(Our Skill of the Month is one of the most popular features on this blog, and I’ve dropped the ball a bit this summer. I’m taking steps to make sure we have a new skill posted the first week of every month!)
A couple of summers ago I saw three children standing on a street corner in northern Utah giving away tomatoes. “Free tomatoes,” read their hand-made sign! You may not find free tomatoes, but some grocery stores in my area have been charging just 25 cents a pound for Romas! If you’re ever going to learn to can, and canning tomatoes is super easy, this is the time to do it!
What you’ll need:
1. A bit of confidence. Canning is way easier than you might think. The following instructions may seem complicated and intimidating, but trust me. Just start gathering your supplies, get your hands on a few pounds of tomatoes (Romas will have more flavor, Beefsteaks less so), and set aside about two hours. When you’re finished, you’ll be amazed that you ever thought canning was difficult and you will be SO PROUD of yourself!!
2. An inexpensive set of canning tools. Walmart carries the Ball brand for less than $8. It contains jar tongs (there really isn’t a good substitute for these), a magnetic lid lifter (used to lift the flat lids out of the hot, sanitizing water), jar funnel (helpful, even when you’re not canning), a bubble remover/headspace measuring tool. There are other tools out there but if you have these four, you’re good to go.
3. Canning jars. Not any jar will do. Canning jars are designed to withstand high temperatures and pressure. Both Ball and Kerr sell “Mason” jars, which has become, more or less, the generic name of canning jars. Some will actually have the name, “Mason”, on them, others might be marked, Ball or Kerr. If you find canning jars at estate or garage sales, only use them for canning if they are marked with one of these brand names, to be on the safe side.
I stick pretty much with just wide-mouth jars. I just like the style and I find it easier to fill them and then maneuver the food around inside the jar to remove bubbles. Walmart carries a generic brand that is a bit cheaper, but canning experts have told me they aren’t in love with them, that their seals sometimes fail. You may save a couple of bucks buying them but then may have to turn around and buy Ball lids, to be on the safe side. New canning jars come with lids and rings. They’re ready to go!
What size jar should you use? Since we’re canning tomatoes, think about the recipes you make that call for canned tomatoes. Do you generally use the 14.5 ounce size can or do you make large batches of food that call for 28 ounce cans? I’ve been using the pint size since I’d rather open one jar and use it all than end up with leftovers that have to be refrigerated. Quart size jars are handy, though, and hold 2 pints.
4. Lids. These are only the flat lid that fits over the opening of the jar. They have a rubber ring on the underside of the lid, and this is what provides the airtight seal and protects the contents from contamination. Jars and rings can be re-used, again and again, but the lids cannot. Check out re-usable lids by Tattler. They get rave reviews by everyone I know who has used them.
5. Rings. New jars come with both lids and rings, and there is no need to buy replacements. Unless the rings rust or are bent, they can be re-used.
6. Large pot with a lid. There are inexpensive water-bath canners that come with a rack for lifting several jars at once, placing them into the pot of hot water and removing them. I have mixed feelings about using a rack since the jars can wibble and wobble, and I’m always worried one will topple out. I prefer just using the jar tongs. Your mileage may vary.
You do NOT have to have an official, “water-bath canner.” Any large pot with a lid will do, but a canner is definitely HUGE and will hold more jars.
7. Lemon juice or citric acid. Tomatoes, even heirloom varieties, do not contain enough acid to safely can them using the water bath method without adding extra acid. I place a quarter teaspoon at the bottom of each pint jar before filling them with tomatoes and water.
8. A ladle. You’ll use this to add hot water to your jars of tomatoes.
9. A small saucepan for heating water to sanitize the lids and a 4-quart pan/pot for heating the water that you will add to the tomatoes in each jar.
10. A bowl of ice water. You’ll want to peel the tomatoes before canning them. Drop them in water that is at a low, rolling boil. Leave in for a minute or until you see the outer skin begin to crack. Immediately scoop the tomato up, using the ladle, and place in ice water. The skill will be ever so easy to peel off!
11. A cutting board and knife. You may want to cut the tomatoes in smaller pieces, although many people just press them down in the jar, whole.
12. 2 or 3 kitchen towels. You’ll set these on your counter to protect both your hot jars and countertop.
13. Finally, TOMATOES!!! Even if your garden produced few tomatoes this summer, since you’re just learning how to can, then buy 8 pounds or so when you find them on sale. This will likely give you enough tomatoes to fill at least a case (12) of pint jars.
Going forward, it will be important to find inexpensive sources of tomatoes and other produce that you want to preserve. Keep in mind that by canning your own food, you will always know exactly what it contains. There will be no hidden high fructose corn syrup, MSG, ultra high sodium, etc. That’s the beauty of growing and preserving your own food.