Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Tomato, Tomatoh, Don't Call the Whole Thing Off!

Tomato, Tomahto, this year I was tempted to call the whole thing off. Our tomatoes were a disaster thanks to the Tomato blight. Each year I can over a hundred jars of diced tomatoes, tomato sauce, pizza sauce, and salsa, enough to last us the year. This year that ain’t happening. Depressing is what it is. Last week I bought 25 pounds of tomatoes from a local farmer and did put up 11 jars of salsa and some pizza sauce. The tomatoes weren’t heirloom or organic, not even close to it, but store bought salsa isn’t homemade tasting or even close to it. Same goes for pizza sauce. So I spent a morning deep in tomatoes and that reminded me that even if I’m not canning tomatoes this year, that doesn’t mean other people aren’t.

The easiest way to can tomatoes is to simply slip off the skins, quarter and seed them and can them. Takes no time at all. Removing tomato skins is simple. Heat a pan of boiling water and plunk your tomatoes in for a minute. Remove them and put them in ice cold water. Now the skins are easily removed. The Ball Jar Book recommends scoring the bottom of the tomato with a little X before you place them in the boiling water to make the skins slip right off.

Tomatoes have a few other issues when it comes to handling them. Use only stainless steel pans. The acid in tomatoes can react with other types (copper, brass, aluminum, or iron) and then they sometimes taste really funky. I just learned recently that I shouldn’t be using my big wooden spoon to stir them either because the wood can absorb flavors. This discovery led me to wonder what else I don’t know about cooking tomatoes.

Since I’m not actually canning many tomatoes this year, I had a few moments to read about canning tomatoes. I was excited to learn the reason why my sauce sometimes comes out too runny no matter how long I boil it. It has to do with the enzymes that are released when you crush tomatoes. I feel like a scientist just talking about enzymes. The only thing I really know about enzymes are they get going when something sits around at room temperature for awhile (like yogurt) and they can do good things. They’re the reason dry aged meat tastes so great.

When tomatoes are cut or crushed, a natural enzyme is activated which causes the solid and liquids to separate. So if you’re canning you want to begin heating your tomatoes the moment you begin cutting or crushing them. I was excited by this knowledge, so I tested it out on a small batch of pizza sauce made from the tomatoes I bought from a local farmer. I skinned them, seeded them and put them through my food processor in small batches and immediately tossed them in to the pan to begin cooking. I think there was still too much lag time, but my pizza sauce came out much thicker than usual. I can’t wait to figure out how this will play out with my spaghetti sauce next year. Hopefully I’ll retain this knowledge until next tomato season!

One more point of reference on tomatoes. Lemon juice is always something I debate with myself over. Add it or don’t add it. This year a friend who had plenty of tomatoes called me when she was knee-deep in canning them and we debated the lemon juice issue at length. I thought if I kept her on the phone long enough, she might offer me the tomatoes just to end the conversation. No dice. Anyway, the question is do you or do you not have to add lemon juice to your diced tomatoes when canning them in a hot bath canner. I know, I know, it would have kept you on the edge of your seat I’m sure. Most references do tell you to put lemon juice in the jar before you add the tomatoes to ensure that the acidity is high enough to keep the tomatoes stable in the jar. So it’s probably a good idea. Having never done this, I had to take the other point and say that many homegrown, heirloom tomatoes may have plenty of acid and do just fine on their own. I’ve never had a jar go bad (knock on wood) and I’ve never added the lemon juice. And then we consulted several texts and decided that since we don’t have a lab that can test the acidity of our tomatoes (and I’m not truly certain what the correct number would be anyway), we should err on the side of caution and go with the juice. So now I’m a little paranoid, and I will probably add the lemon juice next year.

Amazing that I learned so much about canning tomatoes this year without canning very many. Maybe there was a reason I got the blight. Maybe the powers that be knew I didn’t know enough and I certainly didn’t have the time to can a hundred jars this year. Live and learn. That’s what it’s all about.

1 comment:

  1. I plan to buy a bunch of tomatoes this weekend at our local farmer's market and start canning for the first time. My mother has done it and my mother-in-law has done it and it just seems like a great thing to do. Wish me luck!