Canning Tomatoes: Many (Dirty) Hands Make Light Work

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The end of summer means that once again my husband and I, along with a couple of friends, are undertaking a major tomato canning extravaganza. We work together to stock all of our shelves with jars of tomato-y goodness for the year to come, methodically processing the fresh tomatoes from firm, whole fruit to bubbling red jars of liquid summer.

This is our fourth year doing this project, and each year we tweak and refine the process, getting better every time. Four years ago we only canned 50 pounds of tomatoes, and the process dragged us into the wee hours of the morning. Last weekend, we managed to process 100 pounds in a respectable nine hours, and we'll can another 100 pounds this weekend.

Whether you're processing a truckload of tomatoes or a small batch, the same rules apply. Here are a few tips we've picked up along the way to help things go smoothly:

  • Plan ahead. Understand what equipment you will need and set up sensible work stations. We've developed a workflow that goes like this: Core, score, blanch, shock, peel, seed, crush, stew and can. The less time you spend between steps, the faster the whole day goes.
  • Keep it simple. We used to make a light sauce, with sauteed garlic and onions. Now we just cram a sprig of basil in the jar. When the time comes to use the sauce later, you can always cook up some onions then.
  • Know your product. The tomatoes here in Northern California tend to have more water content. We set up separate receptacles for the watery seeds and for the meat of the fruit, and as such end up with two different products: Crushed tomatoes, from the pulp, and tomato water, which can be used in much the same way as a vegetable stock.
  • Don't go it alone. While you probably could do this all by yourself, it's a heck of a lot easier and way more fun when you do it with friends.

Still, fair warning, canning tomatoes is grueling, sweaty and back-cracking work. You will get dirty (maybe really dirty). Tomato goo tends to erupt in surprising directions, sometimes all over you. And your feet will hurt.

So why put yourself through the trouble of canning when you can buy a can of tomatoes for about two bucks? For starters, you have control over where the tomatoes come from, and what goes into the jar. And then, of course, there's the satisfaction of cracking open and savoring something you labored over months after the fact. But most of all, if you do as we do, you have a great time doing it, sharing the day with good friends over a glass or three of wine, laughing and commiserating over your aching backs after all the hard work is done. And the fresh taste of summer will bring a smile to your lips during the cold fall and winter months ahead.

More tomato canning resources:

Check out my tomato canning step-by-step guide for Cooking Channel.

There are also plenty of tomato ideas at my site Punk Domestics, from sauce to salsa and more.

Tigress' Can Jam focused on tomatoes all August.

Also, check out recipes from Cooking Channel chefs for inspiration: Mario's Basic Tomato Sauce, David Rocco's Eggs in Tomato Sauce or Giada's Spaghetti with Olives and Tomato Sauce.

For comprehensive resources on canning of all manner, refer to the USDA Complete Guide to Home Canning, via the National Center for Home Food Preservation.

Sean Timberlake is a professional writer, amateur foodie, avid traveler and all-around bon vivant. He is the founder of Punk Domestics , a content and community site for DIY food enthusiasts, and has penned the blog Hedonia since 2006. He lives in San Francisco with his husband, DPaul Brown, and their hyperactive terrier, Reese.

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