Canning your own fresh produce can sound like a daunting task, but it’s really not as overwhelming as you might think! You start off by just prepping or cooking your produce (something you’ve likely done many times before) and then you go through the extra step of processing (i.e. boiling) the prepared food in glass jars. There are of course some details in-between when it comes to food safety, but as with anything – practice makes perfect! Kiran and I got some practice ourselves recently and are excited to show you how to can tomatoes, step-by-step.
One of the most important things to know about canning is that it’s imperative to use a reliable recipe from a reliable source. There is a whole science behind making sure your canned food does not spoil (or worse, cause a foodborne illness), so unless you are a very experienced canner this is just not an area where you want to experiment.
I personally think of the Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving as the “bible” of basic canning recipes, but if you want to get more creative there are sites/books like Food in Jars that are great reliable resources as well. If you’re interested in canning other foods, this is a very good comprehensive course that you should check out. Don’t let the safety aspect scare you away …if you follow the directions and start practicing with high-acid foods (fruits and tomatoes) there’s very little chance anything could go wrong. Let’s remember how many generations before us have been preserving their seasonal foods through canning!
As I mentioned, Kiran and I got together this summer to try our hand at canning tomatoes. I had some experience canning jam before and we’ve both taken canning classes, but the funny thing is even with all that experience we still felt like we had to read the directions 20 million times just to make sure we were not missing a single step. This is how we canned our tomatoes following the Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving…
- We went to our local farmers’ market and bought 20 pounds of tomatoes. You want to inspect each one to make sure they’re free of cracks and bad spots.
- We then bought a set of quart glass canning jars. It would also be okay to use canning jars you already own, BUT you would need to ensure the jars are free of nicks and cracks and you would need to purchase new (never been used) lids for this project, unless you have the reusable kind. We ended up needing 6 quart jars since a few of our tomatoes spoiled in the 3 days between purchasing them and canning them and had to be trashed.
- We also bought lemon juice – this is required and helps increase the acid level of the tomatoes for food safety reasons.
- We started by setting out all of our supplies and sterilizing our jars, bands, and canning tools (funnel, lid lifter, tongs, etc.) in the dishwasher. We sterilized the lids separately in hot water (not to exceed 180 degrees F). While you could sterilize everything in pots of water, I think it’s easier to do the bulk of it in the dishwasher, and reliable sources say this is an approved method for everything except the lids.
- We filled a large lobster pot I happen to own with water (of course a canning pot would be even better if you have one!), set a wire canning rack inside, and put it on the stove on high to boil. We used this same pot to both prepare our tomatoes and to process our jars.
- Next, we prepared our tomatoes. There are different ways to do this, and we chose the “raw pack” method (mainly because it sounded the easiest – ha!). So next we dropped our tomatoes (in batches) into the boiling water and blanched them for about 1 minute. The purpose of this step is to make it easier to get the skins off. Once we were done blanching we set up an assembly line of sorts. Kiran took the peels off then passed them to me to cut out and discard the top of the core. At this point you can leave the tomatoes whole or cut them in quarters. We left them whole because again – it was the easiest way to go!
- By then the dishwasher was done so we set up our clean jars on a clean dish towel and dropped in the 2 tablespoons of lemon juice required for each quart jar (it’s 1 tablespoon per pint jar). Then we added as many tomatoes that would fit into each jar, topped them off with water until only 1/2″ of headspace was left (it’s important to follow this measurement guideline), and added a teaspoon of salt to each jar.
- Once all the jars were filled we slid a nonmetallic spatula all around on the inside edges of the jars to break up any air bubbles and then added more water if necessary. We honestly didn’t need much water at all because our tomatoes were so juicy!
- Lastly, we wiped the rims and jars with a clean towel, carefully placed the sterilized lids on the jars (not touching the underside by using 0ur magnetic lid tool), loosely screwed on the bands, and then lowered as many jars as would fit into the large pot of boiling water. We ensured the water covered the jars completely, let it come back up to a light boil, and started the timer for 45 minutes.
- When we were done we carefully used our jar tongs to get the hot jars out of the pot and let them rest on the counter for a while before handling. Little by little the lids started to pop to let us know they were sealed – here is a pic of our finished product!
Questions We Had
Now even though we were using some very reliable instructions, we found ourselves with quite a few questions along the way. So I called up Ball on the phone (they’re there to answer any of your canning questions for free! 1-800-240-3340) and found out the following…
- Lemon juice: Does it have to be bottled (not fresh)?
Apparently you can use fresh! We did not know that and went with bottled just to be safe because a few recipes we saw specifically said “bottled.” Now we know!
- Tomatoes: Can you only process whole (or chopped) tomatoes or how about spaghetti sauce?
Processing sauce is possible, but requires a different procedure and lemon juice as well, which you might not normally add to sauce. I personally like having plain whole tomatoes on hand because they are more versatile – you could use them to make sauce or soup or anything your heart desires!
- End product: Why are my tomatoes floating in the jars?
This happened to us and we learned it is not ideal, but it’s okay. This is a common (and completely safe) issue and can happen when tomatoes are overripe or not all the air bubbles were removed when packing the jars.
- Packing tomatoes into jars: Can we use our hands or is a (wooden) spoon better?
Clean hands or clean wooden spoon are both okay, but a non-metallic spoon will be more sterilized than your fingers/fingernails.
- Sterilization: Do you have to boil the jars or is the dishwasher okay for sterilization?
Ball has not tested the dishwasher (so they can’t give it their blessing), but other reliable sources say it’s okay. As I mentioned above the lids should not go in the dishwasher and instead be sterilized in a pot of water not to exceed 180 degrees F).
- Processing time: Is it possible to “over-process” i.e. boil for too long?
Over-processing will possibly diminish the quality of the product, but won’t affect the safety of the food.
Well, overall our canning day was a success! Kiran and I would love to hear your canning tips in the comments …we can’t wait to get together to process our next batch. :) As mentioned above, if you are looking to learn more about canning, we highly recommend this course which touches on canning safety, pickling, pressure canning, canning tomatoes and canning fruit. You won’t be disappointed!