Tomatoes for Winter

We enjoy using tomatoes in our cooking. When it’s cold out a good chili or spaghetti with sauce really warms us up. Before we started living without garbage we would use fresh tomatoes when they were available, and cheap, and when we couldn’t easily find fresh tomatoes, or were too lazy to chop them, we would buy cans of tomatoes from the supermarket. Now that we’re living without making garbage we can’t buy cans – what should we do? This year we tried to can enough tomatoes for the winter.

We’ve canned before. A couple of years ago we made some ketchup and some jam, and we both come from households where canning was at least known to us. We figured a tomato paste would be the most efficient way to store a bunch of tomatoes for the winter, so we Googled canning tomato paste in a water bath and found this site with instructions. I also took a look at a Bernardin canning book while I was in Canadian Tire buying new snap lids for the jars.

From what we can gather are some important things to remember when canning tomatoes:

  • While acidy foods are reasonably safe to can in a water bath, and non-acidy foods should be canned in a pressure cooker, tomatoes fall kind of in the middle. If you want to can them in a water bath you need to add acid.
  • There’s an enzyme in tomatoes that will cause the liquid to separate from the pulp – in a bad way – fairly quickly after they’re cut, so they need to be cooked quite quickly after they’re cut to stop this from happening.

Armed with this knowledge we went to Jean-Talon market and bought a bunch of tomatoes:

The tomatoes we bought for canning.

Fresh and ready to go.

A photo of a tomato with a phallic growth

This is a boy tomato.

First, all of the tomatoes had to be peeled, de-seeded, and cooked. It’s quite a process. The tomatoes have to scored, then dipped for a few seconds in boiling water to loosen the skins, then the skins are slipped off and the tomatoes sliced in half, then we took out the seeds with our fingers and cut out the hard bits where the stem joins the tomatoes. As the tomatoes were ready they went into our pot to be cooked. This went on for hours – you saw how many tomatoes we had.

Here’s everything cooking:

A photo of our tomatoes cooking

Late-night tomato cooking.

Once all of the tomatoes were cooked we went to bed – it was late. The tomatoes, in 2 pots, went into the fridge for a couple of days.

When we were ready to face the tomatoes again we bought a bunch of red peppers – both our web link and the Bernardin book said to add a bunch of peppers to the mix, I’m guessing to increase the acidity of the final product. I bought a big basket of red peppers from Atwater market in a rainstorm, then we chopped them up and put a bunch of them in with the tomatoes, and cooked some more until the peppers were soft, then we got out the wand blender and blended both pots to make sure our mix was fairly smooth. By this point tons and tons of water had been boiled out of the tomatoes – you should have seen our windows!

The final step before putting the tomatoes in jars was to add a bunch of lemon juice to increase the acidity of the mix. The tomato canning article recommends using store-bought lemon juice for it’s constant pH, however it comes in a bottle and I don’t know where to buy it in bulk, so I bought 32 lemons and got out my citrus juicer. I needed several cups of juice, and I got it.

When it came to canning the tomato mix it was fairly straightforward. With jars, lids, and rings sterilized, I put the tomato into jars, added some more lemon juice to the top of every jar, sealed them, and put them in boiling water for about an hour. Everywhere we saw said that 40 minutes was enough, but I wanted to make sure that the tomatoes were well-sterilized so I boiled them for an hour. Our stock pot that I was using for canning isn’t that huge, so I had to keep topping up the water to keep the jars covered. When topping up I made sure the water was boiling first in our kettle, that way the jars kept processing in the pot. All went well, one jar broke in the pot and made a mess of the water, so the water had to be changed after that batch, and all of our non-broken jars sealed.

Our stove at work canning tomatoes.

Canning in action: The silver pot has jars in it processing, the white pot has hot, sterile, lids & rings in hot water, the pot & bowl in the front have hot tomato mix, and the oven has hot, sterile, empty jars.

A photo of the jar that broke while in the canning bath.

This is the one that broke - I didn't think I was that rough with it!

So, was it worth it? We’ll see. We ended up with 25 250ml jars, (about 1/2 pint), and 5 500ml jars. The tomato mix in it is more condensed than the can of crushed tomatoes from the store, but less condensed than store-bought tomato paste. We also have 18 cans of store-bought tomatoes, (a mix of diced and crushed), that we bought before we started living without making garbage. We’ll be trying to eat more seasonally, so we’ll try to reduce the number of times we make a big chili, and when we do fill it out with a lot of beans and stuff, and we’ll see in the spring if we made enough tomatoes for the winter.

Price-wise it wasn’t worth it. It would have been cheaper to just buy cans of tomatoes from the store. We spent $14 on tomatoes, about $12 on lemons, and about $10 on peppers. This is a total of $36 for 31 jars of tomato. It would have been possible to be cheaper, if I had been able to get the lemons at a better price, (I’ve seem them at half the price I paid, but I didn’t exactly pay top dollar), or if I had bought the peppers at Jean-Talon market instead of Atwater, (produce is much cheaper at Jean-Talon, but it’s a lot farther from our apartment). At ninety-nine cents a per can the store is cheaper than our cost was this year, but makes more garbage.

This brings us to another important point. We’re using jars with snap lids. These are metal lids that can only be used once for canning. You can use them again for other things – for example I have some jars full of nails that have used lids on them, but every time you can with these jars you need new lids, so eventually we have to throw out or recycle some older lids, or find something else to do with them. Also, the snap lids come in a box and may be coated with Bisphenol A. Next year, or whenever we run out of lids, we’ll be looking into non-disposable lid options. Ideally I would like to find glass lids that fit on our standard-size jars. If that’s not possible the Tattler lids may be a good option, or we can look into replacing any jars that break or we give away with all-glass jars.

From a time spent perspective this may not have been the best use of our time. We spent hours peeling and seeding tomatoes by hand, then more hours processing the jars. Our pot only holds seven small jars or four large ones, at an hour per batch that’s a long time. Also, we threw away a lot of tomato skins and seeds, (into the compost – not the garbage):

A photo of all of the tomato skins & seeds that we composted.

These are all of the tomato skins & guts that we composted.

This brings up an interesting thought. If we had used a food mill, could we have simply halved the tomatoes, cooked them, then run them through the food mill and let that remove the seeds and skins? Our mix would have been a bit more watery, but that could probably have been solved by spooning some liquid off the top, or straining some of the mix with cheesecloth. I think we might also have had less tomato waste as there was some loss from hand-peeling and hand-seeding all of the tomatoes. If we had a bigger pot we could have processed more jars at a time, and if we had a pressure cooker we might not need to put all the lemons and peppers into our mix.

A lot of the “Is it worth it?” question depends on our equipment and how good the food tastes. This year it is worth it, the tomatoes taste great, and I’m sure are much fresher than what ends up in cans at stores, and we learned a lot. If we’re able to find a food mill and pressure cooker, or at least larger pot, without packaging, next year it will be even more worth it, maybe even financially. This year, we’ll simply enjoy our tomatoes knowing they’re from the fields of Québec, knowing exactly what went into them, and knowing very little garbage was made to preserve them.

Our finished jars of tomatoes, ready to go into the cupboard.

Finished and ready for labelling and storage.

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