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.

You say 25 lbs of Tomatoes, I say Sure Why Not Because I’m Insane

A few weeks ago when Tom and I went to the Farmer’s Market together we saw a sign, “Canning Tomatoes, 25 lbs $18”.  I was interested, but concerned.  25 lbs is a lot and I’ve never canned tomatoes.  We demurred on the purchase and the vendor said he’d be there next week as long as a frost didn’t get the plants before then.

Cut to the next week.  When Tom’s spending more time under the house than in it, I’m lawyering up in several states trying to finish the family trust business (this is in lieu of an estate for Gma) and trying to find a job.  I was actually at a lawyer’s office the day of the Farmer’s Market and was going to just call the whole tomato thing off when Tom offered to go pick them up.

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What did you expect a picture of?

That man likes him a woman in the kitchen.  I’m just saying.

Actually, I believe he thinks it’s cool and practical and very Apocalypse Ready that his wife can preserve.  That’s what I tell myself.

25lbs pounds of tomatoes for eighteen dollars may sound like a good deal to you, but I had already done the math.  Not including the cost of jars or electricity or my time, JUST the tomatoes, it was coming out to something like nineteen cents cheaper to buy a can of tomatoes on sale at the grocery store.

So why do it?  I had a few reasons for this specific project.  One, it’s the first time I’ve ever worked with this much bulk.  A flat of strawberries is a lot, but it makes nowhere near the volume of product.

Secondly, it’s my first experience canning something to just have it available to make other things.  Until now, all my canning has been recipes of finished products to eat – salsas and jams.  I want to see how much use I get out of canning my tomatoes since I make a bunch of chili, spaghetti sauce, and Brunswick stew (OK, Tom makes that) throughout the year.  Will it taste better than store bought canned tomatoes?  Tune in later if I ever remember to follow up on that.

And although it wasn’t necessary to go through with the actual canning process, my third reason was in researching how to can tomatoes I learned more about preserving and ingredients in general.  You know how I’m always looking for canned and frozen items with the least number of ingredients possible?  Well, I learned I will pretty much never find a can of tomatoes with just “tomatoes” listed.  Because tomatoes are riiiiight on the border of acidity for canning, you need to add an acid to ensure safe canning.

(Low acidity foods need to be pressure canned instead of just water bath canned.  My canners are pressure canners but as of right now I have not done anything but water bath canning.)

I use the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving for my canning recipes.  It is a very good book.  It’s easy to follow, with lots of tips in the side bars.  While they try to repeat the tips on several relevant pages, I would recommend reading an entire section or all the recipes including a certain main ingredient before just starting out on one recipe.  With some recipes, I have found it helpful to write out my own steps to ensure I do not get ahead of myself in one area of the recipe.  Specifically, when and how to proceed with cleaning/cutting produce, cleaning and heating jars, etc.  But the tomato recipes were easy enough I didn’t require that.

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Ready to Rumble

I had enough tomatoes that I did this in two days, with two different recipes.  I originally thought I might make them all in one day.  But each recipe I used required all four burners on my stove so there was no ability to add a second canner to the mix.  (Yes, I own more than one canner.)  While I could process one batch while prepping another, the processing time on tomatoes is so long that I was exhausted after the first batch day 1.

I did a quick and dirty search on how to get the most out of the lycopenes (an antioxidant) in tomatoes and found that cooking the tomatoes makes them more available for absorption when eaten.  So day 1 I chose to make crushed tomatoes, where you core, peel, cut up tomatoes and then heat them up.  You crush a first layer with an old fashioned potato masher, but the following tomatoes simply degrade on their own in the hot liquid of already-crushed tomatoes.

I learned a few things from this recipe.  I learned that my great soup/stew pot (as I think of it) can hold almost exactly 9 pints of crushed tomatoes.  My canner, incidentally, can hold 9 pint jars perfectly.  This should be useful information when making other soupy-type recipes and determining how many jars I’ll need.

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Why exactly am I captioning this?  It’s a pot of crushed tomatoes.  Please try to follow along.

It was also the first time I had really tried to skin tomatoes (you blanch them, then shock them in ice water.  The skin will slip off).  In general, I’m not fan of removing skins and peels from foods.  I’ve always heard that’s where lots of the nutrients are, although a quick search says that may be a myth with lots of foods.  I’m not sure what, if any, chemical and/or physical reason there is to remove the skins.  But for the most part I follow the recipes instructions on canning until I find a reason to dig deeper.  For example, just writing this post led me to do a quick search and find the main reasons for removing the skins are 1) skin is where most bacteria will reside so removing them is an extra safety measure and 2) the skins peel away from tomatoes and make “unpleasant” little twigs.  Since I’ve made tons of sauces with fresh tomatoes that I didn’t skin, I’d say Tom and I would be fine with skins-on canned tomatoes from now on.

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Poor skinless, crushed tomatoes.

After today’s exhausting success, I decided I wanted to try canning raw tomatoes.  After a nap.

Insert Corny Title Here

There are several reasons canning, freezing, and general home preserving methods appeal to me.  The biggest reason I looked into it was for the health aspect.  I wanted jam not loaded with sugar or extraneous ingredients.  I also wanted to take advantage of central Florida’s abundant strawberry season without having to overload my freezer as I did in prior years.

So I internet searched low-sugar jam, bought some low-sugar pectin, some jars, and some strawberries.  The pectin jar itself had instructions for how to make the jam.  I canned them using a large pot we own for pasta; the built-in pasta drainer made for a perfect grate for the jars to rest on while processing.

People?  I made some damn fine jam.  Non-jam eaters were asking for seconds.  I had friends scrounging their cupboards for old mason jars to give me and transform into jam.

So that brought home for me the second reason to preserve fresh foods myself – they taste a hell of a lot better than any store-bought variety.

If I had thought about it hard enough, that lesson had already been sitting in my freezer.  My mother-in-law, NoNo, “puts up” (i.e. freezes) fresh corn every year.  I had no idea how addicted I was to it until she had a bad summer and didn’t get around to it.

Corn is also a good example of why to do it for taste.  Frozen corn in the supermarket is usually cheap, usually pretty nutritious compared to fresh, and most importantly pretty easy to find with that elusive one ingredient list of “corn”.  But once you’ve tried corn that was put up in this method?  You’ll never go back to the frozen section again.

I prepare my corn for freezing the way NoNo instructed me to.  This isn’t a cooking blog, and especially when I’m sharing things to preserve I am offering my techniques as examples.  Do not feel like you can read and learn everything you need to know to go do this yourself.  I want to share because it’s become a part of my life and I hope I interest you to pursue more information and education elsewhere.

The preparation method described here yields a sort of half-creamed corn.  It is sinfully delicious on its own.  I plan to use it also in any recipe that calls for whole kernel corn.

First and foremost when prepping corn to freeze, SET THAT SHIT UP OUTSIDE.  Corn is messy to shuck and messier to get off the cob.  Don’t try to be neat inside; you’ll only hinder your efforts to extract the most from your corn cobs.

You’ll need:

1)      A trash receptacle for husks, silk, and cobs.
2)      A sharp paring knife.  4” blade works wonderfully for me.
3)      A wide bowl to catch your corn.  You’re going to microwave it later so if you have plastic/microwaveable bowls that can be used, all the less you have to clean.
4)      Something the corn can sit on between shucking and removing kernels.
5)      Plastic bowls or Pyrex(?) to parboil the corn in the microwave.  (I offer Pyrex as an option to those opposed to using plastic in their food prep.  The question mark is because it cooks for fifteen minutes and I’ve never personally used Pyrex that long in the microwave.  Definitely need to investigate this before proceeding.)
6)      Freezer bags to store the corn.
7)       A sharpie.
8)      A measuring scoop.
9)      A canning funnel.  I suppose this is optional, but it helps me put the corn into the freezer bags without mess.

Oh, you’ll also probably want some corn.  Buy it in season and on sale.  I can find it for 25 cents an ear.  My first time I used 16 ears.  I wouldn’t bother with less than 8.  The second time we prepped 26 and Tom helped me.

Step one is to shuck your corn.  That means removing the husk (leaves) and silk (weird silky tassels at the top of the ear).  If your corn has a handle, leave it on.  It will help you with the second process.  Cut off the tip of the corn.

The second step, removing the kernels from the cob, is tedious and difficult and just something you need practice to do well.   Your hands will get tired.  If you are prepping a lot of corn at once plan on either A) having a helper B) taking small breaks or C) switching between the shucking and removing to give your hands a break from one specific task.  Please note I’ve never tried option C firsthand (so to speak.  Har-de-har-har) so I don’t know how effective that is.  It was just a thought I had while sitting watching Tom cut corn letting my hands rest.

To remove the kernels from the cob, place your blunt, chopped end of the corn down into the bowl.  This is where using the handle can be nice.  Cut the kernels down the cob lengthwise BUT ONLY ½ way from the tip of the kernel to the inside of the cob.  You’re actively trying to leave some of the kernel on the cob, not cut whole kernels off.

Tom Helping

Impromptu outdoor kitchen

It will take anywhere from five to ten turns of the cob to remove all the kernels.  Now turn your knife upside down, take the non-blade end and press it hard into the cob, then run the knife again lengthwise down the entire cob.  If you’re pressing hard enough, you’ll produce a kind of milky, corny goo.  THAT’s what makes this all worthwhile.  Get as much as you can out of the cob and into your bowl.

Your cob, when it’s done, isn’t going to look like you achieved maximum efficiency.  There will be kernels at the bottom and maybe the top.  Some will look better scraped than others.  IT’S OK.  I swear.

The method of cooking used before freezing the corn is technically, I believe, parboiling.  You want to stop the sugars from decaying, but not fully cook.  Place the corn in a microwave bowl and cook it for five minutes, then stir, then fifteen more minutes.

If you can’t stand the idea of using the microwave in your old-timey food preparation, it’s possible to cook it on the stove.  You have to watch it very carefully so it doesn’t scorch though.  I have no idea of the time involved but I’m sure you are only a Google away from the answer.

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Corn with spoon has been cooked.  Other bowl is raw.  The cooked looks the teeniest bit more yellow

Write the date on all your freezer bags with a Sharpie.  And yes, I suggest writing the entire date.  If you do it multiple times while corn is in season, it’s likely you’ll make batches in the same month.  If something seems horribly wrong with a bag when you use it, it’s nice to know it was from the 16th and not the 28th.

(Now that I wrote all that, I recall NoNo’s bags just have the year written on it.  Either she makes it all at once – a possibility since she does it with their own corn – or my date concerns are paranoia.)

Once the corn is cool, open a freezer bag and put the canning funnel inside it.  I like to scoop in 1-cup increments, putting 2 or 3 cups in a 1-quart bag.  Since it’s there’s two of us, I can’t see wanting to thaw and use more than that at a time.

You want to flatten the bags like a thick pancake for storage.  And, if you’re anal like me, write the cup amount on the bag.

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Ready for the freezer

When you want some corn, remember it does need to be cooked a little since you only parboiled it.  But since you’ll also want it warm to eat, that’s not a problem.  Corn doesn’t need a ton of cooking.

The first 16 ears yielded about 7 cups of corn.  The next batch, 26 ears, came out to 18 cups.  I believe the second batch yielded more for a few possible reasons.  One is that I had help; Tom used to scrape cobs for NoNo when he was little and despite being rusty at it might have more technique than I do.  The second is that the corn itself might have been better and bigger.  Third is that practice makes perfect and my own technique might have improved between the two batches.  And lastly, the first time I did it inside and wasn’t aware how messy I was going to be.  There were several things stacked on the table waiting to be stored and I got frustrated that everything needed to be washed again.  I think I did a better job outside where I could let the corn fly.

Chipmunk

Others benefit from outdoor kitchen prep as well