time I do not re-read the general prep section every single time.

Here’s the thing I love about canning – it’s science and art all wrap up in one!  Which is to say, you have to be very precise and sanitary to correctly make good canned product.  But on the other hand, if the canning doesn’t go exactly as planned you can always refrigerate, freeze, or re-process for canning your food.  A canning recipe isn’t some ancient secret- it’s just science added to your regularly-scheduled yumminess.

But here I am.  Weeks out from making these raw-packed tomatoes.  And I just learned I might not have processed them correctly.  What do I do?  Do I throw them out?  Do I assume they are good so far because there are so signs of spoilage and throw them in the freezer?  Or do I consult my friendly, local food-safety expert who’s all, “They’re fine.  Make pasta.  THEY’RE FINE.  YOU DON’T HAVE BOTULISM.”

(Did you know Tom’s experience in warehousing is with food?  Did I ever mention that?  He has a half dozen certificates from OSHA and USDA and stuff.  Printed with a LASER PRINTER.  No cheap ink-jet recopies here!)

So I made pasta.  And we ate the tomatoes.  And it’s over 24 hour later.  (Most botulism symptoms occur within 6-36 hours.)  Is it getting lopsided in here?  I can’t tell…

In all seriousness, after much research and discussion, we decided the tomatoes will be fine unless they show obvious signs of spoilage.  It was a big wake-up call to me to watch and wonder about the canning process in general.  Until I gather the courage to foray into pressure-canning, tomatoes are the scariest produce I plan to can.

Cue “Jaws” music.

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