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.