SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Lillian Smith is ready for a bountiful crop of summer tomatoes.
Right now, her harvest looks a long way off, with only some pale green globes forming on the vines. But she has 25 tomato plants growing in her Rio Linda, Calif., backyard, enough to keep her family in canned tomatoes through the winter. Plus her homegrown tomatoes will go into sauces, juices, soups and chutneys. Smith may dehydrate some tomatoes, too.
Smith has the answer for any gardener-cook looking for ways to tackle that familiar dilemma: too many tomatoes.
Almost a lost art, canning has come back in style as more people get into vegetable gardening. The interest in farmers markets and pick-your-own farms also fuels this trend as consumers want to preserve their own food.
“Starting two years ago, we saw many more people coming to our classes,” said Smith, a University of California Cooperative Extension Master Food Preserver, who teaches canning and other preservation techniques. “We saw attendance double, even triple or more. When we used to get 10 people, now we get 30 or 40 in a class.”
“The food safety issue and economics; that’s driving the interest in canning,” she said. “People want to know how to do it themselves.”
Smith experiments with different ways to keep her crop. Last summer, she tried pressure canning. She also made tomato leather. She’s always perfecting her techniques.
“I grew up watching my mom do it,” Smith said. “I took some food classes in college and bought the 1970s version of the USDA guide. I did a little canning on my own.”
A dozen years ago, Smith became a Master Food Preserver, passing the rigorous certification needed to earn that title.
Since her days as mother’s helper, Smith discovered a lot has changed in the approach to processing tomatoes, she said.
“Acidity; there’s a lot more emphasis on how important that is to food safety,” she explained. “Food needs to be processed a lot longer, too. That’s why it’s important to use up-to-date, reliable recipes.”
The Master Food Preservers handle all sorts of fruit and vegetables, but processing tomatoes is always the No. 1 request.
“Tomatoes are the biggest canned item,” Smith said. “People have an abundance of tomatoes and they wonder: What do I do now?”
As an alternative to canning, freezing works well, too, with tomatoes and tomato-based products such as pasta sauce.
But, as Smith said, “You only have so much freezer space.”
In preparation for the harvest to come, here are some basics to remember about processing tomatoes:
• Picking the right tomato: Choose tomatoes that are ripe but still firm with good color and preferably with unblemished skin. They should feel heavy for their size. Round, uniform tomatoes are easier to process than crinkled varieties.
• Average yield: Three pounds of fresh tomatoes are enough to produce one quart of canned tomatoes. A bushel (53 pounds) will yield 15 to 20 quarts of crushed tomatoes or 10 quarts of tomato juice.
• Nutrition: Tomatoes retain most of their vitamins when canned. One cup of raw diced tomatoes has about 32 calories. Tomatoes are high in vitamins A and C as well as antioxidants. In particular, tomatoes are very high in lycopene, which helps repair cell damage and protect the body against cancer.
• How to peel a tomato: The easiest method uses boiling water. First, score the tomato with an “X” opposite the stem end. Immerse the fruit in boiling water for 15 seconds or until the skin begins to crack. Lift out with a slotted spoon, then plunge the tomato into ice water. The skin will then slip right off in your hand.
Master Food Preserver Lillian Smith suggests freezing small tomatoes, up to 2 inches in diameter. When ready to use, remove the frozen tomato from the freezer and run under warm water. The skin will crack and slip off.
• Acidity: Many modern, heirloom and yellow tomatoes have very low acid. That makes them sweeter, but also creates potential for bacteria growth in processing. For food safety, tomatoes needed to be acidified during canning. It also preserves the tomatoes’ red color.
Add 1 tablespoon bottled (not fresh) lemon juice per pint. Bottled lemon juice is used because its acidity is consistent.
Citric acid, available in supermarket baking sections, can be used instead. Use ¼ teaspoon per pint, ½ teaspoon per quart.
• No aluminum: Because the acidity in tomatoes reacts with aluminum, use stainless steel or enamel cookware when working with tomatoes.
• How long to process: Canned tomatoes are usually processed in a hot-water bath, which means the jars are boiled with the food inside. (That creates a vacuum that “seals” the jar and keeps bacteria out.) But the processing time varies depending on several factors. Were the tomatoes packed into the jars raw or hot? Were the jars topped off with water or tomato juice?
“That’s why it’s so important to follow a reliable recipe,” Smith said. “I always go back and re-read the directions.”
Tomatoes raw-packed with juice take 85 minutes for pints or quarts. Hot-packed crushed tomatoes with no added liquid take 35 minutes to process.
To hot pack, use a large kettle on medium heat. Start with a few tomatoes and keep adding more fruit as the pot heats up. Once all the tomatoes are in the pot, bring to a boil for five minutes. Then fill the jars, leaving ½-inch head space (room for the tomatoes to expand during processing).
To raw pack, sterilize jars. In the bottom of each jar, put bottled lemon juice (1 tablespoon for pint jars, 2 tablespoons for quarts). Then add tomatoes. They can be crushed, diced or whole. If packing whole, squeeze the peeled tomatoes into the jar. Use a spoon to squeeze out air bubbles. Add more juice from the tomatoes or water to cover the fruit and fill the jars, leaving a ½-inch head space.
• Tomato juice: Wash and core 6 pounds very ripe tomatoes. Simmer in a large kettle for 20 minutes until very soft. Put through a food mill or sieve. Let stand in a bowl until the light watery liquid rises to the top; discard that top layer and save the rest. Makes about 1 quart juice.
• www.pickyourown.org: Besides offering locations of pick-your-own tomato farms, this website has a wealth of tomato recipes and tips.
• Master Food Preservers: Part of the UC Cooperative Extension, these local experts are here to help and answer questions. Click on http://cesacramento.ucdavis.edu or call 916-875-6913.
• National Center for Home Food Preservation: Based at the University of Georgia, this center sets the standards, backed by the USDA. Find many recipes and tips at www.uga.edu/nchfp.
• Ball Canning: With 125 years of experience, the canning experts have put many recipes and tips online at www.freshpreserving.com.
Makes 3 pints
The natural pectin from the apples in this recipe helps firm up the chutney. When made with green tomatoes, it’s a traditional early American relish. With any color tomato, it makes a good accompaniment to grilled chicken or pork. Adapted from “The Classic Vegetable Cookbook” by Ruth Spear (Harper and Row, 1985). Prep time: 30 minutes plus processing time. Cook time: 2 hours.
5 pounds ripe tomatoes, cored and sliced (peel can stay on)
2 tart apples, peeled, cored and finely chopped
2 large onions, sliced
1 cup brown sugar, firmly packed
½ cup raisins
1 cup white wine vinegar
1 teaspoon salt or to taste
2 chopped fresh chilies or ½ teaspoon cayenne
3 tablespoons mustard seed
2 tablespoons fresh ginger, minced
Combine all ingredients in a large enamel or stainless steel kettle. Cover and bring to a boil. Uncover and reduce heat to a simmer. Cook for about 2 hours, stirring often, until mixture has thickened.
Ladle into sterilized jars, leaving ½-inch head space; wipe rims and seal tightly. Process in a hot water bath for 15 minutes. Cool and check seals. Store in a cool dark place for at least three weeks before using to allow flavors to mellow.
Basic pasta sauce
Makes 1 quart
Italian master Marcella Hazan offers many variations on tomato sauce for pasta in her “Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking” (Knopf, 1992).This adaptation of her all-purpose pasta sauce can be multiplied to fit the crop of tomatoes on hand. It freezes well and can also be canned. Prep time: 15 minutes. Cook time: 45 minutes.
2 pounds fresh, ripe tomatoes, peeled and cored
⅔ cup chopped carrots
⅔ cup chopped celery
⅔ cup chopped onion
Salt to taste
⅓ cup extra virgin olive oil
Chop tomatoes, retaining their juice. Put in a large saucepan. Add carrots, celery, onions and a little salt (about a half teaspoon). Cook uncovered over medium heat at a slow, steady simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon.
Add olive oil, raise the heat slightly to a somewhat stronger simmer, and stir occasionally while reducing the tomatoes to pulp, mashing them with the back of the spoon. Cook for 15 minutes, then adjust seasoning, adding more salt if desired.
Variations: Add 2 teaspoons fresh marjoram or rosemary (or 1 teaspoon dried marjoram or rosemary) in final 5 minutes of simmering.
Range fire salsa
Makes 7 pints
In reworking their mammoth cookbook of reader and magazine recipes, the editors of Sunset magazine came up with lots of advice for preserving a bountiful crop. This salsa recipe came from Sunset reader Gayle Stover of Idaho. Adapted from “The Sunset Cookbook” (Oxmoor House, 2010). Prep time: 45 minutes, plus processing time. Cook time: 2 hours.
7¼ pounds ripe tomatoes, peeled
2⅓ pounds bell peppers, green and-or yellow
3¾ pounds onions
5 jalapeno chilies (about 3 ounces)
1¼ cups cider vinegar
¼ cup fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons minced garlic
2 tablespoons salt
1 tablespoon red chili flakes
1½ teaspoons ground black pepper
1½ teaspoons ground cumin
Core and coarsely chop tomatoes. You should have enough for 3 quarts including juice. Stem, seed and coarsely chop bell peppers (enough for 6 cups). Peel and chop onions (enough for 6 cups). Stem and mince jalapenos (remove seeds if you prefer).
In a large kettle, combine tomatoes, bell peppers, onions, jalapenos, vinegar, lemon juice, garlic, salt, chili flakes, pepper and cumin. Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to medium and cook, stirring often, for 1 hour. Keep cooking over medium heat and stirring until reduced by half, up to an hour more.
Fill sterilized jars, leaving a ½-inch head space. Wipe rims and seal tightly. Process jar for 15 minutes in hot-water bath. Cool, check seals and store in cool, dark place.
Pickled green cherry tomatoes
Makes 6 pints
Recipe from “Tart and Sweet,” by Kelly Geary and Jessie Knadler (Rodale, $24.99, 226 pages). Prep time: 30 minutes plus 10 minutes processing time. Cook time: 5 minutes.
4 cups white vinegar
2 cups water
¼ cup sugar
2 tablespoons kosher salt
2 quarts green cherry tomatoes
2 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon minced shallot
2 dill heads
2 teaspoons yellow mustard seed
1 teaspoon brown mustard seed
1 teaspoon coriander seed
½ teaspoon black peppercorns
¼ teaspoon celery seed
Bring the vinegar, water, sugar and salt to a boil in a medium nonreactive pot. Stir to dissolved the sugar and salt.
Place garlic, shallot, dill and spices in each hot jar. Pack jars with tomatoes, being careful not to bruise them.
Pour boiled brine over the tomatoes, leaving ½ inch head space and making sure the tomatoes are well covered in liquid. Check for air bubbles, wipe the rims and seal. Process for 10 minutes, adjusting for elevation.
Yellow tomato ketchup
Makes about 2 quarts
Recipe from the “San Francisco Chronicle Cookbook,” credited to Georgeanne Brennan. Prep time: 30 minutes, plus processing and cooling time for the jars. Cook time: 1 hour 20 minutes.
5 pounds very ripe yellow tomatoes, peeled, seeded and roughly chopped
2 large yellow bell peppers, seeded, de-ribbed and coarsely chopped
10 garlic cloves
1 cup white wine vinegar, divided
Juice and zest of ¼ lemon
¾ cup sugar
½ teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons mustard seeds
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
1 teaspoon whole cloves
One 1-inch-long cinnamon stick
One 1-inch knob fresh ginger, cut into 3 or 4 pieces
Place the tomatoes in a large saucepan. Add the peppers, onions, garlic, ½ cup of the vinegar, the lemon zest and juice. Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until the vegetables are soft and cooked through, 15 to 20 minutes. Transfer the mixture to a food processor and process until coarsely pureed but not liquefied. Return the mixture to the pan; add the sugar, salt and remaining ½ cup vinegar.
Place the mustard seeds, peppercorns, coriander, cloves, cinnamon stick and ginger on an 8-inch square of cheesecloth. Gather up the corners and tie with kitchen string. Add to the tomato mixture. Simmer over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the mixture thickens, about 1 hour. Watch carefully so it does not burn. The ketchup will be slightly thinner than most commercial ketchups.
Ladle the ketchup into clean, dry, hot jars with sealable lids, filling the jars to within ½ inch of the rims. Wipe the rims clean. Cover with lids and process for 30 minutes in a hot-water bath.
Remove the jars and let cool at least 12 hours. Check the lids for a complete seal. Store in a cool, dark place. Will keep for up to a year. Once opened, keep refrigerated. Store any jar lacking a good seal in the refrigerator for up to 10 days.