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Canning Tomatoes, Feeling Domestic

September 27, 2008


About a month ago, I got it into my head that I wanted to try canning. It seems like canning has been all over the place lately, and that makes sense, as it fits right into the burgeoning local food movement. Anyone who knows me well knows that I am a sucker for the domestic arts, and also a sucker for trying things that seem very time consuming and complicated. So of course I was thinking about canning.

I mentioned my interest it to a friend of mine who grows tomatoes in his yard down on Cape Cod. And when I say he grows tomatoes, I mean he grows lots and lots and lots of tomatoes. Beautiful, bright red roma tomatoes, all grown organically. And one day he showed up with a five-pound flat of those beautiful tomatoes for me, so I could preserve them and enjoy them all winter long. So that clinched the deal: I was going to try this canning thing.

But first, I needed to procure the proper equipment. Bon Appetit’s guide to canning in the August (or is it September?) issue was immeasurably helpful, and I discovered a restaurant supply place in the neighborhood where I bought an enormous pot and a round cooling rack to fit right inside of it. (Oh, and how much do I wish I’d discovered this restaurant supply place sooner? It was like my heaven.) The hardware store supplied me with pint jars, a canning funnel, and a jar lifter, and I was in business.

Big pot

The whole project took about five hours, from setting that enormous pot full of water on to boil, to pulling the finished jars out after 85 minutes of processing. The Bon Appetit guide didn’t have information on canning tomatoes, but I found to be a fount of knowledge. I decided to can the tomatoes whole, as I figured that would probably give me the most flexibility in the future when I actually cook with them.

Canning operations

Preserving is pretty straightforward, actually. I made sure everything was set up at the beginning, because I didn’t want to have to deal with too much running around once I got started. I washed everything in very hot, soapy water and used a clean towel to dry it all off. Then I put the round cooling rack in my enormous stock pot, and placed all the jars, sans lids, on the rack. I filled the pot and the jars to about 2/3 of the way up the jars with water, and set it on the stove to boil.

Which took FOREVER. Seriously, that much water…I ended up sitting at the kitchen table reading a book while I waited. I also had a kettle of water on to boil, in case I needed extra water, and I had the lids in a small saucepan in boiling water to make sure they were nice and sterilized. A smaller pot full of water was boiling away, too, for blanching the tomatoes.

Tomatoes from Billy

Once all that water was good and hot and bubbling, I got to work on the tomatoes. This part took longer than I expected. Working with about six tomatoes at a time, I set them in the water to blanch. Once the skins split open, I took the tomatoes out of the hot water, dunked them in a bowl of ice water, and peeled the skins off. The naked tomatoes went into a bowl, and I continued the process for all five pounds of tomatoes until my fingers were prunes and I had tomato juice everywhere.

Whole, peeled tomatoes

Now came the part I was worried about: getting the tomatoes into the jars. But you know what? It wasn’t bad at all. The canning funnel was a godsend for preventing some mess. Using tongs instead of a magnetic lid lifter to get the lids out of the boiling water didn’t cause the burns I was expecting. The process went quickly, and once all the tomatoes made it into jars (I ended up with about five pints), back into the boiling water they went for their 85 minutes of processing.

Tomatoes, after processing

When they came out, I noticed that all the tomatoes had floated to the tops of the jars, leaving a layer of tomato liquid at the bottom. I thought that was a bit unusual, but the seals all vacuumed themselves shut and everything seemed a-ok. So I’m not worried about it. If anyone who has canning experience can explain this to me, that’d be cool.

So now I have five pints of organic, locally grown tomatoes ready for winter cooking. In fact, these tomatoes even made it to me from the Cape in a Prius, so you can’t get much more environmentally friendly than that. I’ll be sure to let all of you know how they taste once I crack them open in a few months. And I’ll certainly be experimenting with further preservation of foods in the future. It was fun, and I feel connected to food traditions from the days before industrial food, which was especially interesting for me coming right on the heels of reading Kitchen Literacy (which is highly recommended for anyone who wants to know more about our food industry and how we ended up eating the way we do). All in all, an excellent way to spend a Saturday.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. September 28, 2008 9:18 am

    Someday I’d like to try making & canning jam. Mmmm, jam.

  2. September 28, 2008 7:01 pm

    Well done! I don’t even know you, but I’m proud of you for successfully completing your first canning project! (By the way, my tomatoes always look like that, too, and I teach canning classes at my community college!)

    Tomatoes are very time-consuming. You should try pickles or jams next. Much easier.


  3. stephanie austin permalink
    October 22, 2008 12:29 pm

    Hello!I’m trying my first time canning yellow tomatoes that I grew this summer,boy do I have alot of them.$1.98 a lb. here.Thanks for the short version,it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be.Steph

  4. cathy permalink
    August 8, 2009 5:30 pm

    Thank you so much for your photo of your finished product! I just tried my very first canning project using whole Roma tomatoes grown in my garden today. My experience was exactly like yours, but I was concerned with the appearance of my finished product since I had a couple of inches of liquid at the bottom of the jars also. Now, seeing that you do too, I feel better – even though I don’t know you!! Thank you fellow canner!!!! Keep on canning!


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