In an effort to avoid buying bland, hot house tomatoes in the middle of winter, I’ve wanted a way to have access to delicious, flavoured tomatoes for stewing and for sauces on those cold days when a hot stew is in perfect order. The idea of canning was way too overwhelming. Thoughts of botulism or the long process of washing, blanching and canning a bushel of tomatoes was enough to deter me. But this year I decided to take the leap and try it out. I wanted to appreciate the value of preserving food to sustain our family through the winter. If I start with something as “simple” as canning tomatoes, the possibilities would be endless.
I started to research how to properly can tomatoes. I needed a guide to really dumb down the entire process for me. A great reference point is the USDA Complete Guide to Home Canning, 2009 revision which provides a step-by-step approach for canning various foods, including tomatoes, and other interesting things like poultry. I never imagined the possibility of canning a chicken, but I guess anything is possible. I also talked to A LOT of people. I asked questions, got tips and ideas. Do I really need to remove the skin off the tomatoes? An overwhelming YES! No matter how much I wanted to avoid this mind-numbing step, it proved to be very crucial in ensuring a tasty end product.
And so began my canning story.
My first step was to find the perfect tomatoes. I had the unfortunate luck of all my tomato plants becoming infected with blight this summer so the hopes of canning my garden tomatoes were shot. The next best thing was a local farmer who sold organic Roma tomatoes. Last year I bought a large quantity from Waratah Downs Organic Farm at the Ottawa Farmers Market. I froze most of my order and also made tomato sauce which I cooked down for hours and frozen in batches.
Pleased with my tasty tomatoes from Waratah Downs Organic Farm last year, I returned a few Sundays ago. John invited me to the back of his stand to go through his tomatoes and pick out a half bushel of Romas. Not only did I walk away with a good stash, but Kim who also works with Waratah, gave me so many great tips on canning tomatoes and more importantly, some serious encouragement that this was not a difficult endeavour.
I returned home with almost a half bushel of tomatoes, weighing in at just under 25lbs. I then needed equipment to can these bad boys. A trip to Canadian Tire and voila: 12 x 1 litre mason jars, a 20 litre canner for sterilizing the mason jars and processing the tomatoes once canned, a rack for lifting the mason jars out of the boiling water, a funnel, a jar lifter, a lid lifter, a bubble remover, ice cubes, paper towels, and some lemon juice. Actually, I bought the lemon juice from the grocery store. I’m glad I decided on pre-squeezed because, looking back, I think having to squeeze as many lemons to fill all those jars would have really turned me off the idea of canning … forever.
I was ready to start canning. First, I washed my tomatoes thoroughly and lay them on a tea cloth:
I then sterilized the jars which, surprisingly, took more time than I expected. It’s amazing how long it takes to boil over 20 litres of water. I ended up boiling another batch of mason jars in a separate pot, which saved a lot of time.
I sterilized the lids separately. One lesson I learned with canning, is that while mason jars and screw bands can be reused, the metal snap lids should never be reused.
I brought a medium-sized pot of water to a boil, and began the tedious task of blanching the tomatoes. However, I was pleasantly surprised that it wasn’t as dreary and time consuming as I expected. I placed the tomatoes in boiling water for about 30 to 60 seconds then dipped them in a bowl of cold water (this is where the ice cubes came in handy). The skin easily peeled off. I then removed the cores before placing the tomatoes in the mason jars.
I filled the mason jars with the tomatoes, leaving ½-inch headspace. I also added two tablespoons of lemon juice into each jar. The air bubble remover became handy to remove air bubbles from the jars. I (and by “I”, I mean my loving husband who took four hours of his vacation time to help can) then wiped each jar with a paper towel to clean off any remaining juices. We then screwed the lids on but not too tightly.
We then placed the jars back into the water canners and covered them with at least one inch of water. We processed the jars in boiling water for at least 45 minutes.
We set the jars down to cool for 24 hours and this was our final product:
In short, we canned almost half a bushel of Roma tomatoes (just under 25 lbs) in about four hours, and ended up with 9 x 1 litre jars of tomatoes. Not bad for a first try. More importantly, I conquered a fear of canning, which turned out to be quite a delightful experience (and bonding opportunity). Who would’ve thought!