In the canner

A couple weeks back (okay, the entire month of August back), Phil and I went to the farmer’s market on Saturday morning, and bought 30-some-odd pounds of tomatoes from our CSA (the wicked awesome Victory Farms, for those of you in Richmond.)

Both of us had just read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver and her family, which is the story of how the 4 of them lived for one year eating food that was as local as possible. If you’ve read Fast Food Nation or anything by Marion Nestle or Michael Pollan, you should read AVM if you haven’t already. Kingsolver’s oldest daughter includes family recipes at the end of each chapter, and after reading through the summer recipes, we were both ready to try our hand at home-canning.

This VERY long blog post recounts our day (all 12 hours of it) spent canning our haul from the market. In addition to the tomatoes, we also bought apples and peaches to use in a recipe, all of which were grown within about 100 miles from Richmond.

We left the market, and went to the locally owned hardware store (sublimely named “Pleasant’s”) to stock up on supplies. We already had one case of quart jars that we’d optimistically bought last year, and never got around to using. We bought another case of quarts and a case of pint jars, and we bought a big-ass canning pot, which seemed like a bargain at $40. (And yes, it was a VERY good thing we bought it.) Pleasant’s was out of the jar-lifter tongs, so we popped down to Kroger, since I know they have a canning section too. They had the tongs in a kit, along with a head-room space measuring tool, a funnel, and God’s gift to home canners: a plastic stick with a magnet on the end. (You try digging lids out of boiling water without it!) If they’d had the tongs alone, I probably would have bought just that, but the kit was well worth it, for $12. While I was at the grocery store, I also picked up a bag of ice, since we don’t have an ice-maker in the freezer. (It came in handy – just keep reading!)

By the time we got home, it was around noon, so we made sure we ate first. We weren’t this smart later in the day, so do yourself a favor: have EASY non-cook meals ready for the day. Order a pizza for dinner, or make up sandwiches before you get started, but once you’ve spent a few hours (or 10) over boiling vats of water, the LAST thing your cranky ass is going to want to do is think about a meal plan.

Canning the tomatoes was VERY easy. It took about 3 hours, start to finish (did I mention that there were THIRTY POUNDS of tomatoes?!) Here’s our step-by-step:

First, we cleaned off our counters so we would have as much elbow room as possible. You’ll want to make sure that there’s a good flow to your process, so things should be staged logically, in the order you’re going to use them. Of course, kitchen layouts being fickle things, do the best with what you got, trying to avoid crossing back and forth over yourself, if you can.

We put our jars in the dishwasher, and tried to time it so that when they were finished, we were ready to fill them. (Lids should NOT go in the dishwasher  – just the jars and the rings.) If you’re not using the dishwasher, you’ll need to boil your jars and rings for at least 10 minutes at a full boil.

If you’re using a big canning pot (ours is 30 quarts) fill it up, and turn on the heat. It took FOREVER to heat up all that water. You’ll need enough water in the pot so that there is an inch of water above the lids, once you have all the jars in the bath. To process 9 quart jars, it was a little more than half-way full with nothing else in it. For the pint jars, we needed to add more water. We added and subtracted water as was necessary over the course of the day. But you’ll need to get it started on boil as soon as you can, all that water is tough to heat. If you’re using the dishwasher to sanitize your jars, you might as well start boiling the water when the dishwasher starts – it took us at least an hour to get to a full boil with that much water.

When we were ready to REALLY begin (the big pot was near boiling and the jars were sanitized) we started two more pots on the stove – one with about six inches of boiling water for blanching tomatoes, and a very small pot for boiling the lids.

I cleaned the tomatoes, handed them off to Phil, who staged them on kitchen towels on the counter, next to the stove. From there, the tomatoes took a quick one-minute bath in the blanching pot. The tomatoes came out of the boiling water, and were dunked into a large bowl filled with ice water. 30 pounds of hot tomatoes = a LOT of ice. We used an entire 10 pound bag of ice, plus whatever we had on hand, and probably would have been used most of a second bag of ice if we’d had it. This hot/cold procedure allows you to pull the skin off of the tomatoes pretty easily, which is a nice touch when it comes time to using your tomatoes down the road. The skins will fall off of the tomatoes during cooking, and be chewy little splinters in your food. We think it’s worth the investment to take the skins off, but it’s entirely up to you.

Once they had cooled down, we started chopping the tomatoes into eighths (roughly), and cutting out any tough stemmy bits and bad spots. The chopped tomatoes went straight into jars, where they were shoved down with one of the utensils from the kit I bought, which had been sterilized, along with all of the tools, for 10 minutes boiling water. They could also have gone through the dishwasher if I’d thought about it ahead of time. The point of shoving the tomatoes around is to get out any air bubbles that might be trapped inside. When we got close to the top, we poured in two tablespoons of lemon juice for acidity. Germy things hate acid, and every recipe we saw called for 2 tablespoons of citric acid. You can substitute lime juice, but you cannot substitute vinegar. The same tool that we used to get out air bubbles had a very convenient set of notches on one end, and we used those to measure 1/2″ of headroom, wiped the rim of each jar CLEAN, and then we capped each jar with a sterilized lid (10 mins, boiling water – detecting a theme?) and screwed on a ring. We decided to go ahead and put each jar directly into the boiling water, because each jar was going to lower the water temperature. We figured it was best to try and keep the water as close to boiling as possible, so that by the time the last jar was done, there wouldn’t be as long to wait for it to boil again.

Having two people work the process was great. Once the tomatoes were washed, I moved on to permanent cutting-board duty, and I was responsible for the lemon juice. Phil kept the tomatoes moving in and out of the boiling water and ice baths, and when we had too many ready to chop, he grabbed a knife and helped with that too. He was the jar-cleaner and lid-putter-onner, and he put the full jars in the canning pot.

When all 9 jars were in the pot, we waited for the boil (you’re going to be doing that a lot) and then, once it was back up to a full boil, we set the timer for 85 minutes, and walked away.

Okay, not really, we still had the other half of the tomatoes to do!! Those went into a big pot, and we followed this recipe from Animal, Vegetable, Miracle for a three-in-one recipe that takes you from barbeque sauce to sweet and sour sauce to chutney. You start with a bunch of ingredients, cook it for a bit, pull some sauce out, add some more ingredients, cook it for a bit, pull some sauce out, add some more ingredients, cook it one last time, and then jar what’s left. All three resulting recipes are DEE-LISH.

The tomatoes that didn’t make it into that recipe (and yes, we still had tomatoes left over!) went into freezer bags and into the freezer. And really (if you’re still with me) that’s the easiest way to keep your summer tomatoes to use them later in the year. But canning was SO satisfying, and if you have a ridiculously small freezer like we do, there’s just not going to be a place for 30 pounds of frozen tomatoes to wait for you in deep-freeze.

Bottom line: doing JUST tomatoes, with no additional recipes took us 3 hours to prep and get 9 quarts into the canner. The other sauce took us FOREVER because it didn’t fit into our largest pot, which was 10.5 quarts. (If you’re going to do the AVM recipe, you want a 20-qt pot so you can cook it at one time without having to wait for things to boil down before you add another couple of cups of ingredients, let it boil down, add more, etc…) We didn’t take the last jars out until after 11 pm!! There was a lot of sitting around, waiting for water to boil, but there was also a lot of kitchen to clean, which we tried to do as we went.

When the jars WERE done, they need to be set some place where there isn’t much of a draft. We used a corner of a counter in the kitchen that’s next to the fridge, and doesn’t get any cross-breezes. We set the jars on kitchen towels, and they need to not touch each other (hot glass is sensitive, and you don’t want any thing accidentally clinking together and causing a blow out.) As the tomatoes settle in the jar, you may notice that they are floating on top of clear liquid, which is perfectly fine. As the jars cool, you’ll hear the lids seal and pop. If, after 4 or 8 hours or so, you still have un-popped jars, you should move them to the fridge, and use them within a couple of days. Consider them unsterilized. My mother-in-law also has a trick of turning the jars upside down after they’d popped, to make sure they didn’t leak. (Leaks = unsealed = move to fridge.) When we did our second batch a couple weeks later, we noticed air bubbles leaking out of the jars when we were pulling them out of the canner. I was a little nervous at first, but I’m convinced they’re safe after they all popped, and after using her little upside-down trick.

Now, for the disclaimer: I am by NO means an expert, and of course, home canning can be unsafe if things aren’t sterile. My personal opinion is that a smidge of paranoia as you’re processing will go along way towards making sure your tomatoes are germ-free (that, and boiling the tomatoes for 10 minutes when you use them). We read at least half a dozen different websites, plus a couple of cookbooks, and the section in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, so that we knew what we were facing.

Here are some websites we used:

Tomato Casual (I love that the subtitle of this tutorial is “for Those Afraid of Poisoning Themselves.”)

National Center for Home Food Preservation

Canning Food Recipes

Backwoods Home

USDA site

(**note: after doing some more research, I’ve found some sites that recommend boiling for only 45 minutes, and others that say 85. Conduct your own research before following my lead, but you can’t go wrong with more time!)