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My haul of tomatoes

Saturday, I went to another canning workshop, this time on tomatoes. I've been both excited and scared about tomatoes -- they seem to be some of the most useful and versatile things to can, but also the most associated with the possibility of botulism. So, I've been reading and doing research (there's a super handy infographic here if anyone is interested), but I also wanted to go to an actual class so I could ask specific questions of a knowledgeable person.

The class was great for a couple of reasons. First, as expected, I got to ask specific questions and get some food safety reassurance. Second, I learned that canning tomatoes can actually be super easy! I was expecting to have to spend a lot of time pre-cooking or making sauce, but it turns out that, while you can do those things, you don't have to -- you can just pack whole tomatoes (peeled and cored and with added acid) and then turn them into whatever you need later. Both methods have upsides and downsides, of course. This way is quicker on the front end, and a little more versatile, but does require more work and thought on the back end. The trade off was worth it for me, though.

Coring and scoring!

So, on Sunday, I went to the farmer's market in search of tomatoes for canning and found a farmer who sold me 27 lbs of tomatoes for $15, which comes out to about 55 cents/lb! That was great, even though I had to lug it all home, uphill. :) I spent pretty much the rest of the day, on and off, working on the tomatoes. It was about 3 hours of hands-on work spread out over about 9 total hours. Lots of time, but I got 25 pints out of it! I just learned that I could've used the peels and cores to make a few pints of thick tomato sauce, but I didn't know that at the time. Ah, well, next year. I think it was worth it, despite all the effort.

I have some more observations about the whole canning thing. :) Some of these are from the tomato canning, some are from things I'm reading, and some are just thoughts from the past month.

Mountain of peels and cores, and some peeled tomatoes waiting to be packed

Tomatoes are a lot less scary than they seem. From the reading I've done (and the info from class), it looks like there are 2 main things to worry about -- botulism due to acidity levels not being high enough and general spoilage from not having a good seal. The seal bit isn't actually that worrying -- mold and other nasty things of that nature are easy to notice, so if your seal is bad, the outcome is annoying but easy to see. Your food will have issues you can see or smell, so you can avoid eating it. The botulism risk is scarier since it can be invisible, but it's actually pretty easy to solve -- make sure your tomatoes are sufficiently acidic! The official USDA recommendation is to add either citric acid (which I didn't have) or bottled lemon juice to make sure it's a standard acidity. I went for the latter, but I really don't like the taste of the stuff. In the future, I think I'll get litmus paper so I can use fresh lemons and just make sure the juice is acidic enough. The other strategy is to use a pressure canner, but they're expensive and take up space, so I'm unlikely to get one any time soon.
There's a lot of conflicting information out there! One reason I'm not putting any recipes here is that I'm by no means an expert, and I don't want to add to the amount of random-seeming stuff that exists when one searches for canning (or tomato canning specifically). My take away has been to use recipes developed and tested after the mid-80s because that's when the USDA issues its home canning guidelines. The USDA itself has good resources, as does the National Center for Home Food Preservation. I think canning is a lot like baking -- you have to be relatively precise, but once you know what you're doing (and really understand the process on a deeper level), you can do some improvisation.
Tomatoes take a long time to process. In the class, we did raw whole tomatoes packed in water, and those needed to be processed at a boil for 45 minutes (that doesn't include the time spent in the water as it gets up to a boil). At home, I did raw whole tomatoes packed in their own liquid, which means they were more densely packed and had to be processed for 85 minutes! It wasn't too bad, since I had other things to work on while the tomatoes processed, but it's certainly not a quick activity.
I don't know about tomatoes, but jam makes for great host gifts! Mu and I have stayed at several people's places and brought them jam, and everyone seems happy about it (though I suppose they could be faking, heh). I suspect it may also make good holiday gifts. ;)
Wide mouth jars are more convenient for whole tomatoes than regular jars. The class used the former, and it was messier and more difficult to pack the tomatoes in, especially without squishing them. I had the latter at home, by accident, and I intend to keep using them in the future. The only downside is that the half-pint jars I've been using are regular mouth, so I can't use the same lids for both sets.

Final outsome: 25 pints!

I'm done with tomatoes for the season -- while I could probably use more (I use a lot of canned tomatoes when I cook), I simply don't have time to do more canning before they're gone. Next up is a workshop on apples!


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