Amongst what feels like ONE MILLION things I’ve tried for the first time since moving to the wilds of western Sonoma County, canning tomatoes has probably been the scariest. There is so much terrifying information on the interwebs! My fear of killing everyone within a 100′ radius of my potentially lethal tomato sauce was powerful enough that I nearly skipped it altogether. Beyond that, I was afraid my pressure canner would explode, leaving Jon to find me sprawled unconscious across the kitchen floor in a mess of shattered glass and tomato mash. Yes, I’m a bit of a drama queen, now you know.
I kept putting it off even as boxes of gorgeous, homegrown organic tomatoes collected (and rotted) in my basement. (Side note: have you ever noticed that moldy San Marzano tomatoes look exactly like little furry mice?!? Almost scared the poop outta me!)
In order to gather my courage I grilled all the canners I know, asking endless questions to help me confirm or deny everything I’d read online. Did I really need to use bottled lemon juice? Is citric acid necessary if you’re using a pressure canner? How can you tell if your tomatoes are poisonous (Terrifying Fact#1: there are no signs to indicate botulinum toxin exists in your food)? Why are there are these complicated rules here in the US when people talk about their Italian nonnas “putting up” tomatoes all their lives with nary an ill effect? Must you really remove and/or DESTROY any bruised or split spots, stems, seeds and peels? Honestly, that seems a bit extreme.
As usual, I confused myself by taking in way too much random online information and decided to look to real people for guidance. Luckily most people here fearlessly grow and can their own food on a regular basis! My friends patiently explained their methods, which varied from smashing quartered raw tomatoes into hot jars and cooking in the oven, water bath canning uncooked tomatoes on the stovetop, cooking tomatoes down into sauce and then water bath or pressure canning, etc.
“It’s easy,” they all said, “what are you so stressed about? It will be fine!”
These wonderful friends gently insisted I was making way too big a deal of it, but all I kept thinking was that if I’m ever going to kill someone it won’t be someone I love, and it won’t be accidental. Just sayin’.
All I had to do was pick a method and try it for myself. Finally I plucked up my courage and dropped a big batch of San Marzanos into a pot of boiling water. Then I realized that was just for removing the skins, which I didn’t want to do, so I scooped them back out. Back into the pot they went, sans water, and simmered in their own juices for a while. After this is gets a bit fuzzy since I did not actually follow any specific method. Instead I did what I always do… get confused halfway through about which method I’m following and just wing it from there. Also, this happened way back in September. All I know for sure is that an immersion blender was involved, and at some point I ended up with a lot of what I’d call “tomato water.”
I’d read that most people either spend hours cooking this down or just dump it down the drain. Instead, in what can only be described as a moment of genius, I ladled the water into a smaller pot, leaving behind the thick saucy stuff! Okay that’s not the genius part, the genius part is that once the semi-solids that had also transferred had settled to the bottom I again ladled off the “tomato water,” filling several Mason jars with the liquid and freezing them for later use as stock. I also filled ice cube trays and made little frozen cubes I could throw into a pan that needed a bit more liquid. Genius! It adds a nice flavor boost to soups and chili. Last week I cooked a jambalaya-style rice dish in it. Yummy.
Little did we know the fun was just beginning! After the water had been scooped into jars and there was still all this thicker tomato stuff left. It was impossible to separate from the water but not quite watery enough to be stock, know what I mean? Again, this would normally get chucked down the drain, but instead I left the pot simmering on the stovetop. I checked and stirred it regularly until eventually the liquid had evaporated and, violá, we had tomato paste!
I have a love/hate relationship with those little cans of tomato paste so this was exciting. Usually we open a can and use half (love), then 3 months later discover a moldy half-can of tomato paste in the back of the fridge (hate). We were trying to figure out how to store it so none would go to waste when Jon had his own genius moment, suggesting we make little serving-sized dollops and freeze them. So we scooped dollops onto waxed paper on a tray and froze them individually then transferred the frozen dollops to a baggie. Now we can grab and use what we need with no waste. Yay! Honestly, it really is the simple things in life.
I ended up pressure-canning tomatoes on three separate occasions. After the first time I stopped hiding behind the kitchen island and learned to trust the pressure canner, and each time it has become less-stressful, more fun. And now when I pull one of these lovely jars of fresh, organic, homegrown tomatoes from the basement, as I did today, I get a little burst of happiness. My only fear is that I will run out long before the first tomatoes ripen this summer, but at least now I know I can can, next time I just need to can more!