An avalanche of home-grown tomatoes motivated me to get busy in the kitchen. Even though I’ve “put up” countless tomatoes, I still haul out the recipes and double-check the instructions.
So does Lillian Smith, a longtime UC master food preserver from Rio Linda.
“There are so many variables,” Smith said.
Take processing time, for example. “It depends on how you pack the tomatoes and the size,” Smith said. “They could be in the hot-water bath for 40 minutes at the least (for hot packed) up to 75 or 85 minutes (for raw pack).”
“Raw pack” takes so much time because the tomatoes are actually being cooked inside the jar. That kills bacteria as well as seals the jar.
Don’t be surprised by the amount of juice that collects at the bottom of the jar during processing. That’s normal, Smith said. Cooking makes the tomato solids rise to the top, pressing the juice down.
“Remember: It doesn’t have to look perfect,” Smith said. “There’s ‘show pack’ (for winning blue ribbons) and there’s ‘family pack’ (for what you serve your family). Most of the time, family pack is just fine.”
Here are more tips:• For canning tomatoes and tomato-based products (such as salsa), use recipes created after 1988. That’s when the USDA changed its basic recommendations including processing times and those updates may not be reflected in earlier recipes.
• Start with sterilized jars, metal bands and lids. The jars can be washed in the dishwasher and kept there until ready for use. Or use the same large canning pot that you will use for the hot-water bath for boiling and sterilizing the jars. Boil the jars, bands and lids for 10 minutes, then keep them in the hot water until ready to use. After the jars are filled, return them to the kettle for processing. Because the water already is pretty warm, this saves energy; the water will return to boiling much faster. And it saves water.
• Low-acid yellow or orange tomatoes need the same amount of citric acid or bottled lemon juice as standard red tomatoes. Even though they taste sweeter, the pH level of Sun Gold, Lemon Boy and other popular light-skinned tomatoes is about the same as their red counterparts. To acidify them for canning, add to the jar 1/4 teaspoon citric acid or 1 tablespoon bottled lemon juice per pint before adding the tomatoes.
• When removing air bubbles from jars, use a wooden chopstick, skewer or plastic utensil (not metal) as a “bubble freer.” Remember to poke holes through the tomatoes themselves to allow trapped air to escape.
• After the recommended processing time has been reached, remove the jars of tomatoes promptly from the hot-water bath. Use a jar lifter, a specialized tool that clamps around the top of the jar for easy removal. Don’t let the jars sit in the water, Smith said. “The lids can start seeping and you actually will lose your tight seal.”
• When you pull the hot jars out of the water, set them down on a towel. That catches the water off the jars as well as insulates the jars from a cold countertop.