Put Up Or Shut Up

You didn’t think I’d mention canning this weekend and then not post about it, did you? Now you should know, I am mighty tempted to close down this computer and go straight to bed, but my conscious just can’t leave you all hanging.

We got our first batch of #2 canning tomatoes from Midnight Sun Organics today. Husband picked up a fifteen pound flat at the market this morning (and he made it home just minutes before a torrential downpour began too). This year’s canning began a little differently. First, I decided to use a different recipe. In past years, I’ve canned whole tomatoes in water. This year I decided to do raw-packed tomatoes with no added liquid. I made the switch for two reasons, the primary one being flavor. Water dilutes, and for the effort I’m going to, I want the most concentrated tomato flavor possible. And secondly, having hot water is another step – another stockpot on the stove to deal with. I’m a big fan of simplicity.

The second change was timing, and that was a matter of necessity. There is a certain point of no return during the canning process where you cannot just take a break and do something else for awhile. But up until that point, you can do a little bit and sit down and rest (otherwise known as elevating your broken ankle) and then come back to it. So for a process that in a normal year would take me two, maybe three hours, this year’s stretched out over the course of the whole day. And in case you’re wondering what the mythic point of no return is should you be forced to stretch it out, it’s the point when you turn the flame on under your canner and stockpot for blanching. From that moment on, you are locked in. But all the prep – washing and organizing your equipment, washing and scoring the tomatoes, getting all your stockpots filled with water (or having your husband do it for you) can be done at your leisure.

So, onto the good stuff. But let me say this clearly – if you’ve never canned before, do not let my loosely-organized tutorial be your only guide. Hop on over to the Ball canning website and get yourself a copy of the beloved canner’s bible – The Ball Blue Book of Preserving. Home canning is perfectly safe, but you’ve got to play by the rules and literally do it by the book. It’ll be the best six bucks you ever spent. Disclaimer aside, here’s how my day of putting up tomatoes went down.

First up, the equipment. The supplies needed for a basic recipe (and most waterbath recipes, in fact) are pretty simple –

– 21 quart waterbath canner or stockpot, with lid

– canning rack

– jar lifter

– magnetic lid wand or rack (I’ve got the wand)

– wide-mouth funnel

– a non-metallic narrow thing to remove air bubbles from your jar (I use a chopstick, some people use those small plastic spatulas)

– regular-sized stockpot for blanching (like the size you’d make a big batch of soup in; I forget how many quarts mine is)

– a slotted spoon or wire basket for blanching (I used to just use the spoon, but this year I scored an “As Seen On TV” Chef Basket as a promo gift, and it works perfectly)

– jars (I used five quarts for this recipe) with bands

– brand new lids (you can only use lids once to ensure a proper seal)

– cutting board and paring knife

– large bowl for an ice bath

– large bowl or tray to hold your prepped tomatoes (I use a large rimmed baking sheet)

– measuring spoons – teaspoon and tablespoon

– lots of clean kitchen towels

– tomatoes, lemon juice, table salt, bag of ice

Now I know that seems like a crazy long list after I said it was going to be simple but you’ll notice that most of those things are regular kitchen items you’ll already have around, and not specialized equipment. Once you’ve got all your supplies in one spot, you’ll want to give them a good wash. My supplies sit in a bottom canning cupboard all year, so even though they’re clean when I put them a way, they’ve got dust on them, so a good washing in regular dish soap with hot water is an important step – work clean from start to finish –

And of course you’ll want to wash your tomatoes as well. I just give them a light scrub in warm water with a vegetable brush. Here they all are, awaiting their washing –

And here they are post-scrub. You’ll notice I scored a light ‘x’ into the bottom of each one with a paring knife. This will make it easier to peel off the skins after they’re blanched and shocked in ice water.

All of the above I did over the course of several hours in the morning, allowing me time in between to rest up for the marathon ahead. Because now we’re entering point of no return territory. Time to turn on the flames! Sterilizing the jars happens in the canner, while you’re prepping the tomatoes. You want to fill up each jar in the canner all the way, then fill in the rest of the pot just to the tops of the jars. I bet you’re thinking – but wait, all the guidelines say I need two inches of headspace! Yep, and indeed you do. Once you carefully empty the water from the jars back into the pot when you’re ready to fill them with tomatoes, there’s your headspace. Simple! We went ahead and sterilized the full seven jars that the canner holds since we weren’t sure how far our tomatoes would go (though based on experience I expected, and got, only five). It’s always better to have sterilized more jars than you will need rather than less. Once you’re ready to process, you just set any extra jars aside out of the action. Here we are, flames on and jars sterilizing –

 

While the jars are doing their thing, it’s time to get serious prepping the tomatoes. They need to blanched for 30-60 seconds in a boiling water bath in order to loosen the skins enough so that they can be peeled off –

Then, because we don’t want cooked, mushy tomatoes here – they get shocked for a minute or two in an ice water bath. It also makes them easier to handle while peeling; no burnt fingers.

At this point, you’ll want to put your jar lids to sterilize in hot (not boiling) water. I was lazy this time and threw them in to the top of the canner with the jars, which works – but know that if they sink to the bottom they’re not going to be fun to fish out. Your little wand thing isn’t going to be long enough. We had to use tongs. The proper way to do it is in a one quart pot of their own, and I recommend it.

Now, onto the dirty work. You’re not going to want to be wearing your Sunday best. Tomato juice and whatnot will get all over you no matter how hard you try. I should’ve listed an apron in the supply list above; you’ll want to be wearing one to protect your clothes. And I like to wear one because it makes me feel like a rocking old-school farm woman (and when you’re energy starts to flag, you’re going to need the empowerment boost to motor through). But that’s beside the point. Here are the blanched and shocked tomatoes, ready for their date with the paring knife –

And here’s a shot of my bottling supplies lined up from the other side of the table. From peeling to bottling, I like to have all my supplies lined up and ready to go in one spot –

Tired yet? I was a little, but my empowerment apron (and the promise of wholesome sun-kissed tomatoes in January) kept me going. It didn’t hurt that I was sitting during this part of the process. I never would’ve made it if I wasn’t (I’m not a wuss – I blame the ankle!). So, the basic idea during this phase is to use your paring knife to peel off all the skin, remove the core and cut away any blemishes. Then half or quarter (or eigth! Some of my tomatoes were ginormous) them and set them on your tray. Make sure you pour any accumulated juices on your board over them too. Waste not, want not. Halfway in, this is what I’ve got for prepped tomatoes –

Once all of your tomatoes are peeled, cored and cut, you’re ready to bottle. Using your jar lifters, carefully life one jar at a time out of the canner and pour the hot water back into the canner. This is where you go slow – splashing near-boiling water is not fun. The rubber grips on the jar lifter will securely grip the mouth of the jar, and make sure you have a secure grip on the jar lifter. Just pour slowly and carefully. I did a few, then husband took over (his pregnant-lady-on-crutches safety barometer kicked into high gear for that procedure). Have a clean towel laid out on your work surface – these jars are going to be hot! Don’t touch them with your bare hands. That’s why you’ve got all these kitchen towels strewn about all over the place. For the recipe I was using, I needed to put two tablespoons of lemon juice into the bottom of each jar –

Then I packed in the tomatoes. I really packed them in – they need to be pretty tight in the jar, and for this recipe you want them to exude their own juice a bit. Once packed in the jars, run your chopstick or spatula around the inside of the jar to remove any air bubbles. Add more tomatoes if necessary to compensate. And this year, we decided to salt our tomatoes (we usually don’t), so once the jars were filled, we added a teaspoon of salt to the top of each one. Here are some filled jars waiting for their trip back to the canner –

Once the jars are filled, use on of those ubiquitous kitchen jars to wipe the rims clean to make sure the lids get the best seal. Then put on the hot lids and rings, screwed fingertip tight only – you don’t need to get a wrench to tighten them. Here are all five finished jars in the canner –

Jack the flame up as high as it will go, put the lid on your canner and have a seat close by, don’t walk away now. You’re not done yet. Here’s the thing – processing time doesn’t start from the moment you’ve got all the jars in the canner, it starts from the moment the water comes to a rolling boil. So you can hang out close by cleaning up your dirty dishes, or browsing more cool recipes from the Blue Book. I chose to browse the book while seated in front of the stove. 🙂 You’ll know your pot is boiling because it’ll start making a racket – there’s no other way to describe it. Take a peek under the lid to confirm that you’ve got your boil really going, replace the lid, and now you can walk away (well, not to far but you get you the point). My recipe needed 85 minutes (or one hour and 25 minutes) of processing time.

We had a few bonus goods this round too. We had a few extra tomatoes, not quite enough to can – so we’ve got a little half pint of fresh to throw into something for dinner this week. And remember the rimmed baking sheet I used to hold my prepped tomatoes? I got a half quart of juice off of that, to be used in cooking this week also –

Eighty five minutes later (and a delicious dinner of Milwaukee Iron chicken legs and sweet corn on the grill, with a glass of sweet iced tea on the back deck), we turned off the eternal flame and let the jars sit for a few. Then we used the jar lifters to take them out of the canner and let them rest on still another kitchen towel –

Beautiful, aren’t they? But dang it if I don’t get “floaters” every year! General consensus is this isn’t a safety issue when the tomatoes sit on top of the liquid, as long as the jars seal properly. It  just doesn’t look as pretty. You’ll know the jars seal when you hear the tell-tale ping of the lids vacuuming to the jar. Tomorrow I’ll test the seals by pressing down on the lids – when sealed properly, they shouldn’t give in at all. If they do, I can either re-process them with new lids, or put them in the fridge to be consumed within a week. But fingers crossed they all seal!

And now that my jars of tomatoes are lined up neatly in a row, I’m going to bed! Happy canning!

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