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The great tomato canning of 2008

Yes, kittens, it’s that time again. Time when the bounty of summer comes tumbling down all around us, when we must work like hell to preserve produce at its peak of perfection lest it slip through our fingers for yet another year.

We’ve not done as much canning this year as we have in years past. In 2006 in particular we frenetically canned everything that wasn’t nailed down. But based on last year’s successful tomato canning venture, we knew we had to do it again.

Last year, working with our friends Nick and Russ, we processed and canned 80 pounds of luscious heirloom tomatoes, netting six gallons of bright marinara sauce. This year, we upped the ante and went for 100 pounds. Gluttons for punishment, we are.

While we once again worked with ripe, organic heirlooms (luckily more ripe than our friends’ quarry), Nick this year opted for a variety that was largely based on beefsteak. This not only resulted in a richer color, but a sauce with more body as well.

Canning this quantity of anything is not work to be undertaken lightly. We scored, blanched,
peeled, seeded and coarsely chopped all the tomatoes, reserving the
excess tomato water. Then we cooked up two tremendous stockpots of
marinara sauce, comprised simply of sautéed garlic and onion, tomatoes
and salt and pepper. Then, we stuffed a large sprig of basil in each jar, filled them with sauce, and processed the canned sauce in two even larger pressure canners at 11 pounds of pressure for 15 minutes, working in batches. We then left the jars to cool, their contents bubbling volcanically for hours.

It so happens that 80 pounds of tomatoes is about as much as we
could accommodate even in these monstrous pots, and so we tried to can
the remainder simply as is. But during the pressure canning, the meat
and water of the tomatoes separated, leaving lava lamp-like
configurations that we didn’t think would hold up so well. So we opened
them up, drained and reserved the tomato water, and cooked down the
meat to hearty homemade tomato paste. The water makes for a
fantastic braising liquid (including, as we discovered, for Rancho Gordo Rio Zape beans) or soup base.

It’s hot, sweaty, grueling, back-breaking and above all messy work, but a bottle or four of wine got us through. Each couple came away with 12 quarts of luscious sauce, plus tomato water and tomato paste, to have on hand to offer a ray of summer sunshine during the upcoming dark winter days. We’ve vowed to make it an annual tradition.

The boys at The Bitten Word have their own messy tomatoey fun
Andrea gives a primer on boiling-water method canning
The Crispy Cook does hers over a three-day period
More via Food Blog Search

Note: The above sites are using boiling-water method to can tomatoes. Tomatoes are marginally within the appropriate acid level to prevent spoilage by this method. To ensure safety, either add acid using lemon juice or vitamin C; boil for at least 45 minutes; or process in a pressure canner.

This Post Has 21 Comments
  1. Our friend Nick bought them at the El Cerrito Farmers Market — but they’ve been perfectly abundant at markets all around the Bay Area.

  2. wowee–you gave me an idea! instead of canning ALL BY MYSELF, i’m going to invite a friend or two to make it a social, group activity. i may not have time to get that together this year, but next year for sure!

  3. 12 quarts of marinara! Howard could make 12 pounds of pasta with one quart. That’s 144 pounds of pasta. He likes to barely cover his pasta with sauce. He is half Italian, after all. Of course, I like it like Americans, with lots of sauce.
    I have a small pressure canner you’re welcome to use next year, but it only holds about 5-6 pints.
    BTW, how much does 100# of tomatoes cost? Even at a Farmer’s Market.

  4. As I understand it, the lava-lamp effect is an artifact of pressure canning tomatoes. You can avoid it by heating the tomatoes and their juice briefly before packing into hot jars, or by packing room-temp halves or wholes very tight in the (hot) jars and topping with boiling tomato juice.
    Pressure canned whole (or even diced) tomatoes will always rise to the top and separate a bit, but hotpack or lightly stewed look less odd.
    In any case, even cold packs are perfectly good for a year or longer, as long as the seal is good. though they won’t win any prizes at the county fair for prettiness, they’re definitely the closest to store-bought whole peeled tomatoes in terms of consistency and 1-for-1 substitution in recipes.

  5. Cookie: We ran out of last year’s 12 qts in March!
    Scott: I didn’t know Howard was half Italian! I think between Nick/Russ’s and Cam/Anita’s huge pressure canners, we’re good to go; no room for more on the stove. And Nick was able to get the tomatoes for $100 — $1/lb! Only at the peak of bounty, of course.
    Anita: I think there were some air bubbles in the tomatoes, tho I tried to pack them in as densely as possible. Not only did they separate, but the solids of the tomatoes formed a column that stuck to the top, and the water boiled down, leaving an uncomfortable amount of headspace with exposed tomato meat. I just didn’t trust it. No harm no foul — we have tomato paste for days.
    Dayna: Last year we gave a couple jars away. This year, no effin’ way. 🙂
    Fanny: Thank you! I have to confess though, I’ve had so little time to write, I felt like this was a bit of a throwaway post. Practice makes perfect!

  6. What an awesome idea! A canning party, and with wine to boot. I always end up doing the canning by myself while hubs keeps the kiddoes out of the kitchen. Oh, and those 12 quarts would barely last us the winter. Hub loves pasta and sauce, and we are all about the sauce.

  7. whenever i make marinara we end up eating it, no leftovers for canning. of course, i only start with about 5 pounds of tomatoes so i’m sure that’s my problem right there.
    my question is, not that you’re necessarily taking questions, is what the frick am i suppose to do with the Great 2008 Cucumber Experiment? also, the squash? shouldn’t i be able to throw those in my basement somewhere and use them whenever? why doesn’t THAT work?

  8. I remember my grandmother doing this – thought it was insane back then, treasure it now! I wish we had more room to actually do it! I may try with a couple pounds and a couple jars! Great post!

  9. OMG, thats amazing! I love love love heirlooms!!! I have about a half dozen plants that are overflowing with nearly ready and still green tomatoes…I wasn’t sure what to do with them. Canning! Good idea!! Canning party? Even better idea! But I wouldn’t want to part with my tomatoes!! 🙂
    Um, I’m wondering, though, why have you cut a criss cross on the “belly buttons”? Does that make them easier to peel? Hmmmm. Yea, I’d blast through 12 qts in no time, too! Invite me next time! 🙂 I’m local.
    Gosh, I’ve been hearing about the Rancho Gordo beans EVERYWHERE lately! Are they at the Ferry Landing market? I know they are out of Napa….anyway, great tomato post. Thanks

  10. Andrea: I’m not promising how long this sauce will last us. But we’ll continue to make sauce as normal throughout the year; these are just great for quick meals.
    Shari: Sometimes you wish the yield were better, for the effort, but it’s sufficient.
    Laura: Pickles! Pickles pickles pickles! So easy, and so durable.
    EB: You can do it, I promise you!
    ChezUS: Seriously, once you get into a groove with canning, it’s almost as easy to do a little as a lot, so go for it.
    Shelley: Yes, scoring the bottoms of the tomatoes helps peeling. And Rancho Gordo is at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market every Saturday, or you can order online at They’re the best beans ever.

  11. Can I fly in for this next year? Only I may force you to add some vodka to the sauce!
    Are you hot packing? That should not cause overboiling, especially with tomatoes requiring 1/2″ headroom. I am not familiar with the kind of tomato you are using, but a more traditional sauce tomato is the roma. It contains less water overall, for a velvety smooth texture.

  12. Love the whole photo essay of your day of canning (or is it really bottling since you’re using mason jars?) tomatoes. And I love how your dog is really showing how you should be spending your day! 😉 Somehow I keep thinking this could have turned into some Lucille Ball episode.

  13. C&C: W00t back atcha!
    Kristen: No, we did not hotpack the tomatoes (see Anita’s comment above). Romas are definitely more traditional, but we get a very different selection of tomatoes out on this coast. Romas exist, but are not as prolific as others.
    SGC: Waaaaaah! Ricky!

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