Photo by Isaac Harrell
Canning terrifies me. I wrote an article detailing that fear a few years ago, and in order to exorcise all of those home preservation demons, I pickled a bunch of things and made jam. I never ate any of it, except for one jar of jam that I opened immediately after processing and then put in the refrigerator.
I've really wanted to get over it. My mother was a compulsive tomato canner, and since most metal cans are full of harmful BPA (including the ones with the white epoxy coating on the inside), many experts recommend eating tomatoes out of glass containers. The best way to do that is to grab a case of Ball jars and put up your own.
I decided it was time to consult with an expert. Cathy Barrow, a New York Times writer, home preservation expert and publisher of the blog Mrs. Wheelbarrow's Kitchen ( mrswheelbarrow.com ) , invited me up to her house in D.C. in August to spend the day canning to demystify the process.
Barrow has a warm, deep voice, and she explains things in a calm, measured manner that makes you think to yourself, "Huh. Why have I been an insane maniac for so long about something so simple?" Or even, " Hmm . Cathy doesn't think I'm an idiot. Why have I been under that mistaken impression all my life?" Couple that with a reassuring laugh, and I'm completely under her sway.
"All the women in my family canned at some point," she says. "When my mother died, I really turned to canning, as a reminder of her, surely, but it was also at the same time that I read Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle . I began to look at our household's consumption. ... All that said, I also do it to feed some odd part of me that admires the apricot and wants to preserve it for later."
The water is already boiling when I arrive. Barrow has a cast on her left foot. She'd had surgery just the week before, but that doesn't deter her from canning 25 pounds of tomatoes and 20 pounds of peaches that day. (Peaches aren't in season in October, but you can still scoop up the last of the tomatoes to get you through the winter.)
Along with her lovely assistant, Ally Turner-Kirkpatrick, we begin dropping tomatoes in the scalding water for about a minute to loosen the skins so that we can peel them easily. Turner-Kirkpatrick starts pulling clean jars out of the dishwasher and places them on a kitchen towel on the counter. The rings that would screw onto the jars are simmering on the stove to sterilize them, and Barrow drops the lids into the water to soften their rubber gaskets. "Always use new lids," she says.
I expect that we'll start stuffing whole tomatoes into the jars after we peel them all, but Barrow has a more practical plan.
"Just squeeze them gently to crush them," she says. "I don't can whole tomatoes. When you use them in sauce or soups, you'll either crush them then or they'll break down on their own anyway. And I find one quart of crushed tomatoes is equivalent to one can of whole tomatoes." I spend the next 20 minutes covering Barrow's kitchen in tomato seeds and juice.
She then brings the crushed tomatoes to a full boil in a big pot and allows them to simmer for five minutes. Once the tomatoes are good and hot, we add half of a teaspoon of citric acid to each sterilized quart jar and ladle the tomatoes on top. Adding citric acid is key. In water-bath processing, you need a consistently high acid level to kill bacteria and keep your food safe. That's why tomatoes are perfect for home canning and also why pickling preserves food (you use lots of vinegar). In jams and preserves, it's the high sugar content that keeps them safe.
Don't be tempted to throw a handful of chopped garlic or onions in with your tomatoes. "Oh, that's notorious for creating the right environment for botulism," Barrow says. "If you want to do that — or can something with peppers like salsa — you need a pressure canner." Only a pressure canner can achieve the high temperature levels needed to kill the bacteria that may be present.
You also need to leave room at the top of the jar to create a vacuum seal. For tomatoes, that's about half an inch. Once you've run a rubber spatula or special bubbling tool (it looks like a plastic knife) around the inside of the jar to remove any air bubbles, you need to make sure the lip of the jar is completely clean. "If you rub a wet finger around the rim, it needs to be squeaky — like the way clean hair squeaks," she says. Then you can top the jars with lids and tighten on the rings.
Canning is a hot business. It seems as if you have a pot of something boiling on every burner of your stove at all times, plus your dishwasher is blasting out its own heat while it sterilizes the jars. But Barrow has a trick to bring down the temperature level in the kitchen. Outside, on her gas grill, she has a giant canning pot of water boiling away. Given that tomatoes need to process for a sweltering 45 minutes, getting it out of the house is enormously helpful. "You can even do it on the propane burners that come with turkey fryers," she says.
Jars are lifted into the water, and when they're ready, jars are lifted out. Barrow explains that you can tell the jars are sealed properly because the lids bow slightly. Over the next hour or so, the few jars that hadn't sealed make a little popping sound, and we know that a vacuum has been achieved inside.
What can you preserve this fall? Besides the last of the tomatoes, raspberries and pears are in season in Virginia. Plus, the wide world of pickling is open to you and the vegetable of your choice. A couple of invaluable websites will help: Ball, of jar fame, has great pamphlets available in PDF form to download ( freshpreserving.com ), and the National Center for Home Preservation's site ( nchfp.uga.edu ) has an answer for just about any question you might have, including quantities and processing times for most fruits and vegetables.