Preserve It! Tomatoes

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For two or three months of every year, we get to gorge on fresh New Jersey tomatoes. The rest of the time, we are at the mercy of what’s in the grocery stores. However, for cooking through the winter I like to use my own fresh tomatoes I’ve preserved earlier in the year.

Tomatoes are actually very easy to preserve through canning and there is really nothing quite like having fresh tomatoes in the middle of winter. It also gives me something to do with all my basil. I put several leaves in with each jar. I’ll give you my tips and techniques here, but reading the Preserve It! introduction to canning basics will give you some much needed background as well as Web sites with instructional videos. (Be sure to bookmark all the stories in the Preserve It series by clicking here.)

Canning your own tomatoes can make a lot of sense in these tough-budget times.  A 50-pound crate of tomatoes costs $20 at Matarazzo Farms in North Caldwell this year.  This will give you about 2 dozen quarts of canned tomatoes, or about thirty 24-ounce cans of tomatoes from the supermarket. The canner and jars will add to your initial expense at home, but it’s a one-time investment since you’ll re-use them year after year.

What kinds of tomatoes to use? I prefer plum tomatoes, but have added a small beefsteak to a jar if there was a little room left or if I was out of plum tomatoes. The New Jersey Department of Agriculture has a list of farms that let you pick your own tomatoes. This combination of picking and canning is the ultimate in really knowing where your food comes from!

What You Need:

  • Pint- or quart-sized mason jars, lids and bands. I prefer wide-mouth jars as it’s easier to stuff your hand in it while holding a tomato. You can find them at Ace Hardware in Caldwell.
  • A canning pot with a rack. If you don’t have one, you can get one at Amazon.com or many local hardware stores.
  • Tomatoes.Tomatoes. Tomatoes.
  • Kosher salt. Just enough to sprinkle on top of each jar.
  • Fresh basil. One bunch would be good for most people, but I like a lot of basil so I cut several stems from my garden and put about 7 leaves in each jar.
  • Pot holders and dish towels.

Prep The Tomatoes:

  1. Fill a large pot with water and bring it to a boil.
  2. Place ice in a large bowl and fill 3/4 with cold water. Set aside.
  3. Pierce tomatoes with a fork and put in boiling water for about two minutes. Don’t worry about any imperfections or bruises in your tomatoes, you can always cut them out later while peeling the skins.
  4. Remove tomatoes and place immediately in the cold water.

How To Can Tomatoes:

  • Wash and sterilize your jars, lids and bands. The dishwasher does a great job on the jars. Boil lids and bands in a small pot of water. Keep them all hot.
  • Fill your canning pot about 3/4 full with water and bring it to boiling.
  • Once tomatoes are cool enough to touch, take a paring knife and cut off their tops and peel off their skin. Put in mason jar until jar is about 85% full. Don’t overfill but feel free to smush tomatoes down to fit as many as possible in each jar. I usually fit 9-11 plum tomatoes in each quart jar.
  • Once you have 6 or 7 jars filled, wipe edges of each clean. Sprinkle a little kosher salt on top and add a couple leaves of basil.
  • With tongs, remove lids from pot with boiling water. Place one lid on each jar. Then remove bands and place one band on each jar. Screw bands on until tight, but do not over tighten.
  • Place jars in canning pot rack (mine holds 6 jars on the outside with one in the middle). Be sure to keep the rack balanced as the weight increases.
  • CAREFULLY lower rack into pot of boiling water so that water covers tops. Cover pot and boil for 45 minutes.
  • When processing time is up, carefully lift rack and prepare to remove jars. There is a canning tong you can use to lift the jars but I don’t have one, so I use pot holders. Make sure there are no children around you when doing this–it’s all VERY hot!
  • Place jars on a dishtowel on a table surface that can withstand the heat. Let the jars sit to cool. This will take a couple of hours. You may hear popping–it’s creation of the the vacuum seal. If you don’t hear popping, don’t panic. You can test the lids to be sure the preserving went well by pushing down on the center. If it doesn’t move (or pop back up) you’re good.

Store preserved tomatoes in a cool, dark place. No refrigeration or freezing necessary- I keep mine on a shelf in the pantry. Their shelf life is about 1 year– just long enough until the next crop of fresh tomatoes.

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