Home-canning Tomatoes Brings on the Nostalgia: Here’s a Recipe To Start Your Own Memories

Just made home-canned jars of tomatoes fresh from the garden--mostly Purple Cherokees, filled in with plump grape tomatoes.

Just made home-canned jars of tomatoes fresh from the garden–mostly Purple Cherokees, filled in with plump grape tomatoes.

I thought I probably wouldn’t can tomatoes this year. Last year, I hadn’t.  Because of the still dry conditions, except for the grape tomato, the plants didn’t produce much at all.  Also, this year I only set in seven plants: three Purple Cherokees, three hybrids that bear pretty large fruit, and another grape tomato.

If you want a plant that continues bearing for a long time and lets you almost daily grab enough tomatoes for your salads, I recommend planting grape tomatoes.  With just a couple of plants, you can harvest daily the same amount of tomatoes that you will pay $2.50 per container (or more) at the super market.  Of course, if you want the big, beefy slicing tomatoes that go great in a sandwich, there is none better than the heirloom Purple Cherokee; though even the hybrids picked fresh from the garden are nightly tasty.

Nothing better than a juicy tomato straight from the patch behind the garage.

Nothing better than a juicy tomato straight from the patch behind the garage.

With the rain this year, my tomatoes have been doing well, but with the onset of higher temperatures, the big tomatoes are no longer setting on.  I’ve already shared with friends, so more of the tomatoes getting ripe at the same time, I decided to look to see (Don’t you just love this redundancy!) if I had all the necessities for canning tomatoes.  It doesn’t take much: jars, lids, rings, and several pots for water.  I also have real canning tongs; something we didn’t have out on the farm.  Some say you have to have a pressure cooker for canning, but I do it the way my mom did, just using a big kettle with a lid and have always had good results.

The recipe is pretty simple, but I dug out the recipe card, one of many that I have in my mom’s handwriting.  Her distinctive writing and the whole process itself brings back a lot of good memories of helping with the canning when I was a kid out there on the farm in Kansas.

So the process (it’s really more of a process than a recipe):

Fill 3 pots with water and put them on the stove to simmer.  You’ll need 2 smaller pots, one to scald the jars and one to blanch the tomatoes.  You’ll need another pot big enough to hold the filled jars for the actually canning.  I have one that will hold 6 pints or 4 quarts.

I sanitize the jars by dipping them in one pot of boiling water.  You can also do this in the dishwasher or by pouring scalding water into and over them in the sink drainer.  Let them drain on a towel on the counter.  Then put sealing lids in the water to sanitize and heat up.

Meanwhile, fill a large bowl with ice and water and put it in the sink.  Turn the jars right-side up and put them near the sink in order to have them ready for the tomatoes, once peeled.

Start dipping clean, washed tomatoes into the hot water in the other smaller pot, one or two at a time.  Leave them for about 20-30 seconds.  Use a big slotted spoon to dip them out of the pot and plunge them into the ice water for just a few seconds.  The skins should peel off easily.  Use a paring knife to cut out the stem areas and any blemishes.  Now fill the jars with the peeled tomatoes.  Smaller tomatoes can go in whole; larger ones should be cut into halves or quarters.  As you fill the jars, gently push down the tomatoes with your fingers to eliminate air pockets.  Fill the jars to approximately 3/4 inch from the top.  Make sure that no tomatoes will be sticking up against the lid.

Now add salt to each jar:  1/2 teaspoon for pints, 1 teaspoon for quarts. (Some recipes also suggest adding a spoonful of lemon juice.)  Next, wipe all around the rim of the jar with a clean, damp cloth to remove any tomato bits, salt, or liquid.

Now remove the lids from the simmering water with a spoon or tongs.  Be careful; the lids will be hot!  Put the lids on the jars and screw on the jar rings.  The rings should be tight, but not necessarily muscle-man tight.  I twist the lids on as tightly as I can and then loosen them back just a tad.  Remember that the rings are there to hold the lids on during the canning; they really aren’t what is actually sealing the jar.

You’re ready to put the filled jars into the big pot of simmering water.  How much water to start with is always a guess, but you want the water to cover the jars by about an inch once you have them all in the pot, so don’t overfill.  If I need more water, I just pour some from the pot that I used for sanitizing the jars.  Use the canning tongs to carefully stand the jars in the pot.  My mom always placed a dishcloth on the bottom of the pot for cushion, but I don’t do that.  Cover the pot with its lid.  The jars of tomatoes will cool down the water a bit, so turn up the heat until the water gets boiling again and then you can let the jars simmer.  Mom’s recipe says 20 minutes for pints and 30 minutes for quarts.

Don’t mess with the jars in the pot.  The first year I canned tomatoes, I got worried seeing air bubbles coming out of the jars, but that’s just part of the process and what makes the vacuum to help the jars seal.

When the cooking time is up, lift the jars out of the pot with the canning tongs, and place them on a cloth on the counter to cool.  Once again, don’t mess with them.  Just let them sit until cool.  As the jars begin to cool down, you will hear a “ping”.  This is the final sealing of the jars.  After the jars are completely cool, test the seal by gently pushing down on the center of each jar lid.  If there is no “give”, that means the jar is sealed.

In the rare case that the lid easily moves up and down, that means the jar isn’t sealed.  At this point, you have two choices, start the canning process over with a new lid and 20 more minutes of cooking time, or put the jar in the refrigerator and use the tomatoes within a few days.

Making home-canned tomatoes is one of the least involved canning processes.  Whether you can just a couple of jars or a couple dozen, there will be a lot of satisfaction in preserving some fresh produce from your own garden.  Then some cold day in the fall or winter, you’ll have the special treat of opening a jar to make your favorite spaghetti sauce or chili with tomatoes that still have that home-grown flavor, something that the store-bought just doesn’t give.

Starting the Canning Season–Just a Couple of Pints, But Definitely Satisfaction in the Doing

Pickled beans and canned tomatoes--today's fruits of the garden and the joy of remembering and doing.

I’ve been itching to do some canning.  I have been waiting since last summer, when I found how much I enjoy the entire process, from the picking of the vegetables to having them sealed tight in the jars.  There’s a pleasure in the skill (or art) of doing each step that finishes with the colorful beans, okra, cucumbers, or tomatoes glowing brightly through the shiny glass.

I grew up helping my mom canning the beans and tomatoes and other vegetables we grew in the garden on the farm.  She also “put away” pears, peaches, and apricots that came home from the store in bushel baskets as well as the tart cherries from our trees.  I can’t say as I remember it being all that pleasurable in those days.  Canning was done in the summertime, either in the kitchen with the windows open–no A.C. in those days, or out in the washhouse, which was really an enclosed part of our front porch, where my mom had an open 2-burner cooker, which she used to heat water to sterilize the jars and scald the tomatoes and fruit, and which she used other times for dyeing clothes and making lye soap.  It might sound as if I’m as old as the hills to have those kinds of memories, but that was just the way people lived, especially farm people, back in the 1950s and 60s.  I do think in those days we appreciated what we had–like the food on our plates–because we knew where it came from and all the work it took to get it to the table.  (It’s also possible that I just appreciate it now as I’m remembering.)

So today was just the day to do some canning–really not so unlike those summer days on the farm–with a blustery south wind blowing and the thermometer reading in the 90s.  My beans have been doing well, even though I wish I had planted another row.  I can pick some every day, but I do have to save up to have a mess to cook.  The tomatoes are starting to ripen at a rate faster than I can eat them fresh.  This morning I had more than enough beans and tomatoes to can a pint of pickled beans and a pint of tomatoes.  By the looks of the garden, I’ll be able to do more of the tomates soon, but it really doesn’t matter how many jars I can make at one time because for me, there’s joy in the just the doing.

Part of that pleasure is that I always have to go through my recipe box.  I don’t have much organization to it, so every time I’m looking for a particular recipe, I have to shuffle through them all.  But that’s part of the fun too.  It always a nostalgic journey.  Some are for cookies or cakes I made when I was a kid in 4-H.  Some cards have recipes cut from the newspaper and taped on the cards.  Some are in the handwriting of friends or family members for some dish they had made that was so good that I had asked for the recipe.  Quite a number, like that for canned tomatoes, were written down for me by my Mom.  Just to have that recipe in her own handwriting is something pretty special, now that she’s no longer around to talk to or write down anything.

My canning this morning went without mishap.  I bought a new pot for the water bath process.  It’s deeper, but not as wide as the one I used last year; consequently, it heats faster and the jars are easily covered by the bubbling water.  I’m hoping the garden keeps producing so that I can add more pickled beans and tomatoes to these couple of jars.

Pickled Beans (recipe for 1 pint)

Fresh yellow wax beans (about 1/2 pound)

3/4 cup water

3/4 cup cider vinegar

1/2 tablespoon salt

1 small clove garlic peeled

1 spring fresh dill

1/2 teaspoon each red pepper flakes and mixed peppercorns

Clip the stem ends from the beans, which have been washed.  Try to use the straightest beans that you have for pickled beans.

Fill a heavy kettle with enough water so that jars will be covered by about 1 inch of water when placed standing in the water.  Heat the water to boiling.  Meanwhile sterilize the jars in another kettle with a couple of inches of boiling water in the bottom.  Place the jar lids and the jars in the boiling water.  Remove the clean jars and place on a clean towel near where they will be filled.  Leave the lids in the hot water until you are ready to seal the jars.  At the same time, heat the vinegar, water and salt to boiling in a saucepan.

Put the fresh dill, red pepper flakes, peppercorns, and garlic in the jar.  Then start to pack the beans into the jar by holding the jar on its side and placing the beans parallel to each other lengthwise from the bottom to the top of the jar.  Carefully pack the beans as tightly as possible into the jar, making sure that the end of each is at least 1/2 below the mouth of the jar.

Once the jar is packed, pour the hot brine over the beans to 1/2 inch of the top of the jar.  If you don’t have enough liquid to cover all the beans, just top it off with more vinegar.  Make sure the mouth of the jar is still clean and dry; then place the hot lid on it.  Then screw on the ring.  I screw on the ring tight, and then ease it back just a tad, because during the canning process, bubbles of air will be released from the jars in order to make the vacuum seal.  (That means you don’t have to find a muscle queen to to tighten the jar rings!)

Place the jars in the boiling water.  At this point you will need to adjust the heat because the cooler jars may stop the water from boiling.  Once the water begins to boil again, adjust to just a good simmer and cook the beans for 10 minutes.  Take the jar out of the water and place on a towel to cool.  When the jar has cooled, check to see if the lid has sealed by gently pushing down on the lid with your finger.  If the jar is sealed, there will be no “give”.  If there is an up-down movement, then the jar has not sealed.  I have sometimes sealed jars by sterilizing a fresh lid, making sure the mouth of the jar is absolutely clean, and placing the jar backing into the boiling canning kettle.  However, with more experience, it is a rarity to have a jar not seal.  Therefore, in order not to overcook pickles, it is better just to put any unsealed jar with the lid and ring hand-tightened in the fridge for a couple of weeks and then try them!  Stored jars of pickles and other canned items on a cool dark shelf.

Canning tomatoes is really very easy.  Follow the sterilization and preparation of the canning water as for the pickled beans.  Here is Mom’s recipe that I used.  We always got the best use of everything.  On the backside of the paper it was written on, someone (probably me) had practiced typing on the old portable typewriter we had. Over and over are the lines:  “Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their country.”

Mom's recipe for canned tomatoes--nostalgic and delicious.

If you can’t make out the writing, here it is:

Canned Tomato

“Scald tomatoes for a few minutes, then put in cold water.  Peel & pack tight in jars.  Add 1/2 tsp. salt for pints, 1 tsp. for quarts.

Place jars in hot water–bring to a boil–then simmer 20 minutes for pints & 30 minutes for quarts.  I usually put a cloth under the jars.”  (She means put a cloth in the bottom of the canning kettle so that the jars don’t move around too much and possibly break.)