My First Attempt at Canning is Not a Total Failure

Last year, shortly after all of the summer crops had given way to Halloween candy displays and holiday decorations, a coworker gave me a large black pot and metal rack for canning.  He told me that, just a couple of weeks earlier, he had ridden his motorcycle out into the Amish country, stopped at a roadside stand, and bought 35 pounds of tomatoes for seven dollars.  He made a bunch of sauce, but he’s more of a freezer and not a canner.  He suggested I might want to take advantage of the summer bounty by canning.

So, on the same day that we picked up our Halloween pumpkins from a local orchard, I also bought a set of Ball quart jars, jelly jars, and a canning accessory kit, all of which, along with the big black pot, were stowed in the dark corners of my basement.  Until last week, that is.

Having passed a few roadside stands in Lancaster County, at least one of which was overflowing with baskets of ripe tomatoes, I dug out all of my canning supplies and decided to make a go of it.  On Saturday, we stopped by a stand and I was able to pick up about four pounds of Roma tomatoes for four dollars.  I would have wanted more, but that’s all they had.  I’m still looking for the big tomato score.  Might be this weekend, might be next.

On Monday, after getting home from work, the first thing I did was fill the black pot with water and set it on the stove over the highest heat I could get.  I took my Ball jars, the lids, and the bands, and ran them through the dishwasher.  Then, I got to peeling the tomatoes.

Here’s the thing about canning – there’s a lot of heat going on in the kitchen.  For one thing, you’ve got this cauldron of boiling water.  Then you’ve got the jars, which you have to handle while they’re still hot out of the dishwasher.  Then you’ve got whatever liquid, be it water or syrup or juice, that you’re putting into the jars along with whatever you’re canning.  And, if you’re canning tomatoes, you’ve also got some more boiling water, into which you’re plunging the tomatoes to loosen the skins.

So, working from the pile of tomatoes, I took a knife and cut a small ‘X’ into the end of each one, dropping three at a time into the small pot of boiling water.  After 30 seconds or so, I fished them out with a pair of tongs and ran them under cold water, using my fingertips to peel away the skin, then dropping them into the waiting jars.  I had decided that, instead of using water as my liquid, I would use tomato juice, so I brought a saucepan of store-bought tomato juice to a boil and filled each jar with that.

I took the lids and screwtop bands out of the hot dishwasher as I needed them, and sealed each quart jar.  I put the jars into the black pot of boiling water (which, by the way, takes about forty minutes to come to a full boil, so you should put that onto the heat before you begin any tomato peeling), put the lid on, and processed the jars for about an hour and fifteeen minutes.

There were two important lessons learned from this, my first canning effort.  First, what would first appear to be a nice hill of tomatoes doesn’t amount to much when it comes to canning.  From the four pounds of tomatoes, I only ended up with enough to fill two quart jars – which made it seem like an awful lot of effort and water boiled for so little.  It really gets to be worthwhile if you’ve got the crops to process a full six or seven quart load, so for tomatoes this would be in the neighborhood of fourteen pounds.

Second lesson learned – I filled the jars too full.  When the processing time was up, I took off the lid to see that the boiling water had been tinged red by leakage, and when I took the jars out, one of them started seeping tomato juice.  I had initially thought that this meant my seals weren’t secure, but I left the jars alone and, as they cooled, the lids popped inward, indicating a vacuum seal.  I was still a little suspicious, but found some message boards on the internet that said that a vacuum seal was the most important factor, and, judging by the appearance of the tomatoes a week later, they seem to be just fine.

I’m still on the hunt for a massive tomato score before the end of this season.  We found a great Pick Your Own farm over the weekend, and managed to score some tomatoes, but many of the ripest were storm damaged, so we skipped them.  If the abundance of ripening green tomatoes were any indication, though, it looks like we may be able to go back in two weeks and harvest a full box.