Which tomato should I buy? The economics of canning tomatoes

About 100 pounds of tomatoes, canned

According to conventional wisdom, you should always buy paste tomatoes (such as Romas) for canning. The reason given is that paste tomatoes contain less moisture, and so take less time to boil down to a thick sauce. Also, you’re paying for tomato flesh, rather than sauce.

So how true is this conventional wisdom? We decided to find out.

After our first tomato buy this year, I ended up with about a hundred and twenty pounds of tomatoes. About half were cases of “mixed heirlooms” from Art Heinneman. The heirlooms were beautiful, and represented a variety of different flavors. Of these, we ate about 20 pounds fresh, slicing them on sandwiches or into salads. The rest, we canned.

Two 10-pound batches of heirloom tomatoes. Those in the foreground have been blanched.

San Marzanos

The other half of our boxes contained San Marzano paste tomatoes. San Marzanos are actually an heirloom paste tomato, famous for having a rich, deep almost chocolatey taste. But I tasted none of that richness in these tomatoes. I assume the flavor referred to is in the sauce, rather than in the fresh fruit. Because compared to the heirlooms, I found them incredibly bland and tasteless. My 3-year-old daughter Luella however showed no such scruples.

Paste tomatoes: Not for eating fresh

It’s clear the mixed heirloom tomatoes from Art had vastly superior flavor for eating fresh. And you can tell, just from biting into these tomatoes, that the paste tomatoes had lower moisture content. So does the economic advantage of those lower-moisture paste tomatoes outweigh the superior flavor of the heirlooms? Again, conventional wisdom suggests that for canning purposes, we should always choose paste tomatoes. But how true is that maxim?

The Results

I like a thick, cloying tomato sauce. I like it to cling to your pasta, almost like a paste. And so I boil my sauces WAY down. For every 10 pounds of heirloom tomatoes, I got 4 pints of sauce. For every 10 pounds of paste tomatoes, I got 4.5 pints of sauce. That means you get easily more than 10 percent more sauce from paste tomatoes.

Tomato Sauce yield from 10 pounds of mixed heirloom tomatoes over yield from 10 pounds of paste tomatoes

The difference becomes more apparent when we cold-packed tomatoes with no added water. In this recipe, after putting 1/4 teaspoon of citric acid in each piping hot sterilized pint jar, you pack the hot jar full of blanched tomatoes, squish them down to eliminate air pockets and then put them in the hot-water bath for 85 minutes.

Cold-packed tomatoes after processing: paste tomatoes on the left, mixed heirlooms on the right.

During processing, the solid tomato flesh separates from the water and floats to the surface. The resulting jar looks something like a black-and-tan, and makes it easy to discern exactly how much more water is in the heirlooms. Again, the paste tomatoes appear to easily contain at least 10 percent less water.

If you’re performing a strict economic calculation, paste tomatoes give you at least 10 percent greater value (in tomato flesh), and probably also take about 10 percent less time to boil down. That’s a significant savings.

But what about taste?

Heirlooms taste better, and I haven’t decided yet whether heirlooms result in a better-flavored sauce. Certainly the bland flavor of our San Marzanos improved dramatically when sauced. But the heirlooms were outstanding. I haven’t tasted the sauces next to each other, and now I may never know, as my jars of sauces from the two types have become hopelessly confused. But as we open a jar of tomato sauce every other week this year, I’ll taste carefully, looking for that extra something.

saucing San Marzanos

Saucing San Marzano paste tomatoes

Cost Analysis

Because my sauces are so extremely thick, I consider one of my pint jars to be the equivalent of a quart jar of tomato sauce from the grocery store. A jar at the grocery store might cost anywhere from 3 dollars to 6, depending on its quality, whether it was organic, and whether it was on sale. I paid $42 for most of my 20 pound boxes of tomatoes, both paste tomatoes and heirlooms. These were essentially wholesale prices, as we purchased large quantities of these top-grade tomatoes directly from the farmer and sold them to friends and neighbors without markup in one of our annual Bulk Tomato Buys. For the paste tomatoes, the cost works out to: $4.60 per jar of sauce. Yikes! For heirlooms, that works out to: $5.25 per jar. Double yikes! So this was not a money-saving venture, either way. The quality of my sauces is WAY higher and I know they’re free of unnecessary chemical ingredients, such as the thickeners they use in commercial sauces to get more sauce out of less tomatoes. I know the farmer who provided my tomatoes, and I love the way he farms. But when I go through all this work, I’d still like my sauces to be cheaper too!

One of the 20 pound boxes I picked up were #2 heirlooms. That #2 grade means they had too many blemishes to be sold in a supermarket. These I picked up for a mere $22 a box, and got the same yield as the heirlooms. That works out to $2.75 a jar. That’s a much better deal!

Conclusions

To save money, choose #2

In the end, the debate about whether you get more value from heirlooms or paste tomatoes appears to be a bit of a wild-goose-chase. This discussion distracts us from the most obvious savings. For the most value, I should be buying all #2 tomatoes! The blemishes don’t matter when you’re canning them. So long as you can can them within a couple of days (beyond this, those blemishes turn to rot) you’ll be fine.  Whether they are #2 heirlooms or #2 paste tomatoes makes but a small difference to your pocketbook. The important thing is that they’re #2!

A secret that will save you time

Now that you know which tomatoes will give you the most sauce for your money, let me leave you with one tip that will cut down on your time commitment dramatically.

Saucy!

After cooking 10 pounds of tomatoes for a little while, place the tomatoes in a food mill or colander and let the clear liquid drip back into a pot. Once most of the liquid has drained out, place that pot on the stove and blast it with heat, stirring constantly. With no solids to worry about burning, you can reduce that liquid to a syrup in no time at all. Give it a taste: it will taste like a cross between tomatoes and chocolate. Then, mill the tomatoes right into this syrup, removing the seeds and skins. Once you stir them back together, you’ll have a huge jump start on the long job of reducing a sauce.  I discovered this method on my final batch of sauce. So I’ll have to wait to enjoy the labor savings until next year!

Joshua

11 Responses to Which tomato should I buy? The economics of canning tomatoes

  1. I was thinking about the economics of applesauce and I have actually decided against it. Organic, regionally-produced, pretty good tasting applessauce is readily available. My canning costs (rent/borrow car, buy apples ($$ in my area), and pay for jar/lid/electricity) would far exceed grocery store costs without a remarkable benefit.

    On the other hand, it is well worth it for producing other fruits like spiced pears, apricots, and plums. None of them are available in nearly as high quality as what I would produce. Similarly, unique pickles are worth making.

  2. Holy Cow! I never knew #2 made such a difference. My food buying group always gets #2 and we get 20lbs for $25. The quality has always been fine. there are usually a few tomatoes past their prime, but they are okay. You might enjoy my 1 canning picture this year,
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/enckline/6159306395/in/photostream

  3. This is so timely! I’ve gone to our local upick a couple times, and each time I’ve seen people picking the traditional (non-heirloom) beefsteak when I’ve been picking the romas. So I was second-guessing myself. They’re not organic (ipm and obviously local), but both are $20/bushel, and they are far better in flavor than the canned tomatoes I can purchase.

    I’ve been going to the upick since our garden’s failed, but I was trying to grow Sheboygan and Amish paste, which are both supposed to do well here in WI. Unfortunately, I’ve not gotten to actually try a tomato. There has to be a good heirloom paste tomato.

  4. Stephanie, where do you get inexpensive organic local applesauce?

    For me I enjoy picking the type of apple I think sauces best, knowing where it was grown, supporting local farmers, and making it without sugar. I freeze as much as possible so the nutrients aren’t destroyed like they are in canning. I don’t can much applesauce, instead I make fruit leather out of what doesn’t fit in the freezer and that lasts for months and months.

    I feel like apple sauce can be unique (ie when I use my own pink crabapples) just like pickles. I guess it just depends on how picky you are about your sauce. Tomatoes are something entirely different. I want to know who was forced to pick them (ie the Florida scandals), how they grew, what rodents made it through the saucing process, that it was organic or beyond organic fruit, I want to choose the varieties with the most flavor and I want to develop a thriving local economy where farmers are cherished and not commoditized. It’s not just about the sauce for me, it’s activism and nourishment and enjoyment all wrapped up together.

    I totally respect where you are coming from though. I just feel like there is much more than a jar of applesauce (especially an inferior jar.)

  5. Joshua, thank you for such an in-depth post. So helpful and well-written, as always!

  6. Another great post! Love the picture of your daughter and all those lovely jars! Doesn’t it just bless your soul to see them all? I think we canned about 300 pounds of tomatoes this year. Today I just finished up some tomato jam and it was amazing! It is great over cheese to serve with crackers, in place of ketchup, or as a marinade. Tonight I sliced onions, placed the pork roast on them, then poured tomato jam over it, letting it cook all day. Fantastic! Recipe found here: http://www.foodinjars.com/2010/09/tomato-jam/. My question is…did you really process for 85 minutes? My ball book is 45 minutes for quart. I still have about 35 pounds of tomatoes from the garden I hope will ripen. Looking forward to next year to have this fun all over again!

    • Joshua McNichols

      Yes, we used the Ball book too for our recipe. The 85 minutes is their recommended processing time for raw-packed tomatoes with no added liquid (page 356 in our edition). I think it makes some sense – these are whole tomatoes, and have never been heated, as with a sauce. So essentially you’re stewing them and processing them in one move.

  7. Interesting. I’d been wondering about this myself. I wonder about mixing the two, if you decide the flavor on the heirlooms is better. Maybe 3/4 paste and 1/4 heirlooms? Give them a little extra something but still get the benefit from the paste tomatoes.

    • Joshua McNichols

      Trish, it’s worth a try. To be honest, since I didn’t label my jars, I can’t seem to figure out which jars originated with paste and which originated with slicers (both types were heirlooms, in my case). I expect if I used bland grocery store unripe tomatoes I would notice a deficiency, but so long as you’re starting with quality ripe tomatoes it seems there’s not a huge difference in sauce flavor. Having decided, for economic and political reasons to purchase tomatoes in bulk this way, the biggest realization for me was the value of purchasing “seconds.”

  8. This page rather astonishes me. If one is concerned with cost, why not just pay $5 for a package of seed and grow your own tomatoes? A single packet will give you bushels of tomatoes, depending on the variety you select.

    The same applies to apples. $20 can buy a baby apple tree at most big box stores. You have to be patient and wait a while for it to bear, but once it does, with good care, you’ll have bushels of apples year after year.

    Just about anything can be grown organically, so you control what kinds of pesticides and herbicides are applied. You choose the varieties, so you determine the flavor you like. And if you do the heirloom tomatoes, you can even save seed so your original $5 investment is a one-time-only prospect.

    • Annette Cottrell

      Hi MaryAnn,

      Tomatoes are nearly impossible to grow in volume in Western WA – some years the sun shows here but others not at all. Also not everyone has growing space but that doesn’t mean they cannot put up food. Most of my readers live on small properties (I myself had only 1/8 of an acre which also had a house and a grassy and fully shaded backyard the kids were not willing to part with.) I did have many apple trees planted but rather than focus on growing enough tomatoes for the entire family, I wanted to grow everything else and buy tomatoes once a year. That way we were nearly self reliant, which was more important to me than filling the garden with tomato bushes and nothing else. We all have different situations. I agree with you though that if you do garden and have space and time, sun exposure and warm enough temperatures to get fruit to not only set (a pollinating feat some years here since bees don’t come out on cloudy days) but fully ripen, tomatoes are a fantastic thing to grow and save seed from. In fact I have directions on how to do both on this blog. Thanks for commenting and sorry to astonish you. :)

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