RECYCLED – Damien Casten’s Thoughts on Canning Garden Tomatoes
Editor’s Note: Between the ample harvest and the strong whiff of cool air around, it’s time to start canning (if you have not already). Probably the best thing to can, something that takes to canning so well, is tomatoes. Once put away, you can use your taste of summer year-round for pasta sauces, braises, and anywhere else the warm red flavors will take you back. Enjoy this re-post on the basics of canning tomatoes. Canning is process. Enjoy the process and you’ll enjoy canning. I’m Damien Casten, tomato evangelizer. With my friend Mo Ferris, we are happy to share the process of putting your tomatoes up for later enjoyment.
As we prefer to focus on what is enjoyable as a general rule, we are going to do just that. Still, there are some critically important details to think about when putting anything into a can today that you hope to eat in good health months from now. For those details, we encourage you to explore the University of Minnesota’s detailed page on how to can tomatoes safely. Read it twice. Let’s talk processes. Each stage of the canning process offers a chance to enjoy the right here and now of life. For some, canning begins with a seed catalogue in February and thoughts of warmer days. In an ideal world, the leisurely perusal of Seed Savers or Heirloom Seeds takes place over a bowl of pasta dressed with last year’s harvest. The fact is though that few of us have the space to plant so many tomatoes that we have enough to eat in season and can as well, so let’s fast forward to the harvest when growers from across Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan are looking forward to greeting you at your local farmers’ market. A week ahead of time: You’ll need quite a few tomatoes, 23 lbs for 7 quarts as you read on the U of M’s extension page, so plan ahead for your budget. It is true that farmers’ will often offer a discounted deal at the end of a market day, but they will offer you a deal on what they have left, and not necessarily what you want. Better to go to the market a week ahead of your canning day and talk to your farmer about your needs. They are likely to offer suggestions on which varieties are fun, which they prefer, and they may offer a discount due to the volume you are purchasing. With this one small act, you have accomplished many things: You know who is growing your tomatoes, you have committed to a day of canning next week, and you have learned about this season’s growing conditions. We told you the process is fun. Fight the urge to overbuy and plan reasonably. You will not can four bushels of tomatoes on your first attempt, or even on your fortieth, no matter how badly we (we mean you) want to have a cupboard full of summer goodness the day after you’ve canned. During the week: Browse the web for specific instructions on materials needed. Here is a site that does a nice job of presenting the details. During the week ahead of your canning day, double check that you have all the required materials including the canning pot. Make a list, check it twice. Read this forum for a comprehensive overview. Personal experience indicates that running out for additional jars, rings, pots, pans, salt or anything else when you are up to your elbows in prepped tomatoes is a part of the process that is better avoided. Avoid it with a good plan. Canning Day! Gather a group of folks who share your enthusiasm. It’s possible to can alone, but working with friends is a guarantee that you’ll have a group that wants to come together this winter to share in the next part of the process. Think through the process that you have detailed. Again, once you have jars warm and clean, tomatoes peeled and juiced and herbs prepared, it’s a real pain in the arse to have to stop because you are missing something. The French must do a lot of canning because their term “mis en place” is the first term you should learn. Roughly translated, “mis en place” means “everything in its place and a place for everything”. The precise translation is “line up your ducks”, or maybe that’s what Confit de Canard means. Our suggested mis en place includes: Jars - sterilized and kept warm either in the closed hot dishwasher or in a 200 degree oven. Consider the size of your canner and the amount of jars you’ll need. Have enough ready to go before you start. Canner – whether you will be using a pressure canner or a water canner, have the pot ready to go with as much warm water as needed. Take fifteen minutes before you start to read the instructions carefully. Lids – have a pot of water on the stove and the lids you’ll need submerged and ready. Clean towels – The rim of each jar needs to be wiped clean to ensure a proper seal. One paper towel will be used quickly. Have a few ready to go.
Tools – Oven mits for hot cans. A laddle for the tomatoes you will transfer into the can. A glass of wine paired with the appropriate music. A pitcher or something like a pitcher to pour the tomato juice and or water into the cans. A few essential tools that might not be obvious include a jar lifter which serves to remove the cans from the hot water when cooking is complete and a canning funnel that allows you to pour the tomatoes into the jar cleanly.
Your mis en place will inlcude whatever you might want to add to the jars, but we advise you to think simple, bright, and clean. Happiness is the smell of summer tomatoes on a cold day in February. We suggest being as pure as possible in your flavors. Garlic, herbs and spices can all be added to the sauce that you will make months from now and a clean jar of tomatoes will allow you to follow whatever mood you are in when the time comes. A jar full of tomatoes flavored with other things might be wonderful, but do you want 8-12 jars of the same? The only times we recommend tomatoes and lots of other flavors is in case of a family recipe that one knows to be delicious and in case of a cupboard already full of simply canned tomatoes. The picture at the top of this post shows “Tomatoes with Hotsie Totsie” that we made last weekend. Note that its a small jar as compared to the others. This was an experiment that we did after canning more than a bushel of tomato and basil. We’ll see how it tastes this winter. As the picture at right shows, a bit of basil fresh from the garden is more than acceptable in our book.
Mo Ferris has been canning on her days off from the restaurant she manages in Chicago and is a graduate of Johnson and Wales. Damien Casten is the guy whose inability to stop ordering heirloom seeds led to the birth of Chicago TomatoFest.